Monday, June 23, 2008

What Makes a Person a Korean?

Dear Korean,

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?”

John I.

Dear John,

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


  1. Outside of naming 2 soccer players, I'd say its very hard to quantify the answers to the other questions. I personally was born in Korea but came to the States before I turned two. I have taken an effort to learn much about Korean history, language, culture, and keep up to date with events happening there. I am much more knowledgable than the majority of the other Korean-Americans I know, but way short of the more recently arrived. Does this mean I know a lot or a little when quantifying Koreanness? I think I've always felt that I fell in an altogether different category as a Korean-American. Hard to relate at times with both recently arrived Koreans and Americans (whose families have been here for multiple generations)

  2. Excellent work in coming up with the equation.

    1. M value being mostly either 0 or 1 works only for now due to Korea's short history of immigration(both in and out). That'll change.

    2. Koreanness = A(what you think of yourself) x B(what others think of you)

    The point in this equation is that A and B are measured relative to the people around you. K-town folks in Ohio are Koreans. K-town folks in a mountain village in Korea? Not so sure.

    3. Observations
    a. High A, High B => Korean
    b. Low A, Low B => Not Korean
    c. High A, Low B => identity crisis
    d. Low A, High B => Brook Lee

  3. interesting. i have a question. In regards to your fourth paragraph, does this "Koreaness" apply to the entire peninsula? To North Korea as well? I know that the North and South consider themselves as the same race with shared history, but I am not sure if it also includes shared experience. Sure, it can be the same "shared common experience" for a big chunk of Korean history, but for the past 50 years..

    Ultimately, my question is: does your "Koreans in Korea" include North Korean? Would there still be a sense of "Koreaness" between a North Korean and a Korean American or a Korean-Argentinian or Korean-Japanese on the basis of "shared common experience"?

    I have always felt that this sense of "Koreaness" abroad is based on the expectations and experiences of South Koreans, disregarding North Koreans. Likewise, the "Koreaness" in the peninsula is between native North and South Koreans and noone else Korean abroad. (By the way, I got this impression from my Korean professor.)

  4. belle,

    Does "Americanness" include South America?

    The answer is resounding "no".

  5. Calvin,

    The Korean would actually disagree. Koreanness would include North Koreans -- although their W value would be lower than South Koreans, their M value would certainly be 1.

    But North Koreans have too much countervailing factors to enjoy the automatic cordiality. Same would go for Korean-Chinese.

  6. The Korean,

    Would their M value be 1?
    I don't think North Koreans would feel the same way South Koreans do about Korean War. I'm not sure if they would cheer for South Korean soccer team or not, and I'm also not sure if bad news from South Korea saddens North Koreans. In my view, M value wouldn't be 1 at all.

    I think this boils down to how closely we associate ourselves with North Koreans. To my knowledge, this differs on individual basis.

    This is why I suggest K=A*B model where A and B are measured on individual basis taking account of the current circumstances, rather than M*W model where M is somewhat absolute. You who left Korea in your mid teenage years may or may not qualify as M=1 to Koreans in Korea. However, by acting as an authoritive figure in this blog, you are arguing that your experiences in Korea is sufficient to represent the whole(M=1). Is your M value 1? It depends on who you ask!

    The main point of this comment and the previous ones is that M is measured relatively just like W. Identity is defined by its counterparts, hence all parts of a model that defines an identity(Koreanness) should be relative as well.

  7. Calvin,

    The Korean does not see how your formulation and the one in the post differ. Both M and A is a subjective answer to the question: "Do you consider yourself to be a Korean?" Yes = 1, No = 0. Why would anyone else be involved in this determination?

    On the other hand, W is the way others see you, so W is measured relatively.

  8. The Korean,

    "Do you consider yourself to be a Korean" may seem like a yes/no question because most people are either Koreans who grew up in Korea or non-Koreans who grew up not in Korea. But you must consider the edge cases: immigrants and their children.

    "2nd gen Koreans" are more Korean than Americans but less Korean than natives. Around Americans, a "2nd gen" will act as a Korean, but while visiting Korea, the "2nd gen" will act as a visitor. It's not a yes or no situation; rather M varies depending on who you're around.

    I agree that W is relative.

  9. Thank you for answering (Calvin).

    (calvin, your sense of "Americaness" is pertaining to two continents that has never been historically under one rule, while "Koreaness" is about two countries that was once a united country.)

