UNITED BY CULTURE
Jean-Kim, Los Angeles, California
A couple of years ago, a few months into my relationship, a mutual friend of ours asked my boyfriend if there were any cultural differences between us that we had to work through. (He’s Mexican and I’m Korean). He answered in the negative, which I concurred with wholeheartedly.
Growing up a second generation Korean, aka first generation born in the U.S., I used to be obsessed with the seemingly unanswerable question: Am I American or Korean? Well, let’s see: I hated American breakfasts except eggs fried over easy and cereal, I forgot nearly all my Korean in preschool, I loved to sit on the floor cross legged, I begged my parents for a copy of The Lion King, I loved having my mom tie my hair into the tightest ponytail possible to accentuate my slanted East Asian eyes, I hated Korean mentalities, I hated that America split up Korea and gave the North to Russia, I refused to marry anyone not Korean but my first crushes were white…
I struggled with my identity for years, seeking out those like me. I relished any online post talking about what it was like growing up Korean American, sought out articles categorizing every possible Asian American type from the partying KTown girls to the quiet nerds and tried to find myself in one of them. I finally decided that the one category that I belonged in was simply Korean American. In this way, I could embrace the American culture without having to embrace its sordid history. Be proud of my ethnic heritage, while heavily criticizing the vapid culture that I had been able to escape from with my parents’ emigration.
Once I settled into my newfound identity I started thinking about it less and less, much like I don’t think about my hand picking up a pencil. Then I graduated from college and started looking for jobs. The only ones I seemed to be able to find were with Koreans or at least Chinese people because, you know, connections. The point of this story is that the last Korean I worked for pushed me to where I am now.
At the interview, this 50 year old Korean man told me that he was looking for someone who could speak and write English fluently, seeing as most of his customers were American and Canadian. He told me that I did not need to know any Korean. I established that I wasn’t a psychopath and that I was a native English speaker and the pact was sealed.
However, over the following months my boss decided that it had become his duty to teach me the value of being Korean. He would lecture me after work about how I would regret not getting in touch with my culture. That his own children, now grown and with families, wished they had learned Korean. He would complain that I didn’t have the Korean “aegyo”, which is apparently some sort of nauseously cutesy personality you see in animes and bad Chinese dramas. Amongst other issues, I decided it wasn’t worth having an income to work for him and I have largely put him out of my mind, but he has had a lasting impact on me. I disdain the Korean culture and its all encompassing ethnic pride more than I ever have in my all my life. He did what over a decade of pledging my allegiance to a flag in public school and American propaganda couldn’t do. He made me American. Maybe even a little redneck.
My boyfriend grew up in a white suburb as a third generation Mexican American. Essentially, he was raised by someone like me, meaning he is probably even more white-washed than myself. All his past girlfriends were white, he has a copious amount of white relatives, my mom knows more Spanish than him (he claims she just knows different words) and no one ever thinks he’s Mexican, much to his chagrin. (He does roll his r’s nicely and complains when rice and beans aren’t up to par though).
But basically there was no real reason culturally that we shouldn’t be compatible, because we don’t come from different cultures. We merely have slightly different American experiences. We think the same way, we focus on individualism, philosophize and stuff ourselves on turkey during Thanksgiving. He’s part of the NRA, I juice (sometimes)! In fact, it would be near impossible for me to date anyone straight out of Korea, my mom agrees.
When I come across some video talking about Asian Americaness, unless it’s really funny, I just sit there and wonder why this is still so relevant to so many people. Why do we continue to enforce such a dichotomy on each other and ourselves? In elementary school one of my teachers said that we were not actually a melting pot, but a mixed salad. And I always thought that was obvious. Just look around we are not Brazilians. But ideologically and emotionally we are a melting pot
Referring back to my native English, though truth be told Korean was my first language, it was quickly supplanted by my mother after I returned from my first day of school crying that no one understood me and made fun of me. However much she regrets her decision now, I was molded and shaped by America’s very own homegrown version of “newspeak”. There are words in Korean that just have no exact equivalent in English, barring me from understanding or feeling things that must come naturally to them. Just as we have words that my father could never understand. We, in our language, are irrevocably formed, linked and single-minded.
Even when it comes to race I make the argument that Korean Americans, Mexican Americans, German Americans, what have you, are one race. How so? The oxford dictionary defines it in two interesting ways. Firstly, it defines it as “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics” (oxforddictionaries.com), but then it goes on to say that it is “a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc…” (oxforddictionaries.com). Emigration and the very existence of the United States of America make these two definitions separate, even clashing. If you want to define race by the former entry then we are all a group of separate races merely coexisting in close quarters. But if you accept the latter, you can see that we share a culture, a language and even a history. And that’s how my boyfriend and I have no cultural issues we must work past. Because we forwent two different cultures and joined another.
And I could sit here wondering if that’s a good or bad thing, or reference people like my mother who came here as a teenager and feels even more lost than I did, or those persistent KKK groups and general ignorance and racism, but for all America’s shortcomings, which I believe will never go away, I am American.