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Posts Tagged ‘identity’

[My continuing series of letters to Dragon]

Dear Dragon,

‘Hey you, kid!’ said the elderly man on the subway in a jovial way, ‘this is not your country.’ I smiled at him and politely told him that yes, this is your country. He became very confused and then there was light in his eyes. ‘Oh!’ he said. ‘He’s a half half!’

I’ve had the discussion about what to label our kids with many people. Some say ‘mixed race’, some say ‘biracial’, others ‘multicultural,’ and for those in certain parts of the States, it’s ‘happa.’ ‘Multicultural’ sits best with me, but then there’s the issue of if you are ‘half half,’ ‘Korean-Canadian,’ ‘Canadian-Korean’ or something else. Personally, I prefer to think of you as Korean AND Canadian. It’s not a 1/2 + 1/2 = whole equation for me. I don’t think that you are denied a whole half of each culture because only one parent is from each. I don’t think you are lacking in anything because your gene pool is more diversified or because we celebrate double the holidays or have two hometowns or use two languages. Instead, in this new math of the globalized world, I think whole + whole = whole. It’s just a new kind of whole.

Of course, we’re not living in an English speaking society, and thus we need to put semantics aside to a certain extent. Whether we use – or 1/2 or AND or create a new word, much of the soul searching about what it means to be you at this time in Korea or this time in the world is lost in a passing conversation on the subway. But it’s still something I think about for you because I want you to have the best of what your identity has to offer you.

In my vision for your future, you are comfortable in both identities equally. You interact with Koreans as a Korean and with Canadians as a Canadian (whatever that means in the future). And by the time you become fully cognitive of how to do this, being Korean AND something else will be a normative ‘Korean’ identity. Yeah, I know. Silly mummy and her dreaming.

But it is my sincere wish that you will never feel like ‘only half’ – you will never feel an emptiness in your identity – you will never feel you are lacking in wholeness because you are in one place at a time and not two. And if you cannot find a way to make whole + whole = whole, then I hope you feel comfortable in your in between place. I hope you don’t feel the need to reject one part of yourself or hide a part or feel ashamed of a part. I hope, that even when people point at your mother and make assumptions about you based on her, that you will not hate the attention my existence gives you here. And I hope you will not be ashamed of your mother’s accented Korean or your father’s accented English, and I sincerely hope that you will not face discrimination in either place for your dual roots. Yeah, I know. Silly mummy and her dreaming.

But at the very least, if you are taunted or discriminated against or constantly held up as an outsider, I hope you yourself are proud of your heritage, and I know it is our job to help you feel comfortable in both. There is comfort in fitting perfectly in a group, but there are few people who can go through life always, in every situation, being a perfect fit. And so you will just learn a little earlier how to negotiate an abundance, not a lack of identity, and this skill will serve you well in the world. It’s a skill most people need to learn even if they don’t have to worry about choosing what label to put on their liminality.

You are whole as a person Dragon, and that’s not a dream, that’s a fact.

Love Mummy

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July 31, 2011

Dear Dragon

I was part of an online discussion today based on a talk about identity, self, and embracing one’s otherness which developed after watching Thandie Newton’s TED talk. The discussion was mostly about how to give our kids a solid foundation in both their Korean and white-Western identities. As for me, this is an expanded version of what I had to say.

The issue for me is balance. How do I give my child balance? I want my kid to be safe and secure in his or her Canadian, Korean, and Canadian-Korean identities. Being part of a group has such benefits and blessings. When you are part of a group, you have a sense of belonging, a set of boundaries which is easier to exist in than boundless and infite possibilities. It is easier to see yourself in others, and it is comforting to know that you share a part of who you
are with others. I want to give you that gift.

But at the same time, I never want your identification with your cultural and ethnic heritage to prevent you from seeing yourself as part of the human family, or on a smaller level, to prevent you from seeing other parts of yourself in groups which are supposedly ‘different’ from yourself. I have known so many 1.5 and 2nd generation kids who have grown up hearing their parents say ‘You aren’t Canadian/American, you are __________. Don’t forget it! Don’t forget who you really are!’ They grew up with their Canadian or American peers. They went to school together, they played together, they watched most of the same tv shows together. They share a part of themselves with their peers, but in the back of their heads they hear their’s parents’ voices ‘Don’t forget it!.’ And then those same kids go to the ‘Motherland’ and are told they aren’t ____ enough because they grew up in another culture. There’s a profound disconnect that happens when there are so many different voices telling you what you are…or maybe what you are not.

