Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In Search of My Culture & Heritage

“Where are you from?” Question I’ve heard all my life. Simple yet ominous, almost always with an underlined implication that I am not from here.

Here can be subjective as well. Here in California, the U.S. or wherever I am, even in San Francisco where Asian Americans make up almost one-third of city’s population, I am often asked, where I’m really from.

Of course, I know what they mean. The question they're asking is about my heritage, my Korean heritage that is.

Truthfully, it has taken me a long time to understand my South Korean heritage and culture.
I was born in Seoul and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 10 years old. Although South Korea was an underdeveloped country then, my childhood was filled with happy memories of friends, school outings and long walks with my regal grandfather whom I’d always looked up to.

I remember distinctly the change of seasons, the bone-chilling cold winter followed by beautiful warm spring, the heat of the summer, and then cool breeze and breathtaking autumn foliage that came along with autumn.

There are childhood memories that are engraved in my mind. Birthday parties, family gatherings, and celebrating Korean traditions like annual gijesa, a memorial service performed on Chuseok and Lunar New Year and bowing before photos of ancestors who have passed away. I still remember the faces of my great grandparents and maternal grandmother.

Despite what those living in the western countries may think, the wonderment of growing up in most developing or underdeveloped countries are no different than that of developed world. Finding joy in simple things in life like puddle of frozen water in the backyard that provided an ideal place to glide or the warm summers nights spent playing outside with the kids in our neighborhood until the sun set.

The fondest memory of my young childhood was when I was first introduced to Christmas. After watching the movie “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, I asked my grandfather what the holiday meant. Of course, being a devout Buddhist at the time, my grandfather had little knowledge of Christian holidays.

My dear grandfather must have asked someone he worked with or must have referred to the movie because the next thing I knew, he had decorated one of our house plants with various fruits in shape of ornaments, and I was told, that was Christmas.

Aside from the wonderful childhood memories, there wasn’t a lot I knew about South Korea.

I arrived in the U.S. before we began to learn history, social science or anything else that really defines a country, and everything I learned about my heritage and culture was as an immigrant in the U.S.    

Although I spent most of my life acclimating into the new environment, immersing myself into the culture and language of the new country, every holidays and special days were spent with my family, including new members of the community who recently arrived in the States. I was taught at an early age the gold rule of Korean culture, “We take care of our own.”

However, having been educated in a conservative region in the U.S., there wasn’t a lot of exposure to history and politics of Asia. More time was spent on Nixon Watergate Scandal than understanding the Korean War, only premise being, North Koreans are bad; South Koreans are allies.

Six year had passed before I returned to South Korea. By then, only thing I was interested in was being an All American girl next door. Like most teenagers, I was caught up in the shopping frenzy in Seoul and had little interest in attractions and historical sites. All I cared about was going to Itaewon or Dongdaemun, the prime shopping area for knockoff designer merchandise and hitting the next food stall or restaurants.

Then, 20 years later, I went back to South Korea as an English Teacher. Aside from being able speak and understand basic Korean, I knew so little of the country in which I was born, and I went about my day as an outsider looking into the country I barely knew or understood.

My foreignness did not go unnoticed by the locals as well. Most South Koreans I encountered asked me, “Where are you from?” They, too, did not see me as one of their own, as a Korean. Nevertheless, I was embraced as something else, something different. In Korea, I am what the natives refer to as gyopo (교포), referring to people who, as a result of living outside the home country, have lost touch with their Korean roots. I had become a foreigner in my home country.

Although I’d spent my teenage and young adult life living up to the image of what an American should be, I began to see the value in my own culture. I had always cherished the memories of my childhood in South Korea, and even after three decades of living abroad, all the memories and familiarity came rushing back.  

I remembered the generosity of the people, like the courteous shop keepers and hospitable restaurant owners and staff, the caring little old ladies (halmonies) sitting on public transportation who would offer to hold my heavy bag if I’m standing in front of her, and the stoic taxi and bus drivers who would go out of their way to help you just because you needed it.

I didn’t need to be a fellow citizen, everyday human kindness superseded boundaries of race and ethnicity.

I have spent the past decade revisiting and learning more about South Korea, a country where the warmth of the people embraces you from the moment you get off the plane.

After the birth of my son, it became even more important to understand its culture and share with him the things that I loved as a child.

It came as a surprise to see how easily he acclimated in South Korea, especially how much he loves the food. It's been a joy to see his face light up when he is sitting in pojangmacha (a small tented food stall) having delicious street foods like spicy rice cakes, fish cakes, fried squid and hotteok, learning Korean history and traditions at the National Museum, or giddy about staying overnight at a traditional hanok inn (a traditional Korean house) where we slept on the floor like I used to when I was a little girl. 

He bares none of the stigma of being a gyopo and has all the freedom to explore and experience everything with a fresh perspective. 

At the same time, I can see that he feels the connection that binds us to the land, and he understands the heritage that is part of him.  Not only the history and tradition, but also the importance of being socially conscious, sense of community, respect for elders, and the value of family. 

It's wonderful that with every visit, my son and I have not only discovered new places but also learned, and are learning what it means to be Korean.