Boy, it’s been a while, huh? Still job hunting, ya’ll. As always, prayers are appreciated!
On to the subject of this post: Korean Americans.
I feel like Americans and even Korean Americans themselves don’t really know of the depth of this “breed” (for lack of a better word) of people. Korean Americans are very different from other Asian Americans. In fact every ethnic group of Americans – be it Chinese American, Japanese American, Filipino American, etc. – is similar yet vastly different from each other because each group inherited a background from different countries that have very different languages, cultures, mindsets, and histories.
I say this more so because many non-Asian Americans tend to treat all Asian Americans as belonging to a similar, if not the same, group. Even the label “Asian American” demonstrates how all of us somehow belong in one group. It’s like we all know how other Asian Americans act, eat, and come from just because we look alike. I don’t think this kind of treatment is necessarily racist; it’s just lacking in education and rather annoying. I mean, how the hell does the hanbok I’m wearing look like a geisha’s kimono? And why does it have to be a stinking geisha’s? Why the hell is it weird if I don’t like sushi? It’s not my cultural food! How am I supposed to know what that says in Chinese? I’m not Chinese! In fact, native Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have hated each other for centuries, so why am I, as a Korean American, lumped in with a bunch of other ethnicities that my Korean bloodline has hated from the beginning of time? And why am I more likely to know about China and Japan than Vietnam or Taiwan or Thailand?
After thinking about it, I decided that we’re often lumped together because we share more similarities with each other than say with Mexican Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, etc. And to be honest, yeah, it’s easier to understand where another Asian American comes from in terms of stress from family, tastes in food, religion, upbringing, and more day-to-day kinds of things. For such reasons, Asian Americans tend to get along more easily with each other than other ethinicities.
But that doesn’t mean that we are meant to be lumped together when, in reality, we really have a lot less in common than whoever labeled us as “Asian Americans” thought. I don’t mind using the term when addressing wrongs that are usually cast on people who look like me or come from a blood land with similarities to mine, but I DO mind the term when non-Asians or non-Asian Americans use the term to reflect their ignorance about the depth, diversity, and complicated nature of each disparate Asian/Asian American ethnic group. It’s one thing to admit that some people are more similar and therefore, receive similar treatment and understand each other with more ease, and totally another thing to lump really different people together for the sake of convenience and ignorance. Such lazy use of words and ignorant labeling contributes to stupid statements like, “Are you Chinese?” or “Do you speak English?” or “You’re not Chinese or Japanese? Then what are you?” or “You guys all look the same” or “That’s a pretty kimono you have on” or “That food/celebrity/clothing/hairstyle smells/looks so weird” or “Are you North Korean or South Korean or are you mixed?” etc. etc. etc. (By the way, all of those above statements are things I grew up having to deal with. Some of those statements really were just plain racist, but others were just due to lack of information with good intentions).
That being said, let’s delve into the intricacies of the group we call “Korean Americans.”
Korean Americans are people who have lived in the States for a vast majority of their lives. They could have been born in Korea but came to the States as a very young child or they could have been born and raised predominantly in the States, spending more time in the USA than in Korea their entire lives. As such, most but not all are American citizens. Whatever their citizenship, though, Korean Americans identify more with America and tend to get along with Americans – Asian or not – than with Koreans.
Korean Americans are definitely not simply Korean. Koreans were born and raised in Korea and, therefore have incredibly different mentalities, tastes, and mannerisms than Korean Americans who tend to be – like most Americans – more liberal, unaware of Korean cultural customs, more individualistic, more feminist, and a variety of other political and social things that many Koreans think are rude, shocking, idiotic, or downright strange.
