Continued from Part 1.
Koreans care only about themselves. Americans aren’t ambitious. Californians aren’t bright. People go up in arms at generalizations, though these are not my claims in this post. Yes, exceptions defy stereotype. But people obviously make up groups of color and features called race. I talk about the cultures I have straddled and the differences within groups.
5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?
With some exception, I did keep among Korean-Americans up through college. But if you were to ask me about Koreans, then or now, I would encourage you to ask a black American about village life in West Africa. Two different worlds. I have more in common with many of you than I do with Koreans, and know more African-American and European history than Asian.
An amphibian, I feel white around Koreans and then sometimes remember in white company there is a whole other world to me the people don’t understand. After all, my bicultural generation was steeped in the traditions our parents imported. I at least have a lot of stories and images of white culture from TV, painted not only by the Brady Bunch but drama of all kind. But most people who are not Asian don’t have this familiarity with the Korean culture. I realize in the writing I’ve grown not only more American but more comfortably Korean over the years – though Korea still seems like a foreign land. I’m surprised it doesn’t have to be either/or when you’re bicultural.
My husband and I have not felt at home in churches that are predominantly white. After moving counties a few years ago, we half-joked in the search for a new church that we should try black Baptist. We probably would’ve jumped out of the pew to groove with the choir. We settled in a diverse church with an active Korean-American membership.
One other factor besides race came up in my time in the suburban district: class. Cross the border out of the idyllic suburb back into the city of Philadelphia and it was 80% black, not well to do. Stopping for gas one day, I remember thinking it was ghetto. A very interesting moment because I’d not only felt at home with black Americans all my life but had grown up poor by middle class standards. The offhand feeling that I didn’t belong in that neighborhood wasn’t snootiness. I had studied my way up the immigrant ladder into Ivy League classrooms. The principal I was working closely with encouraged me to dream big. Her grandfather had climbed out from slavery to a PhD. I now realize that it is not all black Americans but those who’ve succeeded in the upward mobility that I have been drawn to. Those who are educated. It was very odd meeting people here in California who didn’t aspire to the best colleges and advanced degrees; even the Korean parents who secure private tutoring for their kids make golf lessons almost as high a priority. I came to appreciate the health of balanced living. It spotlighted the intensity of the east coast and broadened my experience of people. In my own way I had lived in a bubble. The majority of my friends from childhood went to the top schools, built impressive résumés. But I’ve come to see beyond theory that there are many ways to be smart and successful. And happy. This lesson has saved me from being the parent I would’ve been in the east.
There are some things about my parents’ culture I’ve wanted to disassociate myself from. For one, I find the people complicated and by comparison, Americans more straightforward. Americans say no when we don’t want it and the eager, grateful yes is welcome. Among Koreans, you have to listen between the lines. Which is why the language is among the hardest for nonnatives to become fluent in. While the alphabet and grammar are innocently simple, the social cues and mores to speak under can become complex. In part, my cultural illiteracy keeps me from easy participation in this exchange. It’s also my lack of finesse in navigating unspoken customs. The rest, my temperament. You can take me at face value and I like to be able to do that with you in turn. Another habit I consider a cultural blemish is the self-consciousness of both natives and the acculturated. Koreans often have to save face, especially among one another. It’s subtle, but I have little patience for it. I find myself sinking into the casual comfort among Americans with relief, over against this tiring posture to maintain. Of course the Face has its positive side: propriety, mindfulness against disgracing yourself, the upholding of honor. Koreans reach high and Americans (are happy to) have less to prove. Koreans are also insular. In all fairness, this attribute could stem from the history of invasions we have endured. But the ethnocentrism gets to me. Even many Korean-Americans don’t know how to socialize, extend beyond themselves. Huddling is not socializing.
Any thoughts on the subtle shades of your own culture? And I’m curious, with so many of us throughout the world and in the major cities. What has been your experience with Koreans, native or bilingual?
Continued in Part 3.