Thursday, August 29, 2013

Being Korean

"You're not really Korean." It's a comment I've been receiving a lot lately. This or some variation of it. My trainer told another trainer during an outing that only my face is Korean. I'm not particularly bothered by it, as my sense of self-worth isn't determined by how Korean I am. In fact I sometimes indulge in my "non-Korean-ness" when it suits me. It's become a running joke among my friends that I'm really an American pretending to be Korean and I don't mind making them laugh.

I don't really care because I don't define myself according to arbitrary geographical boundaries some dudes way back in the day decided to make up. Like Thomas Paine, the world is my country. I consider myself a member of this planet and I hold no loyalty to a particular country. Nationalism and racial pride is intellectual laziness. "My people" are the people I chose to involve in my life and came to love, regardless of race and nationality. I am loyal to the people and things I love. I'm proud of my own personal achievements and not the fact my mother happened to be within the borders when she popped me out.

Technically, however, still, I am a citizen of the ROK. I can vote, have to pay taxes and serve in the military. My passport says I'm Korean and in my opinion, it's the only thing that makes me Korean and the only thing one needs to be in order to be considered Korean. I don't care if you have never eaten kimchi your entire life, if your passports says "Republic of Korea" on it, you are Korean. Sure there are cultural traits people of a particular place share, but people are also different. Is an American not American if he/she doesn't watch football? My Korean-ness has been questioned because I didn't watch soccer though.

At what point of cultural assimilation does one have to be in order to be considered Korean?

As I ask this, I realize that even I indulge in generalizations. If I see a person who embodies all the stereotypical cultural traits of what is considered to be Korean, I make comments like, "Damn, that guy is so Korean!" So I don't know the answer either, if there are any. I know I seem more American to others. I spent my developmental years there and consciously adopted American traits more because I felt many of them made more sense to me. I can relate to Americans more because I get their pop culture references and was brought up partially by their school system. My Korean school experiences were so negative that I made an effort to mentally distance myself. But I am not American not matter how "American" I may seem. I am not even a legal resident there, I cannot vote, or enlist. I can't even purchase a firearm. Some people ask me if I consider myself American, and I always answer, "I'm not an American citizen." To me, that's the only answer one needs.

I possess many traits that people may consider to be "American." I speak English with an American accent, I expose myself to American media and pop culture, I gesticulate more than most Koreans, I prefer to look someone in the eye and shake their hand as I ask them their name when meeting them (rather than bowing and asking them their age), I like guns, I love bacon, and I can tolerate American football. But on the flipside, I also speak Korean, went to the ROK Army, and I am not opposed to eating all the different kind of shit that comes out of the ocean. Hell, I put kimchi in my sandwiches and I enjoy it.

One thing I realized though is that I can pick and choose cultural traits of wherever. Why not? I prefer to say "washroom" even though I never lived in Canada, and I really like the dos besos the Spanish greet eachother with. I also love the slower pace of living Southern Europeans seem to practice. But nobody would say I'm so Spanish or Canadian. Am I African American for enjoying grits and listening to rap music? Am I white for also listening to rock music?

Some people in my situation go through an identity crisis because they aren't sure what they are supposed to be. From my observations, many Asian-Americans seem to experience this. I did too when I was a teenager. But to me, this is because society tries to define us by superficial facets of who we are. Society has these expectations of us but fuck all that. There's more to a person than how American, or Chinese, or whatever the fuck he/she is.

So yeah, I don't really care that I don't seem really Korean, whatever that means. I am who I am. Yes, I know thinking in this manner is only further proof of how not-Korean I am. Meh, I'm comfortable with my cultural identity, because I made it myself.


  1. Saving this post for my daughter when she's older.

  2. My husband is a Korean from Ulsan, while I am a white Irish-American girl. I sometimes worry about our future children especially if they are boys, because I want them to be part of Korea, but I don't want them to serve in the military. I think the military is detrimental to men, ruining both their bodies physically and their mental health.

    I can only hope that my children grow up feeling loved and respected by both grandparents and countries, and they never feel like outsiders. I don't truly know how you feel, but I empathize with you.

    1. I've felt like an outsider wherever I went. I was always socially awkward so culture or race was only a part of it in my opinion. I don't feel that way now because I've become more comfortable with who I am and I surround myself with people who are agreeable with me. Although I also find myself being more acceptable of people in general. I hope your kids don't go through too much mental turmoil although it probably will happen and to some extent, it could help build character. I don't know if I would be as accepting of people now if I didn't know what it was like to feel not to be accepted.

      I think one of the reasons people who are "stuck" between two cultures go through this crisis is because we make it a cultural identity issue. In my opinion it's not a "Korean" vs "American" thing. Kids don't need to ask themselves, "Am I Korean or am I American?" They don't need to try to fit into a certain palette; their selves are their own canvases to paint on.

      You are right about military service. It will do them no good unless it's their dream to be a soldier.

  3. Great article, you are enlightened, peace.

  4. Inspiring and thoughtful prose. You are a credit to your race...

    the human race ..!