There’s also the obvious language barrier as Korean Americans (aka KA’s) mostly grew up with minimal to no daily use of complex Korean language skills and instead, are mainly English speakers. I think non-Asian Americans would be surprised to find out that many KA’s and – I’m sure many other Asian Americans – have a heavy accent when speaking their ethnic tongue. Many native Koreans find the accent very strange because Korea is a very homogenous society with much less exposure and openness to foreigners than other countries, such as Japan. Therefore, Koreans don’t understand why a person who looks so Korean and is biologically Korean cannot speak Korean fluently. After all, they’ve only ever seen Koreans who can speak Korean. As a result, many Koreans who meet KA’s make very, well, rude and hurtful comments about their Korean skills, call KA’s idiots, and even make the mistake of thinking that they are mentally handicapped. (Yet ironically, many Koreans don’t realize that they can’t speak English without an accent, if at all). The same thing happens when KA’s make cultural mistakes – never having had exposure to Korean society – such as table manners, drinking culture and etiquette, hand and body gestures, rules about swearing, and a whole host of other things that only native Koreans know because only native Koreans have ever had to use them habitually. We also tend to look physically different from Koreans. Maybe it’s American food or the air or something, but KA girls and boys tend to be taller, more muscular, darker, and bigger – though not particularly fatter – than Koreans.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that I hate native Koreans (aka fobs) or other Asian Americans. I consider myself as Korean American and part of the Asian American community. I get along the best with other Asian Americans, particularly KA’s and Filipino Americans, as well as other non-Asian minority groups, namely Mexican Americans. My boyfriend is fob and my mother is also much more Korean in personality and mindset, having grown up there and immigrated to the States. Half of my friends are probably fob, and back in college, I used to act so fob that many people I met for the first time thought I was fob or at least an 1.5 generation KA rather than the full-blown 2 or extreme 3 (not many third generations exist because it hasn’t been that long since many Koreans immigrated to the States. I’m a rather rare case). Most people now recognize me correctly as at least second generation though because working in American society has sort of white-washed me haha.
I also don’t want to bs you with all that Amy Tan, sob story crap that non-Asian Americans seem to be so fascinated by. You know, the whole “I’m not Asian, I’m not American, I’m stuck in the middle, I’m sad and lonely” story that sadly, a lot of Asian Americans and particularly KA’s have picked up on. I can’t blame them though. Korean and Americans tend to repel KA’s very forcefully and hurtfully with all kinds of statements ranging from angry shouts about how “someone your age can’t even speak Korean? What kind of Korean are you?” to “You can’t even use chopsticks correctly?” to “You can’t speak to your older classmen like that, are you an idiot?” to “Your food smells” to “My mom is Chinese, my dad is Japanese, and look what happened to me” to “Chinese n**gers” to “Chinks” to “Gooks” to “Japs” to a whole line of things that you have to listen to through no fault of your own because others are incapable of understanding that we may look similar but we are different.
But we are NOT STUCK IN THE MIDDLE. Not any more, at least. Things were very different even ten years ago. Society is becoming more open, more progressive, and more immigrants and naturalized citizens are becoming crucial parts of American society and therefore, gaining more recognition. Korean Americans and Asian Americans as a whole belong to our own kind of race. We are not Korean. We are not American. But that does not mean that we do not belong anywhere. It means that we belong to ourselves – to Korean Americans and rightfully so, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s hard to realize that, though, if you live in a predominantly non KA/Asian American city, but it’s the truth. We are growing in number and recognition and we should be the first to recognize that – not the ones to throw a pity party about how we don’t belong to Asian or American groups when it’s obvious (at least to those who know) that we don’t. We, as a group of Asian Americans but more specifically, Korean Americans – understand one another in ways that Koreans and Americans could never understand us. We are our own small nation and we are growing strong. We are rejected as foreigners because we are. We are not Korean. We are not American. We are Korean American. It only makes sense that any other group would reject us.
Even within our nation, or “community” as scholars like to call it, we have different strata.
I feel like the strata are dependent on two major factors: when you came to the States and what city/neighborhood you grew up in. I feel like most of us fall into one or mix with a few of the following strata:
1. The 80′s children: people like my dad. They tend to be second generation or 1.5 generation KA’s. They grew up in a time that was very hard for Asian Americans and racism was much less understood and much more prevalent. It was a rarity to even meet another Korean on the street. Lack of technology meant that it was very difficult for these KA’s to keep up with or keep in contact with their cultural blood land. Most contact with other Koreans, KA’s, and Korean culture came from going to a Korean church with the parents. These KA’s tend to be pretty white-washed yet identify with many other minority groups.
