Getting the best of both worldsAs a Korean-American who was born in New Jersey, raised in a typical American suburb just north of Chicago and attended a diverse prep school near Boston, I realized that I was a product of two uniquely different cultures.
Even from a very early age, I realized that my black hair and brown eyes identified me as different from other kids.
I knew it was “unique” that my family ate sticky rice on Thanksgiving Day instead of turkey.
As my American friends were waking up on Saturday mornings to Bugs Bunny cartoons, I was squashed into a tiny room at my local Korean church to learn the tedious basics of ― what else ― the Korean language.
My so-called fair share of relaxing Saturdays was replaced with “annyeong” and “suk-jae” ― homework.
As I grew older, I found myself bolted into a kind of “cultural limbo.” I was suspended in space between two societies with no takers.
American society is fond of labeling people as white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and so forth.
However, I could neither identify as fully American nor fully Korean. I was proud to acknowledge my Korean heritage, yet still tentative to be completely immersed in Korean culture.
Although I could not surround myself completely with Korean culture, I could surround myself with some people who shared the same background as I did. At school in Chicago, I made many Korean-American and native Korean friends.
We learned that we shared many of the same experiences, views, likes and dislikes.
Sadly, though, my opinion on Korean culture was limited to that of Chicago, Illinois, and I was oblivious to all else until I visited Seoul, Korea.
When I came to Korea for the first time some four years ago, I was totally overwhelmed by the stoutly different culture of Korea compared to America.
I found the blaring neon signs on stores to be a blur and the constant traffic jams in Seoul, a hassle.
The constant smell of Korean food, while completely foreign, was welcome. The idea of hagwon was different, even frightening (school after school?). I was undergoing complete and utter “culture shock.”
The trip to Korea opened my eyes to its culture. I began listening to K-pop, watching Korean movies, and utilizing more Korean with my parents at home.
I felt like I was undergoing a backward assimilation. Only 25 years earlier, my parents were striving to become more “American,” and now their son was trying to become more “Korean.”
Even though America and Korea are halfway around the world from each other and quite different culturally, they share some of the same universal principles of developed countries.
I saw that both societies are the “hustle and bustle” types of communities where action and progress are treasured. Both societies also place a high value on respect and individual freedoms. Even across the vast span of the Pacific Ocean, Korea and America are two worlds alike in some ways.
I feel as if I am the result of a collision between these two different worlds. The West meets the Far East. I know that I will never be accepted completely nor view myself as a “true American” or a “native Korean,” but I will promote myself as a Korean-American. I represent a small miracle of two distinct peoples and cultures fusing together harmoniously.
by Johnathan Lee
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