June 2, 2008

Korean Korean

Recently, a Korean-American friend of my husband’s found my blog and declared she hadn’t realized how Korean I was. The comment gave me pause for a number of reasons but first of all because it was ironic – I’d started this blog as a place to wool gather about things I love about Korean culture but really it was also a way to define things as well. Anyone who knows me would answer in kind, “She’s not Korean Korean, she married white-latino and doesn’t hang out with Koreans.” Because, you know, Korean Koreans pretty much only hang out with other Koreans especially if they are a part of a church and while they might socialize with their work or school buddies they don’t date or have intimate relationships with non-Koreans.”

It’s an odd divide when I think about it, and kind of huge really. Because for some reason, there are very few who mix as easily in both cultures and two of those few are my sister and brother. I used to think it was a generational thing, that 1.5’ers being the first to truly assimilate either became Americanized or they clung together and formed their own identity, which we now call Korean-American. And even within those who clung together there were degrees, mostly determined by how fresh off the boat they were. Literally. And all of this came about because the seventies and eighties were not so much kind to the minority folk, it was not cool to be ethnic even if affirmative action was big. It really took the late nineties for people to internalize the great multi-cult message and I remember my amazement still at watching my brother and sister date across the ethnic lines at the very same high school where a popular boy told me that I wasn’t really Korean but very pretty. To my own shame I took this as the compliment it was meant to be – at that time I was the second Korean/ethnic girl ever to be popular, a path trail blazed by the wondrous junior Juyoung (she used her Korean name even!) who dated the most popular senior in high school, well on my way to finding out that the path to cool was even more treacherous than korean.

So what is this invisible wall exactly? Why can’t Korean Koreans mix as intimately with non-Koreans and why don’t KA girls like me feel as comfortable in the KA world?

posted at 10:00 PM by jenn

Filed under: personal history


06/02/08 11:41 PM

Hey Jen,

When I arrived in NYC for college, straight from the midwest, I was really excited to make KA friends and date KA guys. Even though I'd been popular in HS I rejected that scene. I went to Barnard b/c it was (1) a women's college, where I could finally meet some cool smart women who didn't spend all their time shopping and (2) Barnard/Columbia had a ton of Asian students and I was really going to find my Asian self.

Boy, was I disillusioned fast. Those Ks would have nothing to do with me. B/c I didn't speak K and didn't go to K church and didn't know KA slang and KA culture and maybe b/c I was a raging makeup-less feminist, I might as well have been Armenian. And no, the KA guys did NOT want to date me. The Jewish & German grad students sure did though, and in due time I gave up on the Asian dating scene. I mean, I had THROWN myself at Asian guys, to no avail. It was tough on a girl's ego. So when people give me a tough time for ending up with a white guy (and they have), it's not like I didn't try.

Thanks, btw for the korean songbook info. I too have gone onto those K book or film websites, only to flee at all that flashing hangul. I'm waiting for my mom to return to the states so I can ask her to call Koryo Books for me!

06/03/08 10:48 AM

hm. interesting post..
unlike you guys, i came to the states in my teens.
being a teenager, i just wanted to fit in my new life.
little did i know, korean kids i met at school or at church (naturally... dragged by my mom) only hung out with other koreans. throughout high school, college, they all seemed to care about drinking, partying, going to church, j crew, banana republic, summer koeran programs in korean universities... all of those bore me to death.. so at one point, except for my core "korean" friends, i simply ignored them all.
it wasn't until i moved back to new york that i started to meet korean americans that i liked and wanted to be friends.. though as you put it, they weren't really "korean korean"..

but as i get older and have kids, i realize the wall you are talking here is the lack of common interest and openmindness (if you only find yourself in going to churches.. doing small groups and etc, and you decided everything else is bullshit, you pretty much walled yourself in a box where you only see the world with your little lense)

funny .. my mom was soooo grumpy that i no longer go to church.. and refused for her to take the kids to one.. so for her birthday, as a treat, i decided to let her have it for one day. boy.... it was so un.com.for.ta.ble.......