So what do I, as a mother, do? Over the years I have incorporated many different idenities into myself. And maybe even more importantly, I have no qualms about entering a new room, sitting down as an outsider, and throwing myself into a new world whether I eventually begin to identify with that world or not down the road. I don’t know how I developed that ability, but I did. The problem is how to teach you how to do the same.  How do I teach you to negotiate many identities with grace?

I want you to be able to say. I am Canadian. I am Korean. I am Canadian-Korean-Korean-Canadian. I want you to belong and be accepted. But in nurturing communities for you, I don’t want to prevent you from seeing yourself as part of the great human story and even the wider world of the universe. I don’t want your community bonds to prevent you from embracing additional identities and communities as they are presented to you. After all, your mother went to another country, fell in love with a ‘different person,’ and added an additional identity onto her sense of self, so what is to prevent you from doing the same?

I want you to be able to embrace such possibilities.
But how?
Love Mum

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Have you ever had a great love? I have, and its name is Montreal. I only lived in the city for two years, but I was infatuated. And when you are deeply in love – when you are over your head and completely submersed in love’s sweet addictive nectar – nothing is rational. It didn’t matter that the snow was at times higher than the parked cars on the one way narrow streets. It didn’t matter that -30 was an unremarkable winter temperature. It didn’t matter that there were moments where I instinctively knew not to open my mouth and betray my anglo-ness. And it certainly didn’t matter that I was in a place where many people hated the fact that the country on their passport started with a ‘C’ instead of a ‘Q.’ I was in love – head-over-heels-forever- honeymoon-phase-love. The city’s cafes were where we dated – and the terraces sipping sangria on a hot summer day – and the park near my house which had free ballet/theatre/music/poetry readings/art exhibitions every night for months during the spring and summer. I lounged on my lavender staircase on the Plateau and felt like no other city in the world could understand me better. The city was my lover and because I was single during my time there – Montreal was the entity I poured my soul out to.

But as in most great love affairs, it was not to be forever. But we didn’t break up because of a torrid affair – or a referendum ballot – or a bitter feud. We parted amicably on account of me finishing my education, not having a job, and needing someone else to house me while I got on my post-grad school feet. But because we parted for such practical reasons, Montreal will always be that ‘but what if things had been just a little different’ relationship. No place will ever really be as sweet as that fine city simply because our relationship ended with an unfinished parting…and nostalgia is a bitch.

One of the first textbooks I used in Korea asked the question ‘do you think marriage should be based on love or jeong?’ Jeong is a very complicated and multifaceted word, but in this question but in many conversations I’ve been a part of over my years here, there seems to be a suggestion that ‘love’ and ‘jeong’ are diametrically opposed. ‘Love’ seems to represent passion, lust, intoxication, and lovers blind to all else while ‘jeong’ seems to represent filial piety, devotion even under duress, unconditional loyalty, and commitment. I personally think that ‘love’ is a far more complex word than this bifurcated understanding recognizes. And I think that my personal experience with love for my husband contains a great deal of the things the above definition of jeong includes completely separate from our Korean context. And above all, I honestly think that healthy (balanced) relationships require both ‘love’ and ‘jeong’.

But for a moment, I want to use this perceived split between ‘love’ and ‘jeong’ to examine my feelings for Seoul. And when I think about Seoul and ‘love’…there’s no love here. I believe that my problem with loving Seoul is that I have been ruined by my one great love (Montreal). After you’ve had that deep connection with a place, it’s hard to love like that again. Part of the problem is the space itself. Seoul is not a pretty city. It’s concrete. It’s chaotic. It’s crowded. It’s polluted. It’s hussel and bussle all the time. The new buildings and areas are soulless, and the older parts are intriguing but frustrating. Seoul is not endearing. It’s missing the je ne sais quoi that I immediately felt so drawn to in Montreal. And above all, it is not romantic – at least not to me.

But Seoul gave me my husband. It gave me a job – nay a career. This city helped me to understand that I really am a teacher no matter how much I tried to deny it and run away from the fact that all my experiences, education, and talents had always shown me that I was supposed to be a teacher. The streets of Seoul have given me my two lovely felines. The challenges of living here have changed my perspective and helped me grow as a person. And there is an energy – a dynamic pulse here that both drives me crazy and propels me forward in a way that forces me to push myself and become something more than the limited vision I have for myself. And so, I think what I feel for Seoul is jeong.

