My Korean American Story: Don Sheu

By: Don Sheu

August 26, 2010

옛날식 花奬室  The Latrine

Born in Seoul of a Chinese father and a Korean mother, people have always tried to locate my identity in fractions, particularly in America. Identity is easily fractured into incomplete portions, in the US we describe people as parts instead of complete comprehensive whole identities. Perhaps this tendency was born in the US constitution, in Article 1, Section 2, where slaves were described as 3/5ths of a whole person.

In 1973 we immigrated to the states, that was when I was split in half. First we stopped in Rochester, New York for a brief stint, before removing ourselves to the mighty Pacific Northwest.

In those lazy early years in Seattle I remember in kindergarten being asked, “what are you?” Being a happy child, I’d answer with all smiles, “on my mother’s side I’m Korean, and on my father’s side I’m Chinese!” Once, though, my parents were at school for some reason, and when my sister translated my declaration for them, they smiled embarrassed grins. My mother then told me, “You’re Chinese.” She said this to me in Korean. Are you confused?

Moving to the suburbs really made the issue of identity urgent. When we lived in the projects people left people to define themselves and their spaces in complex and heterogeneous ways. It’s in white spaces of strip malls, cul-de-sacs, and 7-11’s where people need cheap, easy markers to identify friend or foe, native of alien. This is where I learned people carry racist hearts.

During recess when I first got to the new school with a real grass field, unlike the black-top we played on in the school located in the city, I was playing soccer happily. A boy was charging furiously towards me with the ball. I intercepted him and managed to kick the ball to another on my side. The boy looked at me and scrunched up his face in a disgusted look and called me “chink.” Should he have called me “gook” instead?

I didn’t know what chink meant, but assumed that it didn’t mean good play. What did happen was a sick feeling that started in the bottom of my stomach that rose through my sinuses, like being hit in the nose. But this was the catalyst that initiated me in the American discourse of racial hate. Soon, I learned what “honky” meant, though it’s nowhere near as potent as “chink”, “gook”, or “nigger.” Does “honky” have the same devasting challenge to legitimacy as other racial epithets? Instead it seems to be a sort of code word for enfranchisement. Is white might? In the suburbs I was taught that I was a marginal lodger in a white America. My first reaction was to assimmilate and try to shed my golden skin. Don’t speak Chinese. Don’t speak Korean. Don’t smell like kimchee. Don’t have soy sauce on my white shirt. Date white girls. Play football. Read GQ. White is beautiful. White is right. White is might. Be more white.

With the onslaught of years, I became more wary of myself of the culture around me. All I really got was an upset stomach. But I came to a crystal realization that the jingle of multiculturalism and rainbow coalitions was a blind. Was I an American? Korea was forgotten to me, relegated in a rarely visited corner of my mind. This changed in 1991. My mother visited Korea to attend my cousin’s wedding. Our family had never been very lucky in business and we never had enough money to take a trip like this casually. My father said to me though, “Your mother needs to go. If she doesn’t go now, she might never see Korea or her family again before she dies.” In his eyes I could see the deepest apologies.

With that one trip my perceptions of the world transformed overnight. It restored Korea to the real universe for me. Before I had always thought of Korea as some second rate country, or an unending dirt bowl shown on M.A.S.H. where only white people were real and only the U.S.A. made sense. Now Korea ceased to be only a glimmering ghost in an uncertain biography and took on instead the significance of a tangible fact. Only ten years earlier, people would return from Korea with stories of hardship. I remember when people used to travel to Korea to lose weight. Now my mother returned with new stories. She glowed with pride and claimed that Korea had not only matched the U.S. materially but had surpassed it. The food tasted better. The clothes prettier. The laughter fuller. This party was not one restricted to the few, but one that everybody participated in. I wanted to believe. Though I was searching for alternatives to America, I was still unwilling to relinquish the material comforts of life in the U.S.A. For the first time I began to count Korea among the stars in heaven I might plot my destiny by.

Putting my trust in family hospitality, and hoping I could make enough money teaching English to cover my expenses. I charged a ticket to Korea on my credit card in the summer of 1995. My parents arranged for me to stay with my younger uncle who had visited us in 1980. When I arrived in Korea, he wasn’t even in Seoul. My aunt told me that he was down in Jindo taking care of business. My aunt and my cousin Byoung-rok met me at the airport. I last saw my aunt I was 3, before she had married my uncle and I’d never seen my cousin, so they stood standing at the exit from customs with a placard with my name. In the darkness I watched the passing neon lights, glimmering buildings, and shimmering water from the taxi window. When we did get home I was suprised. I had to dip my head to make sure I didn’t hit the concrete overhang of the floor above when I climbed down into the basement apartment that would be my home for the next 90 days. At first glance I was trepidatious. What my mother had told me hadn’t prepared me for this. What I expected was a chicken in every pot, to paraphrase Hoover. The apartment was two small rooms joined by a hallway that also doubled as a kitchen. I wondered how five of us would all fit in our house at one time.

Most of my mother’s family remains in the countryside. My oldest uncle and oldest aunt live next door to each other outside of Chonju, the capital of Cholla-buk-do. They live in the same neighborhood that my grandfather evacuated to from Taegu during the Korean War. My uncle farms chilis and cucumbers, while my aunt grows peaches in her orchard. A few days after my arrival, my oldest uncle came up to Kwachon for my grandmother’s jesa, the ritual Confucian sacrifice to ancestors. My second aunt also made the trip from Pohang, located on the southeast coast. The came specifically to see me. Normally the oldest uncle doesn’t make the trip up because of too much work on the farm in the summer.

I didn’t visit Pohang and the farm in Chonju until right before I was to leave Korea. My hesitation was predicated entirely on the toilet situation at my uncle’s farm. He refuses to install a flush toilet. Instead they still use an old style latrine. The latrine is in a shack and is nothing more than a pit in the darkness with some wooden planks running across the pit to make sure I wouldn’t fall into the cesspool and squat. The smell wasn’t too bad. After a while I became used to it. In the latrine, my delusions crystallized into something real for me to compare and re-examine with a more critical and skeptical eye. Staring into the darkness I had to face my fear of shit. My family had previously mocked my fear. Earlier, whenever the possibility of my traveling to the countryside was discussed, my family would grin and laugh at my cowardice.

They were kind to me, my family. We were essentially strangers, but they accepted me without hesitation and this acceptance was based on the simple fact that I am my mother’s son. My uncle in Kwachon said we are of one blood. With me, our family counted five in a house of two small rooms, but my aunt never complained once that we were one too many. Instead, when it came time for me to leave, my uncle asked if I couldn’t put school off for just a little while longer. On the day I left, my cousin’s friend borrowed his father’s car to drive me to the airport. My uncle left the same morning for Jindo. On our way out we dropped off my uncle at the subway station. He couldn’t say a word. He just looked at me, nodded his head, turned and walked away.

I drown in shame to think that I returned to Korea only after I was assured it had “developed.” Initially, I was only willing to identify with Korea, or accept it if it fit a certain elaborate conception I had constructed through hearsay. With my family’s unadorned and austere lifestyle as a model to follow, I began an engagement with the materialism that produced my tendency to slavishly worship wealth and to fetishize objects beyond any reasonable proportion to its essence. In the crowded house and in the dark latrine I learned to value objects only for their raw functions. Now I refuse to describe Korea in terms of its material development, or its aesthetic resemblance to America. I will not graph its worth relative to a measure with the West as the basis. Korea is home.


Name: Don Sheu
Age: 40
Occupation: Entrepreneur
Current Residence: Phoenix, Arizona