2. The 90′s children: the 교회 언니 types. These are the KA’s that grew up with access to the internet and in a growing Korean community. Meeting other Koreans in the States began to get slightly easier, Korean restaurants and K-towns became more prevalent, and video stores that imported Korean shows allowed KA’s and their families to keep in touch with Korean news and media more easily. MSN, Xanga, HOT, DJ DOC, SHINHWA, FINKLE, and BoA tend to be mothers and fathers to the 90′s children. These KA’s also are probably the founders of Konglish (Korean and English mixed in the same speech. For example, it’s so 더워 [hot] is Konglish).
3. The LA KA’s: LA KA’s tend to be very, very different from KA’ s who grew up elsewhere. LA K-town is just such a booming Korean community with so much more access to Korean culture than other locations with the exceptions of maybe New York, Chicago, and Washington. The generally more ghetto living conditions of most born and bred LA K-town KA’s and living under predominantly immigrant elders also ensures a bit of toughness, more fluency in Korean, and more knowledge of Korean traditional and pop culture than found in other KA’s. These KA’s also tend to have more opportunities to hang out in exclusively KA or Asian/Asian American groups of friends. The proximity to the African American community also introduces a host of complicated aspects from hating blacks due to the LA riots to having black intonations in speech.
4. The KA’s who reject their culture: many KA’s have been repulsed by the limited contact with or rejection from native Koreans who look down on them and have consequently lost interest in or developed a hatred towards Koreans and Korean culture. They tend to have limited Korean skills and feel uncomfortable admitting that they are Korean, preferring to be recognized as simply American. The inability to learn Korean culture easily even though they carry all of the physical qualities of a Korean often also contributes to lack of interest in or complete rejection of their cultural heritage. Shaky or negative relationships with their immigrant parents or family members – the only other Koreans they have ever had prolonged contact with – also often forms a apprehensiveness to learning about or hanging around Korean culture.
5. The KA’s who don’t completely understand but appreciate their culture: many KA’s have experienced racism from non-Korean Americans/Americans and therefore have an inclination to like the group that they physically identify with. They may have also had more, yet limited, Asian American or minority friends/influence growing up and more positive impressions from family of their culture.
6. The KA’s who are comfortable enough to interact fluently with fobs: these are the most rare of all. It’s a rare thing for KA’s to embrace both their Korean and American sides in equal measures and to pursue the love of both groups and themselves. It’s very difficult to do given that there are limited people you can talk to about these things and have them understand you completely, limited resources and writings on these topics, and lukewarm welcome and hot racism on both ends of the spectrum. However, KA’s like these do exist, usually originating somewhere near the LA or other major urban areas with bigger Korean communities. These KA’s have usually had to work very hard to understand both societies. They are also the ones, perhaps, with the most power. I know that I and my other KA friends tend to feign ignorance of Korean culture and mannerisms to get out of doing things or insult someone we don’t like “accidentally” to their faces.
Anyways. The moral of this long, long story is that we are Korean American, that that means a lot of things, and that we should be proud of it and recognize it.
(At last) The End.
*Post publication note: Big thanks to AsAm News for featuring my post! Link here: http://www.asamnews.com/2013/03/17/jadesandwich-has-the-term-asian-american-outlived-its-usefulness/
Been getting a lot more attention for this post than I previously planned (if I had known this would happen, I would have spent more time on it! haha).
Just want to clarify that I do consider myself as Asian American. Also, the only reason I go into the different strata of KA’s out there is to show that although Asian Americans are often lumped together, we are all still different, individual people with different stories. We share many similarities and using group terms like “Asian American” when fighting for group rights is an important necessity, but saying that we are all the same or really similar for the sake of convenience is wrong. Also, whatever I write here, keep in mind that identity is far more about how you define yourself, not about how I define you or others. Thanks for reading, yo~