My wife was born and raised in Korea, as was her brother who did obligatory military service. Initially when they came to the US, they felt that one can only be “Korean” if they were born and raised on the Korean peninsula and served in the Korean military, if they were male. Otherwise, people who deserted Korea for economic or educational reasons are former or 1.5 or 2nd generation Koreans. Like that Cho Seung Hui dude, although he was a Korean national with a Green Card, he really was more so a Korean American since, like you, his family left for greener pastures. Even the Korean press emphasized this point.
What’s your opinion on the matter of “Korean-ness?”
Profound question – it won’t be easy to answer. The Korean really struggled to organize his thoughts on this topic, and finally he decided to just write in a stream of consciousness. Here it is.
The first reaction by the Korean reading your email was: Why does it matter for anyone to be a Korean? It is not as if being an ethnic Korean entitles you to anything. (To be sure, being a Korean citizen would entitle you to a lot of things, but obviously this is not what we are talking about here.)
But strike that. Being an ethnic Korean does entitle you to one very valuable thing: You are a presumptive member of a large group of people who are predisposed to being friendly to you, i.e. other Koreans.
Why are Koreans predisposed to being friendly to each other? Because it is presumed (usually correctly) that Koreans have shared a common experience. Obviously, Koreans in Korea live in the same land and share their destiny as habitants of the same country. All Korean Americans have experienced immigration directly or indirectly, dealt with the same language and cultural issues, and overcame the same obsessive parents. And there are enough in common between Koreans in Korea and Korean Americans to have the bond that is stronger than two complete strangers.
So when your brother-in-law says someone is Korean and someone is not, he is really evaluating whom to share that bond with. After all, having a ready-made cordiality (friendship may be too strong of a word) is not a trivial thing.
(An aside: Is this racist? The Korean doesn’t think so. On a superficial level, liking someone based on race may appear racist. But that’s not really the reason why Koreans tend to like other Koreans. Koreans like one another because generally there is enough shared experience to provide for an instant friendship. At the end of the day, we will become friends more easily with people who have had similar experience as ours. Race happens to provide a shortcut indicator.)
How to Measure One’s Koreanness?
Then is there any way to determine if someone is Korean? The most obvious first step is whether someone considers his/herself to be a Korean. After all, one cannot be forced into a group identity – group identity is only a part of self-identity, and no one can control the way you regard yourself.
(Here is an interesting example of forced-upon group identity: In 1997, Miss Universe was Brook Lee, a quarter Korean. Her grandfather was a Korean who immigrated to Hawaii. The Korean media went nuts when Lee won Miss Universe – Look, world’s most beautiful woman has some Korean in her! However, all this attention from Korea bewildered Lee, who said until she was mobbed by Korean media, she did not really consider herself Korean.)
But does subjective acceptance of group identity suffice? It cannot. There have to be some objective barometers because purely subjective measures would be ludicrous. One who is be born outside of Korea from non-Korean parents, has never visited Korea, does not know one word in Korean, dislikes all Korean food, cannot handle even one shot of soju, etc., cannot possibly become Korean by simply believing oneself to be a Korean.
In fact, objective factors, if numerous enough, can overwhelm the importance of subject acceptance. It would be plain stupid if someone who is born and raised in Korea to Korean parents, speaks only Korean and has never left Korea suddenly claim he is no longer Korean.
From this, we can extract a unified theory of Koreanness: Koreanness is about how much, and how well, you buy into the idea of Korean group identity.
In this formula, “how much” refers to the subjective portion. How much do you identify with Korean group identity? Just a few examples about Korean group identity: Do you feel a personal connection to the people in Korean history? Do you cheer for Korean national soccer team? Can you live without Korean food? Does good news or bad news coming out of Korea makes you happy or upset you?
“How well” refers to the objective portion, because this portion would be judged by other people. The “how well” dimension of the same examples about Korean group identity would be: How much do you know about Korean history? Can you name three players in the Korean national soccer team? Do you know how to cook Korean food, or can you recognize well-made Korean food from junk? Do you follow the news coming out of Korea?
Mathematically expressed (because the Korean must enforce the stereotype!), the formula would be:
K = M * W
K = "Koreanness", value ranging from 0 to 1
M = "How Much", value greater than 0 and less than or equal to 1
W = "How Well", value greater than 0 and less than or equal to 1
Value of M and W can be equal to 1 but not 0, so that we can allow for a case where an objectively Korean person subjectively denies Koreanness, or an objectively non-Korean person subjectively accepts Koreanness. Yet for those who are neither objectively nor subjectively Korean, value K would infinitely approach 0, which is the correct result.
But Wait, Here is the Fun Part…
Up to this point, the Korean thinks there is not much disagreement. But the disagreement would come in the answers to the following two questions:
(1) How do you possibly assign numerical value to W? Remember, W is the only thing to which we can give value, because the value of M is self-given, while W is supposed to be an objective measure. Question is, is such a thing even possible? Who is going to determine the weight of each factor, and the gradation of each factor? The Korean is not even sure all individuals whose K value equals 1 would agree on the proper scaling of W value.
(2) Is there a particular minimal value of K that one must attain to be a “Korean”? Everyone would agree that K=1 would be fully Korean, and K=0 (after solving for limit function) would be a non-Korean. But what about K=.5? K =.25?
John’s brother-in-law would answer the two questions thusly (from what the Korean can glean):
(1) Completing military service and living in Korea must factor prominently in the calculation for W value.
(2) Yes. Korean immigrants’ M value would certainly be greater than 0, and their W value may as well be greater than 0. But their W value would not equal to 1, since they left Korea. So there is Korean immigrants’ K value is greater than 0. But John’s brother-in-law does not consider them “Korean”, which means there must be a positive K value under which people are not considered Korean. That K value could be fairly high -- the Korean can picture a situation where a Korean immigrant's M value would be 1 and W value would be .75 (if the person completed the military service but left Korea). The K value would be .75, which would not be enough for John's brother-in-law.
To be sure, these two questions will never be answered in an authoritative way – the answer will completely depend upon the individual. But at least this is a helpful way of thinking about group identity.
Here are the Korean’s answers to the questions:
(1) W value should not matter much, as long as it is just a little greater than 0. Having a little bit of Korean heritage (as little as third- or fourth-generation Korean, i.e. 1/8 or 1/16 Korean, or having spent some portion of one’s life in Korea, or marrying a Korean,) knowing just a few Korean words, enjoying Korean food, etc., would be plenty enough to get a W value a little greater than 0.
Instead, the M value should matter a lot more. In fact, instead of having a gradation, M value might have to be either 1 or infinitely approaching 0, because you either think you are a Korean or you are not. (But the Korean is not ready to rule out the possibility that M could be between 0 and 1 – for example, you could have a person who empathizes with Koreanness a little, i.e. M=.25, and another person who empathizes very strongly, i.e. M=.85).
(2) Yes, but the requisite K value would be very low, such that it can include people with low W value.
So there you have it. The Korean would love to hear your answers the two questions.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.