    I only asked because of the prospects of reunification.

  10. I don't really consider myself Korean because most Koreans I've met do not consider me as such. I am a dreaded hybrid (my mother is Korean and my father is black.) Because of this I often feel quite out of place my parents split early so I'm not really able to relate much to the black community. I attended Korean churches but chose not to attend Korean school because of the racist attitudes of the Koreans at my church. For this reason my Korean is only ok at best. I love Korean food and was a big Seo Taji, H.O.T general k-pop fan in my high school days. I even saw H.O.T in L.A as well as Jo Sung Mo when he came to Oakland where I grew up. Where do you suppose I would fall on this scale. I'm guessing around .25 if not less. Luckily these things can never really be quantified and I get to feel like an outsider everywhere I go.

  11. I personally am 25 percent Korean. I am mixed with various other backgrounds. I happen to look more asian than the my siblings and cousins. I have black hair and more definition in my eyes. Although most of my cousins were able to know my Grandmother, I spent more time with her growing up. I was the only one in my family that she taught Hangul to. I grew up eating Korean food and used chopsticks and actually ate at a Korean style table. My younger cousins did not have these experiences, and seem to have less interest in the culture as I do. I attend a Korean church and am excepted there and, is the one place that I have ever felt so. As I stated above, I look very Korean and was treated so by my peers all my life. Racism fell upon me, unlike my sister who looks white. I could never figure it out, because as an American I did not see myself as different at such an early age. As I got older it made more sense to me. I have always felt stuck in the middle and probably will for the rest of my life. I also would prefer to marry a Korean woman or one with such background. Someone who will not look at my heritage as wierd. Someone who won't run from my house when she opens the fridge and is greeted by a jar of Kimchi. Such a woman would not be desired by me.

  12. I'm Korean myself and I think it is all depending on the actual life experience. I moved to the US at the age of 8 and lost then rediscovered "Korea" through internet.
    This "Koreanness" must be of native Koreans. So from what I see, Koreans usually born here, they have almost no Koreanness. In my school, Koreans born here are more closer to actual white and black americans than Fob Koreans. They are separated into two whole separate groups like you'd separate band and orchestra. So Koreans born here had completely different experience as natural Korean Koreans. (There are always exceptions.) American Koreans' only link to Korea is their parents. Otherwise, I do not see much connection besides the Tell Me song, soccer, and Starcraft.
    Compared to me who had experienced TONS in my 8 years in Korea, my younger siblings care next to nothing about Korean culture and history... even though they have pride for their homeland (I think through sports -.-).
    I did not read over my comment so it might not flow...

  13. I will tell you one thing.

    Is that there is no such thing as "Not Korean enough" or "Not Black Enough".

    Don't overcomplicate a simple topic.

    I've thought this over many times and realize that, at the minimum, you are the result of your parents. A puppy isn't less of a dog because it doesn't want to eat dog food. No matter what it does, it's still a dog. It comes from two dogs, that gave birth to it.

    That's an awkward analogy, but to phrase it: Even if you choose to be ignorant about Korean culture, or the language, or whatever, you are still Korean if you're mother and father is. Nothing you do can change that. You can choose to be white-washed or black-washed, but you are simply a Korean person doing so. It's like your birthplace. You can't change it. Unless you edit legal documents or time travel.

    In that note, a person of Korean descent who comes off as "not Korean enough" simply comes off as such due to them not exhibiting behaviors that are typically seen as "Korean". They may not be Korean "in spirit" or In Character, but at the very flesh THEY ARE Korean.

    That is simply a 1, in mathematical terms. It doesn't register in an up or down scale, unless you want to quantify being mixed.

  14. A common joke among my friends and I is that I am the least Asian of all of us, and I hang out with some very white people.

    I am %100 Korean, born in Korea. But I was adopted by good German Minnesotan stock, and raised in a military family, so I have lived all over the world.

    I think the main question is an issue of heritage vs. ethnicity. My heritage is certainly Korean. But my ethnicity is unequivocally American. Most people have the same heritage and ethnicity. I do not. And honestly, I don't believe one way of being is inherently better than the other.

  15. K,

    Interesting concept, except that the Korean would note that the terminologies seem awkward. "Ethnicity" deals with race and physical features, and "heritage" deals with culture and mental aspects. If anything, it seems that you should have Korean ethnicity and American heritage.