At the very foundation, I have jeong because by virtue of just being here I feel that I must have some loyalty to the place where I reside. But jeong is something that has grown – or perhaps more accurately something that has been cultivated in me through my ever deepening experiences with this place. The more it gives me, the more indebted I am. Jeong is also a tethering – a leather strap that binds people to each other through relationship or relation to each other/each thing. And so with every experience and every gift, I am further bound to this city. Jeong can be a great burden – the duties and demands one party makes on another can cause frustration and resentment – but burden can sometimes be a joyful thing if you know that jeong relationships are long term rather than momentary connections. The burden may be difficult now, but the long term relationship is reciprocal and even the deepness of the connection is meaningful over time. I often find myself defining jeong as ‘obligatory love’ without the necessary negative connotations of ‘obligation’. Jeong is the obligations I must fulfill, but in fulfilling the obligations, a meaningful connection is made.

I find myself travelling this city these days feeling a deep sense of affection for Seoul. I am constantly reminded of the things this city – this country have given me – and in remembering what I have gained, I feel an increasing loyalty and respect for the place where I am. Seoul is not a beautiful city, but we’ve been through battles together and that means that I acknowledge my obligations to Seoul. I must say that I do not feel that our jeong means that I can’t meaningfully and faithfully criticize Seoul or that this place can’t do the same thing to me. It is because I am loyal – it is because I feel such deep affection that I will point to the failings in this city’s relationships with its residents

Seoul is no Montreal, but then again, maybe that’s a good thing…and maybe I would never really have understood the fullness of love had I only lived in one place. Perhaps both relationships have helped me to understand my obligations to place, and the way in which place informs who I am.

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On Still Being Canadian

I’ve spoken about minjok before – the idea that all Koreans are united by the same ‘blood,’ the same unbroken history, and the same ‘race.’ In other words, the myth that Koreans are a homogenous ‘one race’ people (and they always have been). All countries have national narratives, and these stories often have a positive purpose of defining what constitutes a people in order to unite them in a common goal. Minjok was helpful in uniting Koreans against the oppressive Japanese occupation and administration at the beginning of the last century, but these days it is more often used to exclude or discriminate against biracial/bicultural people, stir up nationalistic fever, or warn against ‘outsiders.’

Canada also has a national narrative. Canadians tell the story of how people come. The coming of the aboriginal peoples – whether through myth or trek across the Barring Strait; the coming of the French who traversed the river ways and seas; the coming of the British soldiers but also later the poor tenant Scottish and Irish farmers; the coming of those escaping religious persecution or bombed out post-WW II Europe or civil wars in Africa. Even those arriving because of some undefined ‘better life’ – they are defined as Canadians because they come. If you watched the 2010 Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics, you saw this narrative skilfully told: waves of people coming and integrating into the land and the seasons. It is a beautiful story – a story with some degree of reality – but also a story manufactured to some degree as all national narratives are in the hopes of defining such a diverse group of people from every country on earth. A while back, there was even a movement to change the national anthem from ‘Oh Canada, our home and native land’ to ‘Oh Canada, our home and chosen land’ (emphasis mine).

Canada is not devoid of racism and xenophobia – not devoid at all, but this story does help to mitigate differences and create an inclusive definition of a people. What it fails to recognize however – especially in this era of increased globalization – is that people not only come, but sometimes they also leave. In the story of Canada, people come and they retain their cultural, religious, or ethnic identity, and in doing so, they make Canada by both the act of coming and the act of sewing their previous existence into the fabric of Canada. They come because life is somehow better – it’s ‘free’, it’s ‘democratic,’ it’s not war ravaged, it has an abundance of space, it has more ‘opportunities,’ it has a better social system. But then, because life is supposed to be so much better, they are supposed to stay. The Canadian story has no real character who leaves. There is no role for the person who maintains their Canadian identity – their culture, background, and ethnicity – and who tries to sew that into the national fabric of another country while remaining Canadian. The narrative goes one way but not the other. There is no place for those who leave except to play the ‘Canadian of convenience’ – the person who comes just long enough to gain citizenship for some benefit (strangely always characterized as wanting to get Canadian health care…which you can’t use anyway after being out of the country for 3 months) – only to turn around and return to their native country again. If there is a role for those who leave, it is the villain in the story – the person who was ‘never Canadian’ in the first place: the person who only identifies with their citizenship and passport when bombs fly in their native land.

