March 7, 2009

Sci-Fi Us

A social anthropologist once said of 1.5'ers that our experience here was the same as if our children were being raised by our grandparents. That the cultural mind-jump was profound, spanning from an agrarian post-war mindset to post-post modern in one generation. There was more said about this but this statement captured it all for me...

It captures my feeling that we are a generation of time travelers, of sci-fi characters able to feel at home in a tin-roofed home with an outhouse in Pusan, S. Korea and just as easily go to our jobs manning a register in the inner city while spending our days in academia. We can receive our local prayer lady without batting an eye, she'd come in and pray over us in tongues and things might even become more christian-shamanistic and your mom will be in the other room getting bruised black and blue (what IS the name of that practice?) and you will be in the kitchen preparing the watery instant coffee doused heavily with coffee-mate thinking of what movie you'd like to see, and if there was time to do a Starbuck's run for a latte.

I think this is the main reason Korean-American's have been able to assimilate so quickly and so successfully, the reason why there were recent studies done on the absurdly high percentage of Korean-American's who have made their way into the top tiers of entertainment, fashion, and art including the more traditional model-minority pursuits of law and medicine. We are a generation unfazed by the speed at which our times are progressing, we can twitter/game/Youtube as fast as we can help our mothers get out of the weird illegal DirectTV deal a Korean man approached her with (my mom in PA got somehow hooked into New York DirectTV but only got about eleven channels total) - how many times have we had to write letters, call companies on our parents behalf starting with "My mother doesn't speak English very well..."

It also explains why a K-A college girl from Los Angeles on vacation with her mom was able to whisper/mime to us one night by the camp fire in Yosemite that all the Korean's she knew were f***ed up. Pure and simple. And it was the reason, she said louder, that she knew she would not ultimately marry a Korean guy. She looked at her mom, a cheery energetic sort who loved driving all over the country on these mini vacations with her daughter and her mom said batted her eyes innocently and demanded to know, Why you look at mommy ?

If you think about it, the east-west factor alone is pretty astounding. At the same time we have to be both inter-dependent and individualistic; authority revering and authority critiquing; thinking of other's feelings first and thinking of how we feel first; obedient and unique; financially enmeshed with your parents and family, and expected to earn your own way. The list goes on and on and I for one think it's no small link to the high percentage of immigrant K-A's and mental illness. Because it is an impossible jump, bigger than a move across an ocean and half the planet- it's a move into an other way of understanding, opposite to all the meaning Koreans had ever known.

I think of all the times I witnessed a profound culture conflict, from something as little as a customer who'd misunderstood my parent's manner for rudeness to as big as legal events where a beloved family member tried to show respect to the law with silence and cooperation, and how the legal system exploited this to profound damage. And like all sci-fi characters, because we're a unique generation, caught halfway here to there, we're marked by what we see and can't share.

posted at 03:32 PM by jenn

Filed under: general


03/08/09 03:26 PM

Being a 1.5 generation Korean American, I identify with this post immensely. I arrived to CA at age 9 from Daejon. As the oldest of 3 children (all girls), I have similar stories to many of "us."

I would greatly appreciate it if you could point me to actual sources that you reference - 1) social anthropologist that you started this post with, 2) study about high percentage of KA's in entertainment, etc, and 3) high percentage of KAs and mental illness. All these references were new to me and I'm keenly interested in reading the actual sources directly. Thank you!

03/08/09 11:03 PM

Again, too much to say. Did you get the looong note I sent months ago along the same lines, esp the mental illness? I think I spend about 70% of my free head space thinking about exactly this post (20% more on my daughter's schooling options and the remaining 10% has to take care of the rest).

Anyway, in the meanwhile just wanted to make sure you'd seen this:

03/09/09 12:39 AM

In college a professor of mine talked a great deal about time travel as a state of mind. It was in a class about colonialism and the kind of psychic break that rapid culture shifts can bring and I remember it speaking to my experience like an arrow through the heart.

And I remember thinking that he had it a bit wrong, that the cultural dissonance for people on either end of the spectrum the dislocation is disorienting... for my people like grandparents and parents and for the community we ended up in here in Michigan who had never seen a family like ours, but for us, the generation in the middle going back and forth was relatively easy. We compartmentalized/contextualized/ and normalized.

My grandfather had one of those typically epic tragic Korean childhoods. His family was killed by the Japanese and then he was brought up by a Japanese family, only to see them killed in WWII. His first wife and two children disappeared during the communist takeover of the North (he fled south). He managed to stay sane, get marred, have a second family, move to the states and start a thriving chain of Japanese restaurants. I grew up with my grandparents (my parents worked nonstop), and constant was weighted down by his stories while I was just trying to be a "normal" kid in a suburban high school where there were only 2 other Korean kids. I was popular. Played sports. Fit in as much as I could.

I grew up thinking of myself as so different and yet now I find myself just one of an army of Grace Parks (I find it particularly ironic that the girl on Battlestar Galactica is a Grace Park and that she is a replicant) many of whom seem to have experiences similar to mine and yet so different from every other kid I grew up with.

As much as I hate to think we can be easily pigeonholed we seem to all end up in very easily categorized clich├ęd groups. By my own reckoning there are about 7 types of 1.5ers and virtually all of us fit into one of those categorizations. There is something sci-fi about that sameness and about the sameness of our experiences.

My grandfather dreamed of going back btw. This is something he talks about every day and yet when we did go back to the place where my mother was born (a small farm near the border with North Korea), he was disgusted by how little had changed. The thing about cultural time travel is that it's possible to move forward but not back.

I still time travel all the time. I do it every time I go home.

03/09/09 11:56 AM

yeah. i bet it is pretty much the same for anyone who experience the kind of cultural/geographical clash from relocation.

I was reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She's not even Korean and she obviously went through far more complex situations than I could ever imagine.

But the struggles between daughter/mom, between one culture and another.. wanting to be free and the responsibility.. Many of stuff she was writing about, if I changed the names to some Korean names, locations to some Korean cities and American cities, Why, it still all made the perfect sense.

It all seems universal.

03/09/09 02:01 PM

I adore the graces btw, there is to me a strong touch of the early Negro Spiritual in there - how our parents named us for what they needed or hoped for most, how they adopted Christianity in a way similar to the first African-American Christians.

Amyable - I emailed my old grad school prof for references to the anthro discussion. I'm one of those people that tend to remember themes and points better than dates and names so if you have some time I'll be able to find this for you. As for the recent studies I believe the studies were used in short articles for Time a couple of years ago, and as for that last point about mental illness that is a personal theory of mine, from observations over the years among my own family and others.

And Unha, can I borrow your book? I'd been meaning to read that. I just finished Black Boy by RIchard Wright. I agree with you btw and thank God that human experience tends to be universal, that at the end as perfect beings we could relate to everyone without barriers.

But I also think these days that "universal" becomes confused with "same" and I am more struck than not by reading say Chinese-American lit such as the Woman Warrior or the one Vietnamese-Am memoir I read, about how because of the storytelling I could relate but how their stories still felt foreign to me. My Asian-ness or fellow immigrant status didn't privilege me somehow into their stories, the only thing I think it did was to make me more open - in the same way that all good readers are, culture aside.

1.5'er for better or for worse is it's own thing, and it's a thing that will die with us pretty much. What I'm compelled by is that lack of articulation about us, the lack of story - if only so we are recorded somewhere, and possibly helpful to our own children who will inevitably pass our learned traits downward.

Heavy, heavy I know - I blame it on the recession.

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