Thirty is probably the age that causes the most trepidation among Koreans. Thirty means much more than the pressures for a job and marriage from your parents. It is an occasion for a deep reflection about your life. It is not a coincidence that one of the most iconic Korean pop songs is titled "Around Thirty." For Koreans around thirty, Kim Gwang-Seok's soft voice, singing "Another day drifted away/Like exhaled smoke," rings truer than ever.
Confucius said that thirty is the age at which he established himself. By saying this, Confucius is not simply saying that you should move out of the basement of your parents' home by the time you are 30. He means that by 30, you should have a good idea of who you are. You should establish yourself, your identity.
Today, I turn 30 years old. Also, I have lived in America for 13 and a half years. Given that I spent the first few years of my life in Korea without much awareness, I would say the time I spent in Korea and the time I spent in America are approximately equal. All this makes a great time for me to reflect on how I came to establish my own identity as a Korean American.
More after the jump.
* * *
Strangely enough for a guy who now calls himself "The Korean," I was an odd duck in Korea. Many things that seemingly come naturally to most Koreans never came to me. The biggest oddity about me was -- I liked (and still like) being alone. I enjoy being around good people, but I need the alone time just as much, if not more. I absolutely have no problem eating alone -- a rarity in Korea.
Another oddity about me was that I hated school. Sure, most Korean kids attending middle school and high school hate school, but not like me. I hated school with all-consuming passion. Instead of listening to the teachers, I wrote pages after pages of rage-filled tirade about the numerous flaws of Korean education and how it was ruining me and everyone else in the classroom. I stared into the eyes of the teachers that I deemed undeserving of my respect and talked back. I took many, many whippings for these acts of insolence. My teachers would have loved to expel me if they could.
I was sure I was not going to survive my high school. I mean that literally. My high school, considered one of the best in Korea, averaged a suicide a year. The suicide season started early in 1997. In March, barely three weeks into the new school year, a senior of my school killed himself by jumping out of his classroom, falling about seven stories and landing right outside my classroom on the ground floor. It was my sixteenth birthday.
My parents had a hell of a time trying to get me to tough it out, to accept my lot. But privately, they must have known what I was thinking. When they mentioned the possibility of moving to America, I replied: "I will go even if I have to earn my own way." So that was settled. That same November, we were in America. I couldn't have been happier.
I so desperately wanted to become American. I began by learning English as quickly as possible. I won't belabor this point, since the readers of this blog are generally familiar with that story. I also immediately took to many American habits. I got a driver's license as soon as possible, and I loved driving. To this day, I love driving to a degree that I prefer sitting in traffic than being in a moving subway. I adopted the local sports teams -- my beloved Lakers and Dodgers -- and began following them religiously. I also began my ridiculous soda drinking habit, knocking off several cans a day. (Only recently did I switch to sparkling water, and I go through a whole case in a week.)
As I integrated into America, my Korea-hate reached its fullest. Everything America was, Korea was not. I expanded the vitriol I had against Korean schools to the entire Korean society. Any remotely legitimate reason for which Korea could be hated, I pounced with glee. Korea's sexism was a retch-inducing force that reduced women into surgery-enhanced dolls. Korea's racism was a ridiculous hypocrisy, simultaneously whining about any discrimination against Koreans while sneeringly looking down on blacks and Latinos. Korea's collectivist culture was a crutch for the weak-minded, an indication of people who cannot think for themselves. Standing alone, each of these criticisms may have been legitimate. But put together, they said more about me than about Korea. I hated "Korea" -- in quotation marks because, at that point, it was not even a real country but a particularly odious collection of thoughts and behaviors in my mind -- to a degree that I began to hate my friends (those back in Korea as well as Korean-American ones at my school,) my family and finally myself.
Of course, I did not completely hate them, or myself. It is not as if I cut off all contacts with other Koreans, which would have included my parents, and tried to Michael-Jackson my skin tone. No, the hatred was more like a simmering cauldron of volatile chemicals, bubbling up and bursting unpredictably at the slightest external stimuli. They were in the forms of pointed remarks to the parents that I would not be providing for them when they could not work any more. Or the cutting rebuke at those Korean Americans around me who could not (and in my estimation, would not) master English, when I could in two years. Or the times when I insisted that our family would eat out at some place other than the same goddamn Korean restaurant that we always go to, knowing full well that my father will have a hell of a time just reading the menu, much less enjoy the meal.
Looking back, I am so embarrassed by just how stupid I was.
