When I was little, the question was inescapable.
“Are you Chinese?” A shake of my head.
“Japanese?” Of course not.
“Then what are you?” The kids at the playground would shake their heads, scrunch up their brows, pinch their noses. If I wasn’t Japanese or Chinese, then surely, I wasn’t anything at all. Asians only came from two parts of the world, obviously.
“I’m Korean,” I would say, hugging my knees, bracing myself for the inevitable reply.
As a third generation Korean-American, I’ve struggled with my ethnic identity for all my life. Since then, of course, the questions aren’t so blunt. Through pop culture icons like Psy and dull world geography lessons, people my age, hopefully, have come to know exactly what Korea is and what it stands for.
“Do you speak Korean?” people always ask. I don’t.
“Do you have relatives in Korea?” They’re all in the States.
“Is your middle name Korean?” It’s Shelby. Does that count?
From the amount of connections I have to the Korean culture, I can barely call myself a Korean at all. I’m a “banana,” as some Koreans mockingly call people like myself. A yank hiding behind Asian eyes and yellow-tinted skin.
It’s pained me beyond words that, somewhere between the decades of Americanization my family has experienced, I’ve lost a vital link to the culture of my ancestors.
Sure, I eat Korean food. I know a few key phrases. I have my own fair share of Korean celebrity-crushes. Other than that, however, my life is painted all red, white, and blue.
My parents speak more English than Korean. They exhibit an open dislike for many aspects of Korean culture– like the national xenophobism and obsession with beauty. We don’t go to church (my brother is atheist, and I am agnostic), and we no longer celebrate New Year the Korean way. Grades are important, but they aren’t our entire life; I haven’t gone to any of the weekend tutoring/prep schools or ” hagwans” where Koreans spend much of their young lives.
Perhaps most significantly, I don’t know the language. The words which could open my internal window to Korea’s culture is shut closed– and has been since the day I entered pre-school.
Whenever I visit with my Korean relatives, I always feel a bit disconnected. I can’t talk to my grandmother, and my aunts and uncles, fluent in Korean, can’t communicate with me nearly as well in their broken, accented English.
Many times, my sweet grandmother talks to me in Korean; animatedly, excitedly, she mentions something exciting or funny or kindhearted which she must think I understand.
I’ll laugh, of course. Or smile or nod. I don’t want her to know that I understand nothing; I don’t want to bring that awkward embarrassment to a conversation she obviously enjoys.
I wish I could enjoy it, too.
Now, many people will say isn’t so bad. I live in America, they will argue. I only need to know English. After all, most Koreans these days learn English, do they not? Isn’t it the universal language?
Though I understand this, I can’t help wishing the situation was otherwise. I want to be able to speak with my family. I want to hear their words and stories and memories without the communicative roadblock of “what?” and “huh?” and “I don’t understand.”
Sometimes, I feel like I must be a disgrace to Koreans. I love visiting Korea. It’s a beautiful country, really– the love child of urban innovation and the beauty of Asian landscapes.
Whenever I talk to people there, though, it’s always a stumbling attempt. A badly accented Korean phrase. “Where is the bathroom?” with an overly harsh “s” and a grating “r.” They hear me talk and, taking pity, answer in English.
I can’t help but think: do they dismiss me as an embarrassment? The Korean girl who doesn’t even know Korean?
Last year, I went to Vietnam and Cambodia with an all-Korean tour group. They were nice enough, but really, never had I encountered the negatives of this disability so personally.
“Why don’t you speak Korean?” they’d ask. Shouldn’t it be a requirement, seeing as I was, indeed, Korean? They also mentioned their envy of my perfect English, my mother assured me. But what was the use of perfect, unaccented English when I was surrounded by Koreans?
I’m taking classes and am now trying my hand at Rosetta Stone, but I doubt I’ll ever reach a level where my nationality isn’t apparent in my speech.
Even as I struggle to grasp the language, however, I find myself wondering…what is the use of it all? If I go out and learn everything about Korean culture, what is the benefit, besides better communication with my family?
Is there something wrong about being a Korean girl with no touch to her native culture? People will say it’s important to be familiar with your roots, but I torture myself with the question…
Why? Is it so bad that I’ve only a passing familiarity with this culture of my grandparents and my grandparents’ grandparents?
I am at a crossroads. On one hand, I am eager to learn the language and avoid the stares and disapproving looks so common amongst native Koreans…but on the other, I’m angry. Does my face immediately hoist onto my shoulders the responsibility of knowing another culture, another language, another world?
The important part to remember, I suppose, is that I am not alone.
I’m part of a larger question, a larger issue all third or fourth or fifth generation minorities must face sometime in their lives.
What is our duty to a past long-gone and a world oceans away? Is it okay to break off a connection to our homeland…even when this land has never truly been our home? Is it wrong not to scramble to keep a grip on the vital remnants of a culture we barely know?
What is our cultural identity?