In January 2015, a paper published in Current Biology found evidence of loggerhead sea turtles using the Earth’s magnetic field to find their birth homes.
This behavior, known as natal homing, is a phenomenon in which animals migrate away from their birthplace and then return to reproduce in that same location. When loggerhead sea turtles hatch, they migrate towards the vast, open waters to begin their lives, leaving behind the comfort of their nests. For about two to three decades, they grow up, grow strong, and grow hungry for a mate. Once they are ready to lay their eggs, despite not having been to their birth nest in decades, they accurately return to their birthplace to lay the foundation for a new generation, thanks to the assistance of magnetic fields.
I understand that starting a supposedly meaningful and reflective pre-departure blog post with a discussion of an intriguing paper about natal homing in sea turtles is…unconventional, to say the least. But I promise there’s a point to this.
I was born (not hatched like some would like to believe) in Seoul, South Korea on April 16, 1997. Promptly 6 months later, I migrated to Plano, Texas, and at 5 years old, settled down in a cozy little city called Frisco, Texas. I grew up navigating vast, open dirt fields (because plants are a myth in Texas), grew to a slightly less than average weight and muscle mass, and grew to be hopeless at finding a mate. I grew up as an American, but was never really fully accepting of that identity.
Once I started college, I became more interested in the concept of identity, and began to grasp for opportunities that connected me to my Korean heritage, my natal home. As I took Korean language classes to slightly make up for my failure as a child of primarily Korean-speaking parents, my desire to go back to my birth country strengthened. And now, upon finishing my third year at Duke, I have been given a chance to revisit my birth nest.
As I write this just over 7 hours before my flight takes off from DFW airport straight to Incheon, I continue to struggle with identifying goals for this trip. Duke Engage aims to help communities and provide service to those in need, but I realize that it is difficult to focus on doing something so unidirectionally centered when you yourself are so personally tied to those communities. I worry that this program may help me more than the children and the refugees I service, and I wonder if this story will merely center around a turtle just desperate to find its way back home. On the other hand, my ties to the community make me more passionate about ensuring that I play a part in improving the society I like to consider myself a part of. I have to accept that my impact will likely be minuscule, and arguably irrelevant, but I should burrow deeper into the sand to find some way to make my actions last and remain there for generations to come.
It’s a lot to hope for, but I’ve always been ambitious by nature.
Magnets, take me home.