Friday, March 18, 2011

A Retrospective on Identity: State of a Gyopo at Age 30

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


  1. This post makes me recall my own bizarre teenage cruelties. Uff. I'm glad it all worked out, though!

    And congratulations on making it to 30! May you take down many pots this year.

  2. Someone should give you a book deal! Of course then you would have to reveal your name and all that. (I was half-wondering if you would here.) Great post of course.

  3. What a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. I'm adopted Korean American and have only started really thinking of any kind of Korean identity in the last few years. I spent most of my childhood trying to "blend in" as much as possible! I love reading about your experiences. Have a great birthday!

  4. Wonderful post that really explains what an immigrant might go through.

    Happy birthday!

  5. Hah, you're 30 also? Welcome to the club.

    I can relate much w/ your coming of identity, though in my case I was born in America, lived in Korea from 1990-1992, and have been spending my time in between ever since.

    I came to a similar decision, I can be fully Korean as is my blood right. Fully American as I was born here (or in your case naturalized, which is the same in this country except to be President). And I hope I take the best of both cultures, it's a blessing =)

  6. Happy belated birthday! I enjoyed your post very much. Although not Korean-American, identity issues are something I can relate to.

    I'm a Korean citizen, but has lived outside of Korea most of my life, resulting in being able to blend in Western societies very easily (Americans are epecially suprised to find out I'm a foreigner), while keeping up with Korean history, culture, language, and current events can make me pass as someone who never set foot outside of Korea.

    My main issue was the extent of my Koreanness; while the rest of the world consider me as a Korean citizen, I have been bullied by other Korean kids for not being "Korean" enough; for the most part I appeared no different, but whenever I did not think/act like them, the flack was brutal. It was worse since I was fully Korean, there was no room for tolerance in my being different and asking for consideration became the whining of a spoiled brat. Sometimes I immaturely thought I would have had it easier if I were Korean American or something, since then they wouldn't have been that judgmental about me.

    It took me years before I could resolve my identity issues and broken self-esteem. I'm still working on it, but I've mostly come to terms. I'm Korean and proud of it, and respect my country like everyone else, but I have non-Korean ways of thinking and mannerisms which cannot be omitted or taken away as they are also part of me, and I'll just embrace them all along the way.

  7. Congratulations for your big 30!!!

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. I came to America at the turbluent age of 17 as well. It is amazing how we(Korean Americans) share such a similar life experiences and emotions despite the differences in time since I am now in 40's. This post will be really helpful to my borther who will be turning 30 this year since he is still stuck in the hate phase.

    These days, my focus is on how to raise my children as fully intergrated in both sides. I believe this is what worries the most to KA parents. I would like to hear from you.

  8. a Korean-American myself, I can definitely say that I have also struggled with identity issues..and still do..although it's not nearly as bad as when I was in high school and college. I remember I went through a really angry, anti-Korean phase in high school (highly embarrassing and retarded of me), where I would openly mock and hate on all things Korean..sigh. I went through most of college with the same mindset, except I learned to be more smug about it..which wasn't any better. I really don't know why I was like that...of course I am no longer like that in the least...and when I see the younger generation kids behaving in that way and throwing phrases like "that's so Asian" to another asian/korean, when someone does something stupid...I feel even more regretful..bc it reminds me of me...

    Anyway, there's more to say, but I don't want to write a book. So, thank you for this wonderful post TK! it was great to read and great that I could identify with it (like many of your awesome posts). Hope you have a wonderful wonderful birthday!!!

  9. And THIS is why i, and not surprisingly many others, keep reading your blog. Nothing flippant but instead,profound thoughts. On one hand with much superiority by way of its expression, yet along with such personal revelation not having catapulted yourself to a level unreachable beyond your readers. Instead, it's added a very human dimension to an otherwise distant platform of viewpoints that many others might be able to relate to in some form or other. Profound and personal, doesn't seem like many blogs of such nature around.(imho, that is)
    Happy Belated Birthday TK :)

  10. happy birthday...nice post keep up the good work!