06/03/08 08:30 PM

Now this is where I wish I were Ira Glass because all I want to do is hear more about these stories and record them. I thought about writing something about my own experience with dating KA guys, how I was considered hot stuff but then after spending about five minutes with me they were immediately turned off saying I was too loud, opinionated and well, American. My quiet and very feminine cousin did extremely well though, and even with her help navigating the KA dating scene, I could never keep my mouth shut enough.

I think the hardest thing for me is that so much of my heart is still there, at home, with being Korean - I love for the most part the initial moment of walking into my mom's house, slipping off the shoes, probably changing into home clothes, and relaxing into her world. I see differently there, am cared for in that complete Korean mother way, and the boys are also reveling in their new world - they are the center of it, Korean-style, as evidenced by the hundreds of toys my mom keeps in the living room, and by the way she takes charge by letting them do whatever they want. But of course after about three days I am screaming on the inside... by the time I'm back in Brooklyn I feel as though I'd been gone for weeks in some third exotic but third world country.

Ah, Jews and Koreans - I'm thinking on a post about that one. Something along the lines of Koreans are the new Jews....

06/03/08 09:40 PM

ok. too funny.
i'm married into jewish family. (non-religious)
before i got married, husband's cousin gave me this book called "jewish as second language" which talks about all these little things a non-jew should aware before marrying into one.. i was laughing so hard because about 3/4 were what korean moms + dads would do!
(1) lotta knitting... scarves..sweaters... check
(2) guilt! check
(3) never ending worry .. check..

and the list goes on..

i know what you mean by stepping into korean ways when you visit mom.

my mom lives near by and whenever she comes over, the house is upside down for a few hours she's here.. (both in good and annoying ways)

big bottles of homemade kimchi made by her.. all these other food for grandkids.. and how she completely ignores my plea for discipline and indulges her grandson (though i have a girl too, she ALWAYS says "but i love a son better!" )

anyway.. this has been a fun post you did.

06/03/08 10:35 PM

I'm a 1.5er and I can relate to this post so much and the way you just described how your heart is still at home, being Korean, loving it but can't take it for long, is how I feel too! my parents know me well and when I visit them I feel 'at one' with them but slowly and surely I realize that they do not really know my world. They have nothing to compare to? In order to hang onto their daughter they attempt to force their own ways on me and my husband.

when I was younger I was never able to have deep, meaningful relationships with Korean, Korean-Am guys because they, too, thought I just couldn't keep my mouth shut enough or was too opinionated (rather, having an opinion or possessing the ability to say 'no'). I was fun to casually date but never for considering marriage or anything like that. and that was vice versa. Now, my manhattan born, uws-raised, blue collar, fire fighting, Chinese-Am husband... now HE comes with his own huge sack of issues too. hahaha.

06/05/08 12:23 PM

I think it has lot to do with how koreans are raised. Unlike Americans, most Koreans didn't have the luxury of experiencing such diversity and variety. It's sort of human (even animal's) instinct to form a group in an unfamiliar environment which helps them to feel more secure and confident and it must have passed on from our parents' generation.

And as for the invisible wall, I think it's all misunderstanding. I went to Puerto Rico last year and I realized how Americanized I've become over the years (yes! i'm not as super koreanized as we all think!). I didn't hesitiate to initiate conversation with rico citizens while I was there. And at the same time, I expected them to speak English in their own country. But is that an arrogant act? I think that's just because how I was raised in the US but can I blame them for thinking that I'm arrogant?

This type of things may create a wall between 2 groups and I mean very very small things like, "if I pour a drink to you, you do the same" or "you pay for your own drink, don't expect me to pay all the time just because i'm older". Seriously, I've seen some ridiculous confrontation when I was younger.

06/11/08 11:09 PM

I'm half Korean and my brother is Korean Korean (full Korean?) and he's my half-brother. When people see pictures of him or see us together, they finally believe I'm Korean Korean too. But, we were raised together in the same household, with the same KA culture...the only difference is in our genes. Does culture make you Korean or the genes?

Even crazier, here I am, a happa, wanting to learn Korean and even traveling to S. Korea after college, while my brother listens to Britney Spears, shops at Old Navy, and would give his right eyelid to look more "American." Go figure.

I'm glad I found your blog - from the Korean bloglist.

06/24/08 03:58 AM

interesting post...and oh, nice blog!:)

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