Monday, September 25, 2006

an origin story

Someone recently asked me, “What brings you to Korea?” And I realized that, having started this blog with the assumption that only my close friends would suffer through reading it, I haven’t really answered that question here (other than briefly in “the Good Life”). One advantage of starting a blog 3 years after moving is that impressions and theories have built up in my head -- I can pull some preliminary shapes and patterns out of all the chaos. But the disadvantage is that you’re seeing my conclusions apart from the raw data, so there are a lot of chronological gaps, and you may be curious how I became the long-winded, caffeine-addicted, wrinkly shirt-clad person I am now.

Anyway, the short answer is: we wanted our kids to spend some part of their lives living in Asia, near their grandparents. We wanted them to grow up speaking the language(s), feeling comfortable going back and forth between the different cultures, seeing that they were not weird (though I have doubts about the success of that last one -- when a two-month-old child has already travelled to 5 countries, isn’t that weird?). I remember once leaving a dimsum restaurant in Michigan, seeing a little girl pulling her non-English speaking Grandma by the arm, saying loudly and petulantly, “You’re so stupid.” I didn’t want our kids to be like that, thinking that their grandparents were stupid and embarrassing just because they couldn’t speak English well or navigate the subtleties of American life. I wanted them to know their grandparents in a place where the grandparents were comfortable, surrounded by the friendships and accumulated knowledge of a lifetime, not rendered dumb (in both senses) by the flat American landscape.

The longer answer is that my husband and I both have somewhat liminal and ambivalent relationships to Asia and our ancestral pasts. KC is Korean and lived in Korea until he was 18 then moved with his brother to the U.S., attending two years of high school before going to college and grad school. So his childhood is rooted in Korea and his adult and professional life are in the U.S. By the time we moved here he was 36, so he had spent half his life in Korea and half in the U.S. But he hadn’t been an adult in Korea, so it was strange to be back and have to do adult things: open bank accounts, rent an apartment, find a school for our son, in addition to learning how to speak the language as an adult speaks it, talking about business, etc. Because of his long history here people (including himself) expected KC to fit right in; however, it wasn’t that easy. His long education and independent life in the U.S. had changed the way he thought about the world and he had to sort of reinvent and learn his Koreanness all over again.

Part of reconnecting with Korea has involved figuring out how to be a son again. Living apart from his parents, living in the U.S. (and marrying that American girl), and achieving a high level of education has created a huge gulf. At 18, most kids are just starting to become independent, and there is a period of time when both kid and parent have to adjust -- the kid has to learn to do things for himself and the parent has to learn to let go. During this period the rituals and language of the parent-child relationship change, adapting to the new status of the child. But KC never really went through this with his parents, and they never got to see him act as the adult he is, so they keep treating him like a child, much to his anger and frustration. When we came, not knowing how to do basic adult things (like open a bank account -- not as easy as it sounds), they all fell back into the familiar positions of parent and child and it has been hard to reconfigure these dynamics. They try to give him advice based on their experiences -- experiences of war, of backstabbing, of scraping together a living in the face of extreme situations -- situations which don’t apply to our lives. We are dismissive, thinking their knowledge of business doesn’t apply to the software industry. Their knowledge of parenting doesn’t apply to people who have enough to eat. Their knowledge of government doesn’t apply to real democracies. We patronize each other, dismissing each others experience, worlds, and teachings, leading to mutual retrenchment and anger. (Though, I have to say, after 3 years things have improved a bit.) As the oldest son, KC worries about how he will take care of his parents as they get older. As a child you never really see your parents as adults. Returning to Korea now, he sees his father as a real, adult person for the first time – a man with a rich social life and a network of friends and habits. He feels suddenly, poignantly, the loss of his father – not only for all those years when they lived apart, but also for now.

I’m the child of Chinese immigrants who both immigrated to the U.S. in their teens. My parents had intended to go back to Hong Kong after college and grad school, but in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and political instability in Asia, they decided to stay in the U.S., become citizens, have careers, and raise their children. They settled in the D.C. area and turned their eyes away from the East, giving themselves over to an American brand of living and success.

Even now, despite her belief that Asians are smarter and better workers than anyone, my mother has a deeply ingrained distaste for suspicion of Asia, and in particular China. For her, it’s unconditionally dirtier, unsanitary, more corrupt, and less efficient than the U.S. Whether that is true or not, her decision to turn away from the place where she grew up and make her way in the land of opportunity was not just a lifestyle decision but also a psychological one – she allies herself with the U.S. and the “American way,” not always believing that America is great but always believing that its better than Asia. She embraced the opportunities she found here and became successful in the emerging computer industry at a time when women and also Asians were still entering white collar jobs. She fought to open as many opportunities for her three children by raising us in English (so we wouldn’t have trouble adopting to school), sending us to summer programs and piano lessons and writing class and making us do workbooks while the other children were playing outside after school. Her gaze was always trained towards our bright futures, many doors open along a long lighted path, ready for us to take a step.