Part of the reason why there is a lack of space for a ‘good’ Canadian who leaves is that well meaning tv programs and segments on immigrant Canadians tend to focus on the reasons why newcomers leave their homelands to become Canadians. Many of these people escaping horrible wars, natural disasters, and poverty. I used to work with refugees back in Canada, and one of the first things I learned is that you can’t throw out a question like ‘describe a frightening experience’ and not expect to have a roomful of students reliving very recent (unspeakable) trauma. But there are many places in the world where life – or at least segments of life – are ‘better’ than in Canada. It depends on how you want to define it, but there are other areas in the world with better jobs, more interesting opportunities, and especially in Asia, emerging economies. My sister was in Hong Kong for a year as an exchange student and ended up having the kind of veterinary opportunities (her future career goal) that Canadian students can only dream of. And she didn’t have to search very hard to find them. Likewise, certain parts of life can be hard here in Korea, but there’s something happening in Korea – in China – maybe parts of India and other emerging power-economies – where there is an energy and a vibrancy that can’t be matched in most of Canada. And most certainly – there are people in other countries who earn a hell of a lot more than people in Canada.

A loving and well meaning older Canadian once asked me if Mr. Lee earned more than a $1 a day. Seriously. He was very worried that Mr. Lee would never be able to ‘support me’ (and thus, the fear that Mr. Lee only married me for ‘my money’…LOL). (Of course it doesn’t help that North and South Korea are conflated in most people’s minds). There is also the expectation that Mr. Lee married me to get Canadian citizenship. There was an almost universal consensus among Canadian friends and relatives over 40 when they found out we were dating that Mr. Lee’s greatest goal in life was to come to Canada. We probably will eventually live in Canada, but it’s more about family commitments for me. As the eldest child, I worry about my mother being alone in the future – I worry about maintaining the closeness of my very close family. To be fair, Koreans also suppose that part of Mr. Lee’s intention in marrying me was to immediately get permanent residence and move to Canada, but he actually isn’t super keen on doing it for himself. He acknowledges that the school system is much less cut throat competitive in Canada, and that he can have a more relaxed life there, but even with his very stressful job, he would rather stay in Korea with a well-paying job than move to Canada and be jobless. And in fact, as an ESL teacher, living abroad is actually very beneficial for my career. Yes, there are lots of ESL positions in Canada, but there are more opportunities and most importantly, more exciting and various opportunities for me here in the here and now.

But it’s very hard for many older Canadians – or even the government – to understand where Canadians like me fit into the fabric of Canada. My friend R. who lived here for a year and a half found it difficult for people to understand what she had been doing in Korea. Her hair dresser specifically kept talking about her lying on a beach and enjoying time off during her period abroad. No matter how much she tried to emphasis the fact that she had been working and contributing to Korean society, the woman could only comprehend the fact that she was travelling abroad, not working abroad. Until I got married, I must say that many Canadians also seemed to imply in their conversations with me that I must ‘be enjoying myself’ or ‘having a really fun time’ travelling abroad. Again, older people especially could not seem to understand the idea of working – or even living a normal life abroad. They just thought I was being a bit lazy as a backpacker bumming around Asia instead of holding down a tax paying, pension accumulating job with a regular work schedule and life.

These are minor complaints of course, and I’m not really upset about people having minor misunderstandings of my lifestyle and choices. Perhaps the larger issue is that, with more and more Canadians going abroad…as Canadians – it becomes harder to place them in the story of Canada. In its ideal, Canada’s multicultural identity implies that people bring their gifts and talents from abroad to the shores of Canada (of course, there are people who see immigrants as a burden and drain on Canada, but we’re talking national narratives and ideals here). And of course, those who leave are just Canadians of convenience and thus were ‘never really Canadians at all’…right? But what of those people – born and raised – perhaps multigenerational Canadians – who still identify as Canadians – who go to other countries where they may not be able to legally or socially ever become any other nationality? What of those people who actually contribute to Canada only because they are abroad. The 2.7 million of us living abroad?