  16. well i consider myself korean...some do...some do not. its all because im half korean half black...but most blacks don't consider me black....most whites don't consider me black either, because I look korean with a light tan. Soon I will be going to Seoul for vacation with my family, but I really don't know how native koreans will react to me. The half korean/black people that talk to me say it's fine and they are nice but it still worries me.

  17. what is "korean"? who made this "korean mind"? what was before "korean"?
    it is a word used to express an ideal image of the self. I am Korean... you are not. I say the sky is blue... is that truth? "Korean" "non Korean" no problem who are you? that is the right question...

  18. Isn't it hilarious that the first 10 comments are seriously debating the application of a theoretical mathematical formula? (most likely a side effect of cocaine overdose)

    Now that's what I call 100% genuine Korean. Mad math skills - for entertainment

  19. My father was Korean, his parents emigrated to Hawaii from South Korea, My mother is German and I grew up in Hawaii. I identify more with my father and Hawaii. What is my ethnicity and what is my nationality? And, I have more of my father's traits than my mothers.

    family name went from Mah to Ma to Mar to Marr.

  20. I think your equation is missing some variables.

    M, W sure... but you need another one, L

    So the equation is now K= M*W*L

    What's L? Looks.. this is equal to 1 or zero. Either you look Korean or your don't.

    Even if M and W are 1, if you don't look like you are Korean, then to other Koreans who don't know you, you are not a Korean.

    But that equation can be different in the U.S., because to Korean-Americans, K=L, and M is irrelevant. W is thrown out the window. or substituted with W'

    W' being how well one relates to the Korean-American immigrant experience with most importance being placed on being on the receiving end of racism from White people, which is usually (but not always) a function covered by L.

    After all that, you have to modify the equation further.

    If you win the Super Bowl or otherwise become a celebrity for doing something positive, then for the Korean equation, it becomes K=M*W*L + C. C is 1-(M*W*L).

    Cynical? Yea perhaps.

    The point is that the definition of what makes someone Korean end with the individual. I'd propose an entirely different equation.

    K = S+O/2
    S = Self.. how Korean do YOU think YOU are?
    O= Others... how Korean do other people think you are?

    Keep in mind that O is not a constant, and changes depending on who you surround yourself with.

  21. sorry, I should have said...

    The point is that the definition of what makes someone Korean DOESN'T end with the individual

  22. Obviously if you are not an ethnic Korean and not a child to ethnically Korean parents, you can't call yourself Korean, except in jest as a term of affection for a culture that might interest you.

    However, I believe all this talk about Koreanness, esp. from this BIL, is about EXCLUSION. It is how he can feel "more pure" and therefore for some reason "more superior." Isn't the fear of being associated with people that are not *worthy,* actually a sign of insecurity?

    I agree with your comment that wanting to make connections (inclusion) is not racist, I believe this desire to exclude IS racist.

    Hypocrisy can be seen by how "true" Koreans embrace the very people they despise if that person is famous! An adoptee who is an Olympian, a black/Korean football player, even the mixed race Miss Universe. We all know what Koreans think of orphans, and "mixed" relationships.

    I spent my whole life in the US with people telling me I wasn't American, now I have Koreans telling me I'm not Korean??

    How about my son? He's adopted from Korea. He would have been with his Korean parents, spoken Korean, gone in the military blah blah blah if KOREA did not despise him and SEND HIM OUT OF THE COUNTRY for daring to be born to a single woman.

    Anyone who is ethnically Korean and wants to embrace their "Koreanness" should be considered Korean! The more the merrier!

  23. I'm not Korean but I am half Brazilian and half American literally. I was born in Brazil and raised in the US I have IDs for both countries. I have the right to vote in the US and the obligation by law to vote in Brazil. When other Brazilians ask me whether I consider myself more Brazilian or American I answer that based upon the way things work for people with dual citizenship. When in the US I'm American, when in Brazil I'm Brazilian. I don't see myself more one or the other. I enjoy both American and Brazilian foods and can cook them both. I speak both languages fluently and know about the history and culture of both countries. Other Brazilians see me as American because I fit into the stereo type what looks American. I have blondish hair, fair skin and light eyes. I can not measure my Brazilianess or Americaness based upon a simple formula like the one The Korean made because if I did it would equal out to being of both of those nations. Korean-Americans should see them self as both Korean and American because that is what they are. 1997 Miss Universe Brook Lee seems like she has an identity issue.


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