For my parents, as for many other immigrants, there was a formula for success: hard work, good education, and a significant amount of parental pushing and prodding equaled a good college, respectable career, and a better status in society. This, after all, was the American dream – the reason they came to the land of opportunity. For them, as for Hegel, history begins in the East and moves West, and never returns.

I’m sure much has been written about the particular psychology of being the child of an immigrant. I haven’t really read anything in that department so I’ll just write my impressions here (some of this echoes “Our Daily Rice”).

When I was young, I resented being in writing “camp” while others went swimming. My parents were silent about the past, never explaining their own cultural background, leaving me to fill in the blanks. Thus I understood them to be weird and embarrassing because they took off their shoes before entering the house, make rice and fish instead of mac and cheese, chewed loudly, and mispronounced words. I was caught between worlds physically as well – somehow, through a joke of genetics or perhaps diet, I can pass for a non-Asian, leaving me sometimes in the awkward situation of hearing people disparage my family, not realizing I was one of them.

In my teenage and college years, I was critical and regretful of my parents’ decision to raise me in English, to so carelessly discard the baggage of Asia, to produce children who can’t communicate with their own grandparents. I felt an impostor, stuck somewhere between a familiar but awkwardly fitting society, and a largely unknown society that rejected me as culturally empty.

And yet, in many ways, the formula worked. I stepped through the doors my parents opened and did just as my parents hoped, attending a top-tier university, completing graduate school, have a successful (though short) professional career, and beginning doctoral work.

My parents were well-educated and had good careers, but the divide is even stronger, I think, for the many Asian Americans whose parents worked in labor-intensive or lower status jobs to make a better life for their kids. They teach their kids that education and success in the professional world is the most important thing, not realizing or not fully appreciating how in doing so they elide their own experiences and status.

So for me, and I think for many Asian Americans, trying to get to know your parents’ past is a difficult, ambivalent project. People expect you to know things you don’t know, and you feel guilty and ashamed for not knowing them, and perhaps angry and false too. Not looking Chinese (I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I’m French) I grew up enduring milkman jokes and doubting that I really am who I say I am. Getting to know my hubby’s culture and language was safer; I am not Korean so I felt free to stumble and fail and claim impunity. I needed to take the step of learning Korea and Korean before feeling confident enough to take on China and Chinese. I am only reaching that point now, and I’m doing it without my parents.

Anyway, having grown up in a perpetual state of embarrassment over my parents’ idiosyncrasies, and thinking that their refusal to acknowledge the past or explain their differences was a mistake, I wanted -- for myself as well as my kids -- to have the opportunity to get to know Asia on my own terms. The world has changed, the Long Duck Dongs of the media are disappearing, and (I hope) being Asian in the U.S. is no longer to be exotic, or strangely sexualized, or associated with Laundromats and calculus. (Aside: one of the traumas of my young life was when the kid who lived across the street told me that the name for the female anatomy was “china.” I guess it does sound similar. I think I was maybe seven.) I wanted my kids to grow up armed with the knowledge and experience of being in China and Korea so that if nothing else, they would know what real places and people lay behind those terms.

As usual, in answering a simple question I have run at the mouth -- or fingers, actually. But I feel like there is something I still need to say about the act of returning to Asia.

In the immigrant success stories, the immigrants never return – they make it big in the land of opportunity, and they live happily ever after in the bright open spaces of America. (Aside: I have been meaning to write a post about 사대주의: a term that refers to the admiration and almost worship of stronger powers that Koreans have for China, Japan, and the U.S. -- but haven’t had the time.) In returning to Korea, KC has thrown the dream back in his father’s face, and neither of them quite know what to make of it. Until now, the act of returning has been read as a failure -- the West is the endpoint, not just a pit stop. KC and I, for our own reasons, felt we needed to go back to and wrestle with our messy pasts, to confront them head on. But, watching the growing number of kirogi families and other education immigrants traveling this path from East to West, and also keeping an eye on our many unhappy Korean friends who went to the U.S. for college or grad school and have stayed for careers, I wonder how long this narrative will last, and what hold it will have on the next generation. Hegel, are you listening? I live here for now, but only I will determine my history’s teleology.

1 comment:

Zighen Aym said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I'll keep coming back.


Zighen Aym