* * *
In the summer of 2003, after I finished my junior year in college, I spent three months in Korea. I wanted to start preparing for applying to law schools, and legal internships came easier in Korea where my family still maintained a strong network of connections. I had visited Korea a few times between 1996 and 2003, but not like the way I was in Korea in the summer of 2003. Previously, I was a tourist. This time, I was a member of the society. I had a job, income and real obligations to other people.
And the ease with which I again assumed the membership of the society was remarkable. The six years in America -- the six years spent desperately trying to scrub off what seemed like an impurity -- did not result in much damage to my Korean side after all. The whole Joy Luck Club stuff -- in which the "natives" supposedly could immediately identify you as a foreigner from the way you walk and, I don't know, throw rocks at you or something -- never happened to me. I strolled my old neighborhood just like the way I strolled it a thousand times. I met and hung out with all my old friends. I effortlessly ingratiated myself to my sunbaes, drinking, chatting and laughing. I went out on dates with girls and had a great time.
The full impact of my summer in Korea would hit me only after I came back to the U.S. I really do not want to borrow the tired cliches of racial minority narrative -- the "confusion of the two identities" and all that stuff -- but cliches are repeated for a reason. One moment, I screeched against Korea. The next moment, I blended into Korea. Then the next moment, I am back in America as if nothing ever happened in the last three months. Did that really just happen? Am I still me, if I changed so radically depending on where I was?
Ever had a moment in your childhood when suddenly, you are very aware of your tongue? You had your tongue for your whole life, but suddenly, you are aware of its every little movement. It is a part of you, and it never leaves you. And it drives you crazy because of exactly that. My senior year in college had a dazed, surreal quality to it because I was suddenly aware of the full contours of my identity and its every little twitching movement. Every time I tried to concentrate on something, the other I would haunt me, making me -- the concentrating me -- think about what the other I would be doing instead. To function normally, I had to negotiate a truce between me and myself. I -- we -- started with reading, the reliable charm that had always guided me through confusion. I read books, and I could confirm to myself that I did not have multiple identities, only multiple dimensions.
I began to settle down. I condensed my experience into an application essay, and moved onto law school. I was 23 years old.
* * *
What happened in the last seven years? Nothing much, as far as my identity was concerned, other than continuing to settle down. More important things of life took over instead. I studied in law school and I got a job. I worked 80 hours a week. I weathered the storm of the financial crisis that did not spare the lawyers. I met a girl who came to America at age 14, who did not have to be explained all this because she already knew. We got married, and moved out of New York City. We speak English at home, but speak Korean to our parents. Our dinners alternate between rice and pastas. We go to a Korean church but attend the English service. We agree that we will continue living in America, but our children will receive a full-blown Korean-style Tiger Parenting.
This identity thing -- it's tough, man. White people should feel lucky that they won't have to go through this stuff, this constant doubt of self. Just look at the way it is still bothering Jalen Rose and Grant Hill, and both Jalen Rose and Grant Hill are successful millionaires. I am fortunate to have lived a materially comfortable and emotionally happy life. I am also lucky that the foundations of both of my identities were equally strong. I can't imagine dealing with this while being poor and unhappy. Nor can I quite picture myself dealing with the much greater challenge that face the majority of Korean Americans -- who, in some cases, have lost every bit of Korean-ness but for their black hair, slanted eyes and their name on the adoption papers that they cannot even read. I thank heavens for my good fortune, and I try to help out other Korean Americans with what little I can. That has been one of the most rewarding aspects of having this blog, something that started as a way to kill time in law school. It gives me the energy to keep writing even though now I no longer have much time to myself anymore.
When I was about to get married, my aunt -- one of the wisest persons I know -- gave me this advice, which I now give to all my friends who are close to getting married: "Make a list of things you absolutely cannot let go. Important, petty, it doesn't matter. After you have that list, give up on everything else." For me, the list included books, video games, poker, sports on TV and driving to work. And though it may be still early, my marriage is going swell.
That advice applies to other things as well. Just focus on the biggest things, and forget about everything else. I don't bother too much with the identity question anymore, not because it does not matter, but because I don't try to answer everything. There are many important questions for which we will never have an answer. We do not have to answer them all, because there are even more important things in life. Take comfort in the fact that God knows the answers to them all, and at the end of days, we will have all eternity to ask questions.
I am at peace with my identity because I do know the answers to the questions that are the most important to me. They are: Am I Korean? Am I American? Do I have to choose between one or the other? And the answers are: Yes, Yes and No. That's all I need, and I forget everything else. Like a good marriage, it is what I do for a healthy union of selves. I am no Confucius, but at age 30, I have established myself as a Korean American.
(p.s. Thank you everyone who wished me well, on Facebook and otherwise. I feel very special.)
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.