My Korean American Story: Soo Yeon Grace Kim
I used to be a bit speechless when someone asked me what my ethnicity was- perhaps an American-Korean or a Korean-American? (Does order count?) Was I an American? Or a Korean? I was not sure how to respond; I felt no conviction in any of these responses.
When I was younger I used to answer that I was American but have Korean parents- I felt I had to explain my situation. Growing up in NYC somehow made me identify with an American nationality, culture, and way of life and yet there were daily reminders that I was Korean. Although I felt completely Americanized, I was surrounded by Korean people as a child. At the will of my parents, I attended a Korean church every Sunday and interestingly enough, my kindergarten and first grade classes were all Korean students with teachers whose names were Ms. Cho and Mr. Lee. I recall Ms. Cho disciplining misbehaved classmates (including myself at one point) by spanking them on her lap for all the class to see.
I also remember my first grade class performing a Korean traditional dance on the streets for an annual International dance festival. When I reflect upon these experiences, it appears odd that an American public elementary school would divide students into classes based upon their nationalities; perhaps it was more for convenience than anything else.
These reminders infiltrated into my family life even more rigorously. The more my parents pressured me to learn the Korean language, the more I felt inclined not to learn it as I convinced myself that because my parents believed in its purpose, there really was no purpose. My parents were classic prototypes of traditional Korean parents who followed a stereotypical formula of how children should live their lives. Perhaps I was simply a rebellious child who felt more righteous than her parents; nevertheless, the idea that I lived in a different dimension than my parents was always present.
I viewed the Korea Times as a brainwashing tool of unknown, ultra-Koreans as part of a conspiracy to make all Korean parents the same. It somehow reserved special sections to highlight Korean students with endless streams of successes such as those who were piano geniuses, attended Stuyvesant High School, scored perfectly on every standardized test offered to man, and received early acceptances to Ivy Leagues. Although we did not personally know these stellar students, my sister and I always considered them to be the bane of our existence.
Because we were never reported as model students in Korean newspapers and because we considered their successes to be our downfall, we felt that we were better than them. That was our fundamental logic and as bizarre as it may seem, we thought ourselves practical and normal human beings. Our parents were the abnormal creatures, the green aliens in Asian outfits with a mission that was as narrow-minded as can be which always butted heads with our liberal, noble American perspectives.
As a preteen entering high school, I remember my mom firmly stating that it was either attending Stuyvesant High School or going to work. I was highly tempted to get a job to prove a point but as I had no employment experience at that age, it probably meant working in a factory that disregarded child labor laws. I imagined my photo plastered on non-profit campaigns fighting injustice on behalf of innocent children. Needless to say, I attended Stuyvesant High School but sometimes wondered if I took the right path.
Today my mom continues to speak in Korean with me while my dad continues to speak in English. I have come to realize that it does not really matter what I classify myself in terms of my nationality because it was never carved in stone. When I was a child, I was an American who couldn’t escape Korean native roots. As an adult, I am not so sure that I would want to escape anything. I realized that my concepts of the typical Korean parent are not all that the culture has to offer.
For one thing, I regret not learning the Korean language as a child. My parents may not adhere to such strict beliefs as in the past perhaps because they have resigned attempting to mold their daughters into what they considered perfection or perhaps because they have become a tad bit Americanized themselves. But I no longer try to change them as I did before because I have realized that it is a hopeless venture and because it is in some ways unnecessary.
It is interesting because as I grew older, I have come to meet more native Koreans than Korean-Americans. It is fascinating to see how native Koreans view me. During the first five minutes of a Korean conversation, they think that I am fluent or born in Korea. But after five minutes, I cannot hold up the charade any longer. Others are just surprised that I can speak Korean at all.
Someone once told me that I am Korean enough to live in Korea but still American; I was intrigued by the observation, although I was not quite sure what it meant. But I decided to take it on a positive note as the intention appeared complimentary and the statement made me feel like a talented human chameleon. Usually people are surprised when they discover that I have never been to Korea but strangely enough I feel like I have after hearing so many stories. Then they proceed to tell me that I would love it (which I have no doubt.)
Meanwhile, other people think that I should be more Korean than I am. For example, I remember one night at Han Ah Reum supermarket I purchased a pressure cooker for my mom and spoke in English to the cashier. The man behind the counter later realized that I could speak some Korean when I returned with my mom to exchange the cooker for another one. Perhaps to the cashier I had not acted “Korean” enough. Regardless I was under the impression that he was offended and he then asked me to watch the security monitor while he helped my mom take down another pressure cooker. I remember being mad at this employee for weeks thinking that he should learn English as well as American ways of customer service as then perhaps he would not have asked me to watch the security monitor. Just because I’m Korean, it doesn’t mean I had to speak Korean or offer my services as a security guard.
Nevertheless, to put it simply, I enjoy both cultures although each may have its undesirable qualities. I feel lucky that I can be exposed to both realms. Do I have the true markings of a Korean or of an American or a fusion of both? This becomes more irrelevant as I grow older. I just know that the first time I get a chance to visit Korea I will run to the nearest “po-jang macha” and stuff myself with lots of authentic, cheap Korean food. When it comes to food, there is no confusion or boundaries…