  11. Happy Birthday, dear Korean!

    And thank you for this post. I am in my twenties still and am currently going through what you experienced before. I have a bit of way to go in terms of reconciling the two aspects of my identity, but it's good to know that I'm not alone in feeling that way.

  12. I must first start off by saying Happy Birthday!

    Secondly, thank you for this post. You've really been an anonymous inspiration to me. It helps to see that at times you are indeed a real person who struggled with things at times like identity. I know I'm always trying to figure out whether to be American or Korean and have been defiant against my mom for her attempts to turn me. I was born in Korea and grew up (for the most part in America) and my recently dissolved relationship was with a girl born in America who was sent away to Korea. Both of us struggled with our identities and had very different approaches (she went the Korean route and I chose the American route). I like to think of myself as pretty gifted and have the ability to do most anything well. This allows me to do pretty much anything I wish to, but then I'm constantly in fear of making the wrong choice so I never fully dedicate myself to any single thing. I have way too many interests and hobbies that really hinder me from really advancing. Thanks for sharing your aunt's advice, it was definitely exactly the thing I've been searching for for quite some time. (Don't worry AAK will definitely make the list). Thanks again for what you do and I hope you have a wonderful birthday.

  13. Dear Korean happy birthday!
    I'm a regular European citizen, however I always come to your blog because I enjoy your style of writing, your honesty in sharing your stories and opinions and I always find helpful and intelligent insight on many differents topics. Not to mention the humor you manage to put in your posts^^ Thank you!

  14. Happy Birthday! But a case of sparkling water a week?? You should buy a soda stream-- we had one when we lived in the states, they're amazing.

  15. Great song and post, got me reflective.

    I am past 30 and still have issues with "establishing" myself. Either I am late bloomer or have not learnt Confucius well.

    I think my identity evolves over time, sometimes I have to rethink who I am, or who I thought I am, especially when a new situation calls for a response I am not familiar with.

    Many happy returns, TK. 30 is something, hope to see you again at 50 and 80.

  16. Happy belated birthday, Korean!

    I'm a longtime reader of your blog, but this is the first comment I've posted. I may only be 18, but I understand this post completely. Thank you so much for posting this.

  17. I'm following you into 30 on Wednesday. Thank you for this post. It's making me think about a lot of things.

  18. Happy birthday! So would you be consider an ahjussi now?

  19. Beautifully written. I'm in my mid-twenties, and I'm one of those gyopos who haven't quite figured out this whole identity thing. I'm not miserable, by any means, but I am very conscious of the void, and I would prefer that it not be there. I found this blog a couple years ago, when I felt my Korean side fading away for a number of reasons, and your writing has helped that part me feel a little more present. So thank you for that and congrats on your birthday!

  20. Nice to have you with us in our 30's. Our paths might not have been the same, but our struggles and resolutions to those struggles were similar. Thanks for sharing. 생일축아합니다.

  21. happy belated birthday.

  22. Dear Korean,

    Happy belated birthday.
    Being twice as old as you; I may the oldest of those reading your blog. And believe me years go by quickly so use the time well and spend a lot of time together with your family. In the end people is what matters; not things.

    in Sweden.

  23. you should post something in And all your KA readers too!

    Reading how you felt in highschool brought back memories! It was the same thing for me! except in America. ha ha.

    I'm a little depressed about the whole 30 thing and what you said Confucius said..... since at 30, I did a complete lifestyle and career change and my Korean parents are probably on the brink of disowning me. But maybe it's because I am secure in my identity that I was able to make the leap?

    Keep up the great blog!

  24. Wow personal post. Happy Birthday!

    I can relate, although I'm still young, I was born in the Caribbean, but most of my early childhood was spent in America.

  25. Thanks for the great posting. I moved to the U.S when I turned 30. havn't been able to beat this identity thing yet. seems kind of easier cuz I am already a grown up, however, for me crazily enough hard time to figure out what to do about that question. wisely answered in your posting here, learned from ya, young man! Thanks again, and please, keep it up!

  26. A great post!

    Many happy returns of the day and wish you the very best.