There was this very good piece in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago about Canadians living and making a difference abroad. For Canadian sensibilities, it’s a bit too ‘ra ra Canada’, but I think that’s partly our inability to be publicly positive about acknowledging Canadian strengths. But I do think it highlights the fact that Canadians being ‘Canadian’ abroad do exist, and that, in some cases, they actually do things that are very ‘Canadian’ abroad. (To which we should now, as good Canadians, question what is Canadian and how to be Canadian and…if they are Canadian). If you don’t believe me with regard to how unacceptable it can be to be a Canadian being a Canadian abroad, read the comments section. You’ll see Canadians of convenience/not really Canadians/those damn Lebanese mentioned more than once, and someone who asserts that 90% of those of us living abroad are actually drunk students. Lovely. But you will also see people who note that people have been successful despite the lack of support or acknowledgement, and even one great comment about how those who return may be ‘Michael Ignatieffed’ – a reference to the Liberal Party leader who has faced relentless criticism for not being Canadian enough because he lived in the US for many years.

As for me, I am not under the illusion that I am doing great things for this world or that I am directly making money or advancing the interests of a Canadian company. But, many of my students have gone on to study at Canadian universities as exchange students or in full degree programs. Having taught international students in a Canadian university, I work very hard at trying to prepare students for Western standards of research, critical thinking, and modes of inquiry which many students lack when they come to Canada to study. Some of my other students have also gone to study further at Canadian owned language institutes. And still others now work for companies which do business with Canadian companies. My cousin, another expat Canadian, now lives and works in the US for an American company, but this company is very important in Canada in terms of jobs and multiple industries. He actually comes to Korea regularly because a Korean company provides many of the resources that they use in their products. No….this particular story isn’t about my particular involvement in helping a particular Canadian company – but the good part of the English industry in Korea is that when it works, it really is preparing Koreans to interact better with the global marketplace, and in reality, these lines between what is Canadian or American…or what is beneficial for Canada or America or Korea are very blurred.

It’s very understandable why the Canadian narrative has developed as it has, and when people actually ascribe to Canadian identity as one which includes people regardless of the colour of their skin or ethnic background, this makes for a very tolerant and accepting society. However, in this ever globalized and shifting world, the younger generation is especially open to being a mobile workforce which doesn’t feel as confined by boarders when it comes to making the most of opportunities and pushing boundaries of where innovation, technology, and human relations are going. So it only stands to reason that just as Canadians of yesteryear had to keep redefining what it meant to be Canadian with each wave of immigration, I think it’s only time that we start to understand how to incorporate those who have left in body but still reside in Canada in their hearts.

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I’m not sure how many times I’ve said to my sister this week, ‘Oh – that’s new,’ and she’s rolled her eyes with a bored look and said, ‘No – that’s been there FOREVER.’

I know she’s not mistaken herself as she only got back from Hong Kong about 2 months ago…and since she left Canada before my holidays here were finished last year, I know that it is my memory not hers which is mistaken.

And then every single time…every single time I go to press the garage door opener, I catch myself just microseconds before I start smashing the controller like a madwoman…because 5 years ago, we had a controller than would take 5 minutes and a perfectly timed/placed/forced push to activate. 

When I imagine my bedroom in my mind? I think of the hunter green and maroon Navaho themed room which was redecorated in this very way for me on my 15th birthday (and lasted until the week after I left for university when my mother reclaimed the room and design concept for herself).  The room has gone through a different incarnation every 2 years or so, but in my mind it is the same room I had when I left for university 11 years ago.

I’m starting to understand why Korean Canadians are more Koreans than Koreans at times.  Why an ‘Italian wedding’ near my hometown in no way resembles the Italian wedding my friend had in Milan a few months ago – why all my friend’s daughter-in-law/mother-in-law issues have nothing to do with what an upper class Indian daughter-in-law is in India and everything to do with that is perceived to be the role of an upper class Indian daughter-in-law in India 30 years ago.  It’s that same bizarreness of having your Hong Kong born dad proclaim loudly, ‘In OUR culture teenagers NEVER do X’ when in fact that’s all they’re ever doing these days.

