The Burden We Carry
Living in Korea hasn’t been easy. Well, as easy as I thought it would be. When my husband received his assignment to South Korea, I breathed a sigh of relief. He’d just returned from a deployment while we were stationed in Hawaii, right after an internship year as an Army Psychologist. Needless to say, I was ready for a breather and I thought I was getting it.
An assignment to Korea meant that a deployment was almost not happening during our tour there. Even more in our favor, my parents had immigrated to the US from Korea 37 years ago, making me ethnically Korean, although not nationalistically Korean. Korean food was my comfort food, I thought myself fluent in the language, I could somewhat read and write Korean and I was curious about the place my parents came from so I thought I would be more comfortable at our new duty station than the average military family. The closer our move date got, the more excited I got.
Ha. I laugh at my old self. It’s not like I could have changed our duty stations. One does not tell the Army where one wants to go or doesn’t want to go. One simple goes where one is sent. And I am that one’s wife. But. I should have known that like other cities and other places we were sent to, Korea wouldn’t be any different. Where people live, it’s all the same.
In Korea I found it’s the same too. Just with more jostling, loud talking and Han – that indescribable holding onto of pain and longing that creates a layer on relationships I don’t quite understand yet here.
After the initial honeymoon period when I’d stuffed myself enough with brown sugar dough cakes sold on the street and pork belly barbecue on hot grills, it started to grate on me how selfish the Koreans seemed. They’d cut in line in front of each other at every opportunity, push people in wheelchairs and babies in strollers out of the way to get ahead, honk at poor bent over old people as they shuffled across crosswalks and fight loudly in stores for freebies that they weren’t entitled to. I was appalled and often embarrassed for them. Then, one day, someone told me that they were embarrassed for me because I was stupid enough to not stand up for myself and grab these opportunities. No one else would do it for me so I looked like an idiot just standing there letting other people cut in front of me, not getting my freebies, not getting ahead. Could we really be that different? We were.
It made me sad, angry and lonely to see how far and wide the divide was between me (a Korean American) and them (native Koreans) in terms of thinking, motives, lifestyle, choices…. you name it. Even the taste of their food. They preferred their food to taste sweeter than what we’re used to in America. Then I realized that my parents we’re with them and not me. They had Korean brain and lo and behold, I had a very American one.
Before arriving and living here, I used to think that the differences in how my mom and I saw the world were a mere pond apart. That she generally saw what I meant and chose to see things differently, like I did her. I thought when I’d explain something to her, she’d generally get it. That when I’d make a decision, she’d sort of see why I did even though she’d nag at me about choosing the other choice. But now that I finally see how really so very different another country’s person’s thinking can be, I am realizing that her thinking may be more like a sea or an ocean apart. She sees things vastly different than me. She may have known how far apart we were this whole time.
One day while she was visiting us in Korea, we were sitting on a bench at an underground metro station, and we saw a high school daughter walking with her mother. The daughter had her arm hooked through her mother’s and they were laughing about something and walking, just like my mom and I had done a million times before. We still walk arm in arm when we can. And I looked at my mom and said “Ummah, if you’d just stayed in Korea and had me here, do you think we’d be closer than we are now?” She answered “probably.” With a voice filled with longing. And I felt it too. I never knew something was missing until then. And now I know. Now I know we could have had something more. We could have understood each other more. There are missing pieces there because I don’t fully understand why she thinks or acts the way she does. What motivates her sometimes and the same for her about me. But if we’d both grown up in the same country…we would have been an unstoppable force. We would have been something else.
And that made me sad. And angry for a time. Angry because things could have been so different. If, but for the place I was born, I could have been so very normal. If my parents had never decided to move to America in 1974 and I’d been born in Korea, I would be walking around in whatever clothes was in fashion like everyone else, not too short, not too long, with my hair not too short, not too long, with my skin very perfect and white, with my eyes or nose fixed a bit (probably), speaking one language perfectly, not ever worried about not knowing either of two languages or cultures perfectly, probably married with a child or two just doing my Korean thing. A lot of the issues I deal with and wear as a part of myself wouldn’t even exist in my life. I wouldn’t worry about my parents getting along in the world outside of the home because of language issues, or have two words for everything in my life, or worry about two sets of expectations. I think my life would be a lot quieter. Easier.
I felt cheated out of a simpler life or something. Like, more had been expected from me, heaped onto me, without my permission. To illustrate: It was like walking into a room and seeing people like me walking around without the heavy backpack I’d always had on, the backpack I thought that us, as Koreans had to have on. Watching them walk around freely without it, and knowing I couldn’t take mine off, made me mad. It was childish of me, something that I should have come to terms with a long time ago, not at thirty-something.
Of course, who’s to say? There would be problems with that life, the life without the backpack too. I know this. I could, for the first time, see what that life would have been, if my parents had made a life here in Korea instead. It made my heart flutter, this feeling of loss because I’d never felt anything but privileged for being born in America before. I’d only felt indifference or pity for those back struggling in the motherland.
But now I saw the comfort here. There is something to be said about everyone around you being the same. Everyone being Korean and eating the same garlic infused Kimchi together in the morning and getting on the elevator and no one batting an eye. I have layers on from being born and grown away from here that Koreans from here don’t have. I am often uncomfortable both here and there.
For a time, I dealt with my new knowledge by shutting my new environment out. I didn’t want to be faced with it. To the dismay of my mother I shut her out a bit too. It made me so lonely to see how far apart we were. I kept asking her questions that made her see that I finally saw. She tried to bridge the gap for me by making me realize that I do more to learn to be more Korean now that I was here in Korea, but I didn’t want to have it. I didn’t get the culture. I could only see the differences. My mind was too small. I wanted to go home and I pushed back on everything outside the comfort of our apartment.
Fortunately, honestly out of boredom, I began to see new things, taste new things and have new conversations. I am who I am. I may not like everything about the Korea I’ve come to actually know but I had to admit that didn’t mean I was ready to completely reject my Korean-ness. Admittedly, I realize now that I will never be Korean in the truest sense of the word, I am Korean-American. We are our own category, our own kind. There are extra burdens, definitely. But when I took the time to examine us as a group, I saw a beauty that could only come from the kind of life we’ve lived as children of immigrants.
We didn’t have a say of where we were born and what we left behind, but we do have a say in what we embrace. While in the motherland among the palaces and temples where it all began for us, I’m now realizing how much opportunity I have before me. There is nothing that says I cannot become more Korean and remain as American as I am. I’d be dumb not to take it all in. I’ve been pretty dumb about things until now. Suddenly the time we have left here seems way too short.
Julie Woo Yang wishes she was writing to you from her home town, Honolulu, but currently her she and her beloved Mac are located in Daegu, South Korea. She is married to a her best friend, a military psychologist, and Ummah to energetic Jun and sweet Gracie. Being a military spouse has meant she’s packed up and unpacked her life 5 times in the last 7 years. When the boxes are cleared and the dust settles for a bit, her favorite ways to spend the two hours or so of personal time after the babies are in bed are to watch Korean dramas, blog, eat ice cream, and attempt to make yummy things in the kitchen.
Julie also writes at several blogs as “Jooliyah”. You can follow her family’s adventures on her personal blog, Konglish Kids, and read her contributions on the Asian American issue focused collaborative blog, Kimchi Mamas.