Coming Home

Main street in Itaewon
Sometimes the discovery of roots can be an exhilarating experience, but for Asian-Americans it’s often very difficult to come to Asia. In Korea there’s a strong prejudice against those who’ve emigrated to the West, as if those who left were somehow traitors. Ethnic Koreans who don’t speak Korean at a native speaker level are often looked down on—or envied because of their ability to speak English.

In my 1990 MA paper for the Linguistics Department at the University of Pittsburgh, I presented statistically significant evidence of  language as a component in the ethnic boundary, namely that Koreans tend to react negatively both to ethnic Koreans who don’t speak the language at a native-speaker level and to non-Koreans who speak the language above the level of minimal professional competence. 

 As always, much of a person’s reaction depends on personality. Around 1990, I had an interview with an Amerasian on his experience of returning to Korea. Bill is a young gay man who immediately seemed very likeable, very forthcoming, very easy to get along with. To me he also looked entirely ethnic Korean except that his eyes were strikingly light brown, rather than dark brown.

Bill’s Story

I was born in Korea in 1966. My mother’s Korean, and my father’s a white American. I left in 1973. My mother and I came back for the first time in 1989 just for a visit. But then I found it was much better than I had expected. I thought it would be a bit more like Japan—so Westernized—and I was surprised to see that Koreans maintain their Koreanness. They are very similar to the Koreans I knew back home in the States. For example, I didn’t realize it was a Korean trait to treat guests so well, to go overboard. I thought it was just my family. Or to physically touch family members so much.

So I decided to get a job teaching English since I was a native speaker with a college degree and a little teaching experience. But I was only twenty-three years old, and the Korean directors of language schools stumbled over that fact. I was discouraged for a while until I found a place with an American director, and he hired me. Then I decided to enroll in a university Korean language program, so I was both teaching English and learning Korean. I was tired and busy most of the time.

I’ve had a much warmer response from Koreans than I expected. When I was in the States I thought most Koreans didn’t like Amerasians like myself. But most people consider me an ordinary American until I start speaking Korean with them. Then they start to wonder about my heritage. They say, ‘You have a native accent. Why is that? Are you really an American—all American?’

“My mother’s Korean.”

Then at that point most people regard me as Korean. I really respect them for that. People take me to heart as far as I can tell. Koreans usually do as they feel. They’ll show you if they like you or not. I’ve had a great response, actually, more so than full-blooded Koreans who were raised in the States. They’re ridiculed when they try to speak the language.

I have a friend whose parents are both Korean. Her language is not so great. She has a strong accent. She goes into some stores, and the women laugh at her, not out of spite, but because it’s kind of funny. They laugh out loud. So she says, “If you’re going to laugh at me, you’re not going to have my business.” And she leaves the store.

I’ve heard that some Korean Americans in my school went downtown and got into a vicious fight with some Koreans. One of them was badly hurt—his spine was broken.”

At first when people came up to talk to me, I would think, “Wow, I get to practice my Korean.” But now I’m really cold to people who suddenly descend on me. I let them prove themselves to me. People just seem to look at me and want to know what country I come from. I also get approached a lot on the street by people asking directions. It’s weird because Koreans don’t usually ask directions unless they’re really lost. I think it’s maybe because they’re trying to see if I can speak the language. Then they give me the obligatory, “Oh, you speak Korean very well.”

When I make mistakes in Korean, people think it’s cute. But when someone who looks completely Korean makes a mistake, they’re offended by it. They think there’s some kind of connection between the way you look and the way you should be able to talk. Koreans can’t handle it when ethnic Koreans can’t speak the language. Unless you speak the language, you don’t belong. They’re really upset and they blame the person. They’ll say, ‘All that time, why didn’t you learn? Why didn’t your parents teach you?’ It causes a lot of bitterness and leads to a lot of confrontations.

After people find out that I’m part Korean they expect my behavior to fit Korean norms. A lot of foreigners are somewhat exempt from social rules, but I’m not. When I got to Korea, I smoked in front of my uncle. He was shocked and offended.

Then my mother said, ‘You’re not supposed to smoke in front of older people. Didn’t you know that?”

“Well, maybe I shouldn’t smoke in front of women elders, but he was smoking. What’s wrong with smoking with him? I asked him for a drink, and I can smoke with him.’

“He hasn’t given you permission.”

 I also noticed that when other men know I’m part Korean they touch more. At first they don’t do that. You’ve noticed men touching other men. They also get much more personal in their questions. “Why aren’t you married?” and “why don’t you get married soon?” [White Americans get the same questions, although perhaps not as often.]

I just say I want to finish school first, and they seem to accept that.

