Korean and American identities
``Mind your own business.” `` Don’t give a damn!” Less than three months after arriving from Seoul, Jin, 13, and Jensen, 9, were saying those words with fluent New York accents in their daily conversations.
``Jesus Christ” the little one often says at the end of his sentence, not in prayer but cussing. They apparently know those are bad words as the two boys wouldn’t utter them within my earshot. Learning the English language came so easy for the children.
Jin was born in Seoul. He grew up in the embrace of Korean culture and Confucian traditions, which is one of his inner resources, I’m sure. On the other hand, Jensen was born in the United States. He spent only a few years in Korea and grew up with a typical identity of an American. He thinks, speaks and acts like an American. Jensen once won a golden award in a spelling bee at his school. Now, they have both left home and attend colleges in the United States.
I’m one of the Korean mothers who have their children educated outside of Korea and who are yet perplexed seeing the offspring flying out of the nest into stormy weather.
The fear of being separated and left alone is much heavier than the sense of achievement so far, made after so many years of hardships. Achievement? That is a big question for me now as I’m getting more anxious about losing my sons into another world. I’m saddened to think that their chances of returning to Korea after finishing the studies in America might be slim.
We hear people say rather too often that our next generation should learn English and about cultures from other civilizations, to choose the best from each. Obviously, that is easier said than done. There are simply too many inherent contradictions and conflicting values between Korean and American cultures.
Take, for instance, the idea of communication. American culture is verbal and praise assertiveness; in the Confucian culture of Korea, the situation is reversed. ``Your child doesn’t say a word in the class. Please let him or her speak up!” Most Korean mothers in the United States probably heard that from American teachers or read it in a report card. In America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But across the Pacific, the stick that sticks out gets pounded down.
``I’m not sure if we Koreans can assimilate in America because of how we look,” C. Kang, a former columnist of The Korea Times, wrote in her memoir. The melting pot was possible for non-English speaking Caucasians from Europe. But with us, it does not matter how long our ancestors have been here and how well we speak English. Even a fourth-generation Chinese-American whose great-grandparents came to San Francisco in the 1850s is still considered a foreigner.
For this reason, maintaining our collective memory and bilingual and bicultural identity is important. You shouldn’t burn the bridge behind you and rid yourself of your cultural memories in order to become a good American. On the contrary, we become better citizens with a greater appreciation for America when we know who we are, where we came from, and why we came.
It would be sad to see American-born or educated Korean youngsters not be able to communicate with their grandparents. I think we should have both heritages ― Korean and American. Those who do not know their own language and culture are Koreans without roots.
With that being said, I will be faced with a situation that one day my sons might come home holding hand of a girl from a different culture.
The writer is a mother of two grown up boys and lives in Old Tappan, N.J., in the United States. Her email address is email@example.com.