Monday, February 3, 2014

Things That Prevent Me From Being A "True Korean"

As a disclaimer, I realize that there isn't, nor should there be, a rigid definition of a "True Korean." In this case, I'm just using it to denote an identity that is formed by a series of common experiences shared by those who grow up in Korea. 

The thing you find out when you live for some time in your ancestral country is that while you may have felt very Korean (or Chinese or Mexican or Polish or whatever) back home where you were a minority of some kind, you're actually not that Korean when compared to people who were born and raised in that country. How could you be after having spent your entire life in another country and culture?

It's like that time in The Sopranos when Paulie goes to Italy for the first time. After a lifetime of complaining about America and how they're stealing all of Italy's precious gifts to the world (like "expresso"), he thinks he's going to finally be at home in Italy. But he sticks out like a sore thumb because he is, after all, a New Jersey guy more than anything else.

I think I'm pretty Korean for someone who, until recently, didn't spend any significant time in Korea outside of vacations. But there are certain things that, in my opinion, keep me "different."

1) I've never served in the military and won't ever have to

Growing up, every Korean male citizen knows that he has to devote 21-24 months of his life to mandatory military service, usually served sometime in his 20s. Frankly speaking, not all time periods in one's life are created equal, and your 20s are probably the years that you least want to sacrifice for something that probably seems to many as the world's longest hazing ritual.

By sole virtue of having been born overseas, I've never had to worry about this issue. But if I had, I could see how it would've affected my entire outlook on my young adulthood. There'd be this massive two-year black hole where I'd have to put everything on hold—whether it be studies, career development, creative growth, relationships—for... what exactly?

Of course, going through such things tend to create bonds between people, which is why I feel that I'll always be something of an outsider in Korean society.

Um, looks like fun! Buuuuuut I think I'll take a rain check

2) I've never gone to school in Korea

Korean schools are notoriously competitive and stress-inducing. Having never spent a single minute inside of one, I can't tell how much of it is true and how much of it is media sensationalism. But I remember my 2nd and 3rd grade classes mainly consisted of my teacher playing the piano as we sang along to The Sound of Music. A major part of 7th grade was a lip sync contest where, as part of our music curriculum, we dressed up like The Beach Boys or James Brown and performed in front of the school.

I'm guessing that most Korean schools don't have time for stuff like that. And this is not even considering the after-school schools ("hakwons") that most kids go to. Factoring that in, I'm even further removed from the typical Korean upbringing.

The closest I've come to Korean education is watching "School 2013"

3) I can't swear in Korean

A major part of true fluency in a language is being able to speak in idioms and slang. Paradoxically, a true speaker of a language should use it in all sorts of incorrect ways. Swearing is part of this familiarity with a language. If you ever meet someone who can't swear in English, chances are that he or she learned it from a book while listening to NPR and reading Dickens.

I can't swear at all in Korean, mostly because I've mainly used it to speak with parents and grandparents. It's even difficult for me to express real anger in Korean. At best, I can only muster up a kind of exasperated annoyance.

Can you imagine not being able to swear, or even express anger, when talking among your friends? Some people's relationships with their friends almost entirely consist of swearing and griping about various things. I like interacting in Korean when I can, but it's still a challenge because it's harder to naturally convey what I'm thinking and feeling.

My inability to swear in Korean would be severely restricting in times like this

4) My internet nationality is American

We spend so much of our time nowadays on the internet, which is a globe onto itself. And the internet could be divided into countries as well. As I am most comfortable with English as my reading language, I almost exclusively stick to English sites. But entire online continents exist in other languages too. Korean internet culture is extremely vibrant, though some would say viciously so. Yet because my reading level in Korean is not that great, I don't have easy access to this world. I am ignorant as to how people my age interact on Korean internet forums and websites, and thus, I'm not part of that online culture.

5) I don't understand inter-Asian rivalries

I remember when guys like Ichiro and Yao Ming broke into the MLB and NBA, respectively. I instantly became their fans because it was rare enough to see an Asian celebrity in America, much less an athlete. Nowadays, it's much more common, but when I was younger, that wasn't the case.

Ichiro and Yao were from Asia. So was I (ancestrally speaking). Therefore, I felt a strong connection with them.

But many Koreans in Korea probably wouldn't have, especially with Ichiro because he was Japanese and there's a lot of recent historical misgivings between Korea and Japan (plus, he's kind of a cocky SOB and talked smack about Korea in one of the World Baseball Classics...). Koreans don't necessarily define themselves as "Asian" because they're not a racial minority in their own country, so they don't have to adopt an inclusive category just to be visible and have some influence.

Gotta give him respect

But despite all this, I'm obviously more Korean than I'm not, and even though I may not have had the same experiences as someone who grew up in Seoul, my own experiences as a gyopo have something to offer to the collective Korean identity.

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