Being the Greater Fool
On paper, Stella Cho is a senior at Penn State majoring in international studies and Japanese with minors in art history and entrepreneurship and innovation. In between her classes, she is involved in volunteer work around Penn State, worked as a government tour guide in Korea, was involved with THON as her mother battled ovarian cancer, and even worked in marketing for a Korean indie band for nine months. She graduated from the same high school that PSY (who sang the hit song “Gangnam Style”) went to.
However, the burning question people had for Cho when she came from Korea to America when she was 13 wasn’t about her involvement, passions, or interests. Instead, the question was, “Are you from North or South Korea?”
“It is quite an ignorant question to ask,” says Cho. “They didn’t take one step to learn about my culture.”
This question followed her up until her first year at Penn State. Then, instead of ignorant questions, she started receiving inquisitive questions about herself and her culture. To her, the changes occurred because of the western expansion of Korean culture and media representation like “Squid Game”.
“Everyone talked about it [“Squid Game”], and people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, you should really watch this!'” says Cho.
This increased attention to Korean culture expanded to music with K-Pop bands like BTS and Korean beauty trends.
“Those people really do their parts by introducing Korean things and how they can represent Korea,” says Cho. “That really helped me in my own personal way.”
Living half her life in Seoul, South Korea, and the other half in Madison, Wisconsin, these two different cultures have shaped Cho’s perspective on both places.
“In Wisconsin, I saw cows for the first time,” says Cho.
Since living in America, Cho says she has become more active in her political and diplomatic goals.
“In Korea, I would do my part — I just have my values and standards for myself, and I will act in such a way,” says Cho. “But then being in Madison, I was a part of the Women’s March, I was a part of Black Lives Matter, and we did a walkout for school shootings.”
Cho not only began to actively join in civic engagement in America, but she started to bridge the gap between the two sides of her life for her friends at Penn State.
“Half of my friends are people who have never been outside the U.S.,” says Cho. “I had a conversation with my dearest friend who grew up in Maryland and has never had a close friend from a different culture.”
As someone interested in diplomacy, Cho knows that it’s hard to understand cultures from halfway across the world when you might not have a direct affiliation with that culture. For her friends, Cho was their first friend from a new culture, and it caused some hesitancy in terms of what questions to ask.
“She started conversations very cautiously because she wanted to learn about my culture and ask questions but not to be ignorant,” says Cho. “I want to talk about how to appreciate others and be curious.”
How do you start to ask questions about a culture you’re not familiar with? Cho says it’s as simple as asking about a person’s life in the culture you are looking to learn more about.
“Ask about their memories, about their favorite place growing up, where their favorite place to go is,” says Cho.
Cho faces an issue with people who are not knowledgeable about Korean culture trying to associate her with what they know already from that culture rather than asking questions about new information they might not know.
“When I say I am Korean, they don’t ask me what they want to know about me; they ask questions about what they know,” says Cho. “I really like those questions, and I am not saying you shouldn’t associate your information with me but ask me more genuine questions to know me.”
“If you want to get to know me, you will get to learn about my country because that is where I grew up.”
Being from two different places, Cho’s life has been enriched by traveling and immersing herself in cultures she isn’t familiar with.
“I have so many friends from different friends from different places that I always have a home when I travel,” says Cho. “I’ve lived far from home from a young age, so I’ve gotten different families and different kinds of love.”
Traveling the world isn’t something Cho does just for fun and for memories, but she travels to understand and love people from other cultures. In 2020 with the pandemic, there was a rise in hate crimes, especially against Asian-American women, which Cho has personally experienced. According to Cho, this kind of hate stems from ignorance of Asian cultures.
“I don’t think they [people who committed hate crimes against Asian women] know how or what to approach them [Asian women] to learn about them,” says Cho. “Sometimes I walk downtown, and I still get scared when there’s no one around.”
Opening herself to new places and people allows her to love and accept people from all backgrounds, something she wishes everyone does.
“That’s how you accept each other,” says Cho. “It has shaped me and motivated me to help others, help me to reach the goal I am chasing.”
After Penn State, Cho wants to help people in any way. Cho says, “I like learning new skills, studying new things and helping people.”
She speaks three languages to be able to talk to as many people as possible. “Learning languages means I can talk to more people, which gives so many things to learn about each other,” says Cho.
“Even learning about people’s food, living situation, even drinking water is different from state to state, country to country.”
She broadens her knowledge of different cultures by speaking other languages and asking questions about people of different cultures. Furthermore, she says being knowledgeable about new cultures helps you learn how to love people.
“If you take one step to learn about people, you get to learn, get a new friend and learn about others,” says Cho. “You learn how to fight for other people.”
While Cho does her schoolwork, like many other Penn State students, a little note on the top left of her computer reads, “Be the greater fool.” This quote, from the TV show The Newsroom, is about being the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that one can succeed when others could have failed. For Cho, “being the greater fool” are words to live by in a life driven by diplomacy.
“I want to be the blend of self-delusion because I always live in some guilt every day, even right now I have a coffee or I can just safely be at a place to study,” says Cho. “That’s the kind of safety or comfort that gives me a bit of guilt because I know somewhere in this worked, there is someone in fear because of water or hunger or sexual assault.”
Glaring back at her, the small note scribbled in Cho’s handwriting is a constant reminder of her aspiration to learn about people from all walks of life to understand them and one day have a hand in helping those who need help.
Cho is living proof behind the concept that there are not only things to learn in expanding your knowledge of new cultures, but there’s beauty in it too.