  27. Thanks for sharing your story! I am one of the rare cases where I didn't go through much identity crisis even as a 1.5er. I think I must have compartmentalized my "Korean" persona from my "American" persona, if that even makes sense. But I'm afraid it means it'll hit by future kids that much harder.

    Happy belated birthday! And as others have said before me, keep up the great blog!

  28. Wow, this is such a great post! I'm an American born child of West Indian immigrants and so much of what you say here resonates with me. Thanks for sharing, and Happy Belated Birthday!

  29. Truly awsome post. I am a korean adoptee who is hitting the big 30 this year. I can relate to the things you wrote, even if I was brought up in Sweden. These days I am living in Korea and came to those similar terms that being swedish or korean is merely adjectives as being strong or intelligent, which all depends on what you are compared with.

    I think we all have a purpose in our lives and those who live in two worlds are given a special purpose, so thats why our life is harder.

  30. I'm not sure we "whites" don't need to go through all this stuff....
    Personaly I think that's rather personal than cultural. A human reflects about their life every 10 years.

    around 10, you start puberty, which is famous for asking yourself questions like "Why do I exist?" and "What should I do in the future?". Then, on your way to reach 20, you pass through the most radical and the fastest changes in your life, that's the time when you're really starting to be yourself and choose your own way.
    However, once you turn 20 you realise how much you have changed and you realise you're still not complete and still pretty much a kid.

    I am merely 22, so I can't speak about 30 from personal experience, but it is surely a year when you expect to be settled, as you mentioned, when you should get a stable life and stop that childish personality dilemma. It's the age when you're not a kid anymore, but not old at all either. (The age when I start getting wrinkles TT_TT *lol*)
    But I can see two of my sisters. One is almost 30 and another one is a little bit over 30. My boyfriend is getting 30 too by new year, by the Korean age counting system. And I got some friends in their 30s and I can compare them all and see how they don't seem that far from me anymore. I mean, it was just as if it was yesterday when I was thinking about 20 as the perfect age and 30 as very old, but now that I actually reached 20 I realise how close this time is for me, but I don't feel like I'm ready yet. And I don't see the over 30 people as so old, but even as collegues sometimes. And all the people I know (and I know people from many places around the world) lead different lives. Some are settled, some still hang out to bars, parties and get drunk, while some others have a family already. And some didn't even finish university. And some did, but can't find a job. And some are already divorced. All of these different 30aged people, no matter their culture, they all think about it well. Maybe the pressure is not as big as in Korea, but still it doesn't change that much, it seems.

    Anyway, my boyfriend is reaching 30. "I'm getting 30", he said. And then I told him "Don't worry, honey, for me you're still 28."

    Silly and useless joke, but I didn't know what else should I say....

  31. Hi, I ran into this post today and realized it's your birthday! I am a regular reader of your blog, and I thought this could be a good reason to write something to thank you for your posts, and of course wish you a Happy Birthday =D

  32. Really great post. This and another post you made enlightened me to what I think may have been a factor in what I perceived to be a polarizing split in my identity - when we project on ourselves what we think a culture is like, as opposed to how it really is. I plan to chew it over more thoroughly later tonight, when I have time, because I honestly never thought about it that way. I was surprised as to how much I identified, given that my situation is slightly different than yours: I moved to America with my parents at age 3 and mastered English at a native level fairly quickly, although retaining much of my Korean identity until I stopped Korean school entirely, which was about 3rd or 4th grade. I then moved back at 13 or 14 and have lived here since. I never quite felt as if I belonged, due to an extremely negative prolonged experience when I first arrived, and rejected all aspects of Korean culture like the plague. I was so fixated on what I considered to be a split in personality that prevented me from interacting fully with other Koreans that it actually became a self fulfilling prophecy, and it was only after I convinced myself to let it go that I began iron out the discrepancy in my "Korean personality" and my "American" one and finally settle into being Korean American.
    I'm not sure if this is really expressed all that clearly, I'm still in the middle of working it out. I kind of turned this post into a sounding board, sorry.
    TL; DR, fantastic post and has given me food for thought. And now I'm systematically combing through your archives.


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