I feel I don’t have the same experiences as either white Americans or ethnic Koreans. I don’t get the cold shoulder they give full-blooded Koreans—because they can’t speak the language or because they spent too much time abroad. And I can get close to the people at the same time. I’m really lucky.

Yes, most of the reaction I get has to do with my personality. I also think the way my mother brought me up made it easier for me. I always listened to her and showed her respect. I never talked back to her. If I had had a regular American upbringing which encourages individuality, it would have been harder.

Still there were problems with the relatives. They couldn’t understand. “Why don’t you live with us and just commute to school? Why do you want to live in Seoul?

“Well, I find it easier to do my homework when I’m away from everybody. And I want to meet other people.”

“OK, I guess that’s what’s different about people like you. But we worry so much about you.”

The attitudes Koreans have about families and being alone are very strange. In one of my English classes there was this kid who was working out his independence from his parents. He was about my age. He said he was trying to get money from his mom so he could move out and think things out and do things on his own and just be alone.

I said, “So you’re going to get some money from your parents and then get a job and rent your own place.”

“No, I’m just going to ask my parents to give me an apartment, and I’m going to stay there for two months and think.”

I was visibly shocked. I stood there in class speechless for about twenty seconds trying to understand what he was saying. Then I asked him again in Korean. This was a totally different concept. I would think a person would be empowered by leaving home, getting a job and getting an apartment so he or she could say, “Wow, I did that for myself.” But he just wanted his parents to make it possible for him to get away from them for a while. I finally said, “I don’t think I could persuade my mom to do that.”

Korean parents lay a lot of dependency and guilt on their children. If the relatives give you all this care and you say to them, “I don’t want to live with you, Aunt and Uncle, I want to live in Seoul and attend school there.” Then you hear, “What’s wrong? You don’t like us?” It’s a lot of guilt compared with what my mother threw on me when I was growing up. I never had to overcome guilt problems. Most of what my mother wanted me to do, I wanted to do anyway. She set easy guidelines for me. There’s a difference between saying, “You’re going to do well in school” and “You’re going to get straight A’s and go to Harvard.” That was hinted at, but I always diplomatically avoided it.

When I was young and living here, I’m sure I was spoiled, but I was punished too. I can remember being spanked when I was three or four years old for something like knocking over a vase I was told not to touch. But except for an occasional whack when I was young, most of the punishment I got was scolding. The Koreans can scold so well that they can make you cry very quickly. Table manners were a problem for me. I remember being told, “You should be ashamed of yourself. I told you many times not to eat like that. Eat like a human being.” Then I’d start crying.

There’s a lot of emphasis on things having to do with public face.

Koreans are extremely sensitive to criticism, which was usually interpreted as scolding. At work a superior can’t criticize a subordinate unless the problem is a major thing where criticism can’t be avoided. You can’t correct anyone unless you’re in the right position, and even then you have to do it in exactly the right way.

 The only real example of Korean rules in my household was that my grandmother, who lived with us, always had the last say. I was always supposed to show respect for my grandmother and then my mother—in that order. Because my father was an American, we didn’t follow the Korean notion of putting the man first. My mother always thought she was smarter than my father, and she didn’t respect him because she could wield the power in our house. At first my father didn’t want my mother to work, didn’t want her to learn English or to drive a car. He kept her away from all those things, but she outsmarted him.

Gay bars? I prefer not to think about gay life here. It’s too repressed. It’s really depressing. And it seems to be unsafe. There’s so much extortion of gays who’ve been found out—from what I hear. It’s so sordid I haven’t had much of an urge. I went to one place downtown. It was like something from the fifties. Everyone there was married and going to stay married for another twenty years. It was sad. I wouldn’t want to live with the kind of fear gay people have here.

There’s another kid I know. He’s a Korean American who was adopted. He grew up in Hawaii, which is very supportive of Asians and Europeans and everybody all mixed together. He lived in Japan before he came here, and his Japanese is much better than his Korean, which is kind of poor. Someone introduced me to him, hoping that we would get along and maybe date or something. But I wasn’t interested in him. He was always complaining about Korea, and he expected me to hate it as much as he did. When I told him I liked it, he was really taken aback—couldn’t believe it. I didn’t like hanging around with him because he was so negative about Korea.

He asked me what I liked about it. I had nothing particular to tell him, just that I felt comfortable here, in a city this size I had the feeling of being in a huge place. It felt good being in New York too. The subways in Seoul, my God—clean, safe.

Right now I’m ready for a vacation. I’ve spent so much time in the city in the last ten months. With school and work it’s been kind of rough. I want to go back home to see my friends. But I’ll be back as soon as possible.