Monday, September 8, 2008


I'm thinking about taking a class at a Korean church to learn, well, to speak Korean. It's 12 weeks. Ninety bucks.

But I feel conflicted. Do I want to subject myself to such high expectation, pressure, and discomfort?

I just finished ranting and raving to my husband the other day how I want nothing to do with that country called Korea. A harsh thing to say, particularly, when one considers that I was born in Korea over thirty years ago as a "one hundred percent pure Korean baby," according to some piece of paper.

I'm thinking it would be a lot easier to make the decision if I looked like a Caucasian person. This is a strange thing to say, I know. But it's complicated. If I looked White then no one would expect me to already know the language. Such pressure and expectation would diminish, because the presumption that I should know more than I do propagated by "looking Korean" would be absent.

If I were Caucasian, Koreans would not scold me, "How come you no speak Korean?! What's wrong with not like Kimchee!? You not real Korean! How can you not know your own language! You should have learn. Why you not know your country?"

If I were Caucasian, others would understand it as normal for me to walk into a room full of Korean people and feel out of place and awkward. If I were Caucasian, my sense of alienation and disconnect from all things Korean would make sense. But because I look Korean, not Caucasian, well, that changes everything...Koreans look at me and automatically expect that there are certain things I should know and enjoy, like kimchee, fermented bean paste, and how to make rice. Americans look at me and automatically expect that there are certain things that I should not know or enjoy, like the English language or driving a car.

However, though, I have long ago come to the realization that I am an un-Korean Korean. And I am an un-American American. It just depends on who's looking. I'm not Korean enough for Koreans or American enough for Americans. But in all honesty, if I had to claim one or the other, no doubt, I am more American than I'll ever be Korean.

Let me explain.

English is my first and only language. I have yet ever in my life to crave kimchee. I'd rather eat a steak or a slice of pizza. I know American history. My citizenship is American. My name is American. My family is American, and in fact White American. My sense of humor is American. The way I dress is American. The way I walk and carry myself is American. The way I talk is American. Everything about me is American. Why? Because, since the age of six months, I have been raised by and surrounded by Americans. I married an American.

I'm like a human baby who was raised by a pride of lions. (I'm attempting to be neutral, yet somehow I sense that whatever analogy I choose, I'll end up offending someone. Just don't try to read too much into it...). I resemble a human, but the way I live and behave is lion-ish. Did I choose to be raised by lions? Not exactly.

More explicitly, I resemble a Korean but the way I live and behave is American. Did I choose to be adopted out to an American family at the age of six months old? Not exactly.

Nonetheless, I am American. Not by choice, but by fate. And a good fate it has turned out to be. Yet, I no more chose to be American than a native Korean chose to be Korean.

Now, I do not deny that there are things about me that are particularly Asian. Well, really, there are only two general categories in which I would qualify as "Asian." Obviously, my physical characteristics identify me as Asian. Oil sleek black hair, almost just as black eyes, often euphemistically referred to as "almond-shaped." Petite. Flat-faced. Skin with yellow undertones.

The other is my choice of cuisine. I love Asian cuisine. But given a choice, I'd probably choose Thai or Chinese
(that is, the more Americanized versions, of course...) over Korean. But quite honestly, I've met plenty of Americans who like Asian food just as much, if not more, than I do. And if we're using food likes and dislikes as a measure of "Asianness" or "Koreanness," well, there is simply no arguing that I've encountered my share of Americans who are no doubt more "Korean" or more "Asian" than I'll ever be.

And, well, if you throw in the knowledge of the language, customs, history, and culture with the measure of "Asianness" or "Koreanness," well, then I most definitely fall desperately short on the scale of 1 to 10 on "Asianness" and "Koreanness." I'm not even going to estimate where I would be on the scale. Let's just say that John Wayne and I may have shared a similar rank.

Really, most of the time, it's not that I feel ashamed of my Asian qualities or my American qualities. More so, on one hand, I feel ashamed that I am not "Asian" enough and of course, on the other hand, I feel ashamed that I am not "American" enough.

And then, what does it mean that the majority of my closest friends happen to be Black or African American? Who knows...

Being just, well, me--should be enough, right?...Say all the psychoanalysts. And they'd be correct. But that's what they all say to all those out there in the similar situation of wearing multiple pairs of shoes, whatever those shoes may look and feel like. Being you, my friend, is enough. Just be you, dear.

But, as we all know, vacuums do not support life as we know it.

I think we all know to a certain degree what it's like to feel the tension pulling among the conflicting roles and identities assigned to us as we go through life, whether of differing racial or ethnic identities or differing social roles such as balancing being a husband, father, and son or a wife, mother, and daughter--talk about complicated, and the comparisons go on.

So, to take the class or to not take the class. That is the question. And in its implied version, to pursue my "Koreanness" or to not pursue my "Koreanness."

Most likely, I'll end up taking the class. I'll tell myself it's an opportunity for some "good research" and "cultural experience."

And in the meantime, perhaps I can pretend that I'm a White American trying to learn to speak Korean. Then, maybe I won't feel so un-Korean.


Rachel K. said...

Hey Melissa, I enjoyed reading your blog. It must be hard feeling "in-between". Just wanted to tell you, I love ya and don't think of you as Korean or American, just as Melissa.

Mia_h_n said...

This is an interesting entry to me. On one hand I know exactly what you mean (as usual) but on the other hand, it's through imagination.
I have never had that "not Danish enough" and I never expected to be any sort of Korean. I've always believed that being born in Korea, but only living there for a very short period, would never measure up to my many conscious years in Denmark with my Danish family.
It makes Korea the land where I was born and started my life, I'm not trying to deny that, but Denmark is where my life, family, love and history are. It's's me.
I'm sorry you've been (and are?) torn. Does it have to be American or Korean? Can't it be both in undefined amounts?
To this outsider you are Melissa with just the right amounts of any kind of -ness :)

KimchiFilms said...

This was a great blog post. A lot of KADs feel this way I have noticed. When I think of a stereotypical Korean through the lens of an American, I imagine someone who likes spicy foods, barbecue, church, drinking alcohol, and singing at a nori bang. Since I have none of these likes, I myself have also felt very unkorean at times. On the other hand, I am also outside of mainstream American culture as well.

They call this living in the hyphen.

In the end, I still feel more at ease with Koreans than most Americans. There is a Korean bond that transcends language and adoption.

KimchiFilms said...

No matter how American you feel on the inside, on the outside other Americans will see you as Korean.

Melissa said...

KimchiFilms, thanks so much for stopping by...

"living in the hyphen"--very appropriate metaphor.

You wrote, "In the end, I still feel more at ease with Koreans than most Americans."

I have to admit that I'm not there. I actually feel less at ease with Koreans than Americans. And ironically enough, most of my closest friends are actually African-American.

"No matter how American you feel on the inside, on the outside other Americans will see you as Korean."

You are so right. This statement is generally very true. Yet, as with anything, there are also always exceptions...even when rare. And in this case, I am relieved by the exceptions.