Memory gets confused with time.  Even just  5 years for me – even just one year as I come back on a yearly basis.  However, I never spend enough time here – I never go beyond the visiting/tourist part of what it means to be in Canada and delve back into the world of work, extended-time-with-family dynamics, and general everyday life.  It’s so much easier now with Skype video chat, newspapers from home within a click of a mouse, English tv shows on Korean channels, and students, friends, and family who are constantly coming and going from the other side of the world.  Access to my culture and connections with my loved ones not just ‘at home’ but all over the globe is easy, but it doesn’t mean that what I ‘know’ and what I remember and what is ‘true’ are all the same things. 

But it’s really hard to admit that…

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In North America we like to talk about the immigrant experience. Like the experience of immigrants can be singular.

“She is 29, and it is November.”

It’s a scanty piece of similarity to hold on to, but when I started reading Korean-American Kim Suki’s book The Interpreter last week, I had a moment of fractured identification with the main character. The book is an interesting mix of ‘ruptured identity’ and murder mystery: a story of the ‘dark side’ of the immigrant experience in the US, but as Suzy Park, the main character wanders aimlessly through NYC, I felt a certain kinship with her albeit based on my own meanderings through the city she left.

There are many modern stories of the new immigrant, or the 1.5 child, or the 2nd generation stuck between two worlds/fighting two worlds/feeling outside two worlds. The ethnic/linguistic minority both struggles against the majority who stereotypes them while being unable to fulfill the vision and wishes of their own communities. There is alienation, solitude, fissures, loneliness. They are stories of identities without a whole.

Conversely, there are many white travel narratives or stories of the foreigner in a foreign place. They are full of exoticism, mystical encounters, and cultural confusion. There are characters who are on the margins, always on the outside, but they are more disconnected from their surroundings than disconnected from themselves.

I suppose the reason for these differences is supposed to be the power structures and power politics that inform our world. In Suzy Park’s world, the 1st generation Korean immigrants are small business owners eking out an existence with their fruit markets and dry cleaning stores by employing illegals, paying under minimum wage, and existing through inter-community loans and payoffs to local gangs. Conversely, the white travelogues of the past were often written by wealthy travelers or officials living in strange land, but these days our globalized world has changed everything. West to Asia, South Asia to the Middle East, South East Asia to East Asia – the concept of ‘immigrant’ has become much more complicated.

But regardless of the viewpoint, be it ‘immigrant’ or ‘identity politics’ or ‘Asian American’ or modern ‘travelogue’ literature, alienation is en vogue. It’s bleak. It’s fractured. It’s about not fitting in and not finding yourself and not knowing your path. Solitude, margins, the subaltern. That’s the new it place to be. Self aware and self content do not cut it anymore.

Alienation is sexy

Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t harder for the present generation of immigrants and migrants and in-betweens. The earliest ones who crossed the frigid northern lands – the later ones who came by boat – they could not easily return. Once they had trekked that far, taken their covered wagons over all that terrain, paddled their canoes to the furthest reaches, they dared not return. They could return to their memories, but that was all they had. They had made their break, and it was a severe break that could never be repaired.

The later ones, the ones who came after the telegraph, the telephone, the television – those ones who came then but had little money to return, could retain contact, could see the occasional image, could get letters or books or read the news a week late.

But these days, it is nearly impossible to make a clear break. To choose. To be on one side or the other because in many cases not only can we go back, we can track their homeland online. We can listen to our pop stars and watch our shows from satellite and video chat with our friends. Even the poorest refugees have access to the Internet and multimedia glimpses of the place where they were and the culture they are, in ways previous generations never had. Most of my ‘immigrant’ or 1.5 or 2 generation friends in university came from a class beyond my own. They were not the children of taxi drivers. They were children of doctors, graduate degree holders, and cross-border business people who went to private schools and traveled ‘back’ to the homeland occasionally. And these days, even for the ever burgeoning middle class, it is possible to live two places at once. And so we speak not of clean breaks but fractures and fissures because tenaciously that bone still holds.

My ancestors never had that chance. My Gaelic-speaking ancestors, fresh off the boat, looked around yet another nation dominated by the English but even more controlled by a winter much more bitter than they could ever have guessed. Then they looked back at the boat, that lice infested black hull of a thing, the place on which Grandma Christina, several times great had almost been buried alive at sea, the place where they spent month upon miserable month tossing in tempestuous seas. And then said, ‘thank you very much we’ll stay in this God forsaken land of snow and ice because at least we can toil a life on this land. And most importantly, we will never set foot on a boat again. And thus they stayed.

Did the 1.5 or the 2nd generation of that generation ever feel a ‘ruptured identity?’ Did they ever wander aimlessly through the snow drifts and forests in a numbed out attempt to find themselves? Or did the distance, the boat, the harshness of spending your life pulling out tree stumps, and living in isolation on homesteads whip the identity crisis right out of them? Maybe since there was no ‘Canada’ they didn’t have to choose. They didn’t have to choose citizenship or passports or check a census box. They were. They had survived and they were surviving, and that was good enough for them.
I liked Suzy Park. I watched Lost in Translation weekly when I first arrived in Korea. I’m always up for wallowing in alienation and we expats here do it frequently. I too have spent my fair share of time meditating on the fracturedness of myself. But there comes a time when you just need to get shit done. When you stop caring if people are staring at you or wondering what kinds of stereotypes are going on in the head of the man across from you on the subway. And you just live your life. And you get shit done. The early North Americans – the ones who learned the rivers and understood the life on that continent – and the ones who came later who hauled and built and survived: the ones who worked 18 hour days to give their children a university education in another land. They had no time to be alienated. So although I am guilty of it myself on occasion and on this blog, I am frustrated by prolonged dysfunction or blaming dysfunction on straddling cultural divides. Others, countless others, not just in North America, but all over the world have experienced relocation and dislocation and their psyches remain intact. Alienation of this kind is for privilege, and if we have enough time on our hands to dwell on our fractured selves, then we must put that time to good use. There is shit enough in this world, so we have shit to do.

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On ‘Foreign’ Identity

Who is a foreigner in a Korean context? Let me tell you some stories:

1. Along with my regular classes, I teach an ‘international class.’ The idea behind the class is good. At my university students are required to take both an English writing and an English presentation class to graduation. However, many international students, especially from China, have less English experience than my Korean students. However, I have several students who push the boundaries of ‘international.’ One student’s paternal grandfather comes from mainland China. When he came to Korea, diplomatic relations had not been established between the two countries. Therefore, he has Taiwanese citizenship. Both my student and her father were born in Korea, and she has a Korean mother. However, she is still put in the international class because her father is not ethnically Korean.

2. On several occasions when I’ve been speaking English with Korean-American/Korean-Canadian/Korean adoptee friends in public places, Koreans have come up to us and chastised my friends for speaking English too well. Also, while I can feign ignorance or justify not doing something in a Korean way by virtue of my ‘foreignness,’ these friends are often reprimanded for not being Korean enough. Nevertheless, there was a recent scandal regarding Jae-Beom, the 3rd generation Korean-American leader of the Korean group 2PM. Four years ago (when he was 18), he wrote on his friend’s MySpace “Korea is gay. I hate Korea. I wanna come back.” A netizen belatedly found his remark and spread it on the net, creating an frenzied online scandal which finally sent him back to the States. To the Korean on the street, he was a Korean, and should act as one. To netizens, he was a foreigner who should have no opinion but a good opinion about the nation.

3. Recently, the Korean Times announced that Immigration will start doing random illegal alien checks. Officials will stop ‘foreign looking people’ on the street and demand to see passports and Alien Registration Cards. In fact, a white (legal) Canadian) acquaintance’s bus was boarded by armed soldiers back in 2005. They specifically boarded the bus to check her documents and the documents of her friends. Now, I have very strong opinions of this kind of racial profiling and this (illegal) approach to the very real issue of illegal workers, but that’s for another post. The interesting thing is the assumption that one can tell who is a foreigner just by looking at them. A large amount of foreign citizens (and illegals) in Korea are ethnically Chinese people who ‘look Korean,’ but are actually undocumented or staying in Korea on study visas while actually working full time. Others are Korean-(insert other nationality) or adoptees who work without the correct documents or degrees. On the other hand, Mr. Lee, whose parents fled North Korea during the war, is often mistaken for Mongolian or Chinese when he is with me because a) his features are not considered by some as ‘Korean enough’ and b) he is with a foreign woman…so…maybe he’s a foreigner. (My closest Korean female friend also faces the same issues as being continually mistaken as a Chinese national because ‘her face is too wide’). Finally, it will be incredibly interesting if naturalized Koreans or foreign Korean investors/permanent foreign residents in Korea on special visas are stopped and harassed by virtue of not looking Korean-enough…and it will be interesting to see what they choose to do with those investments.

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