When I wrote that Tiger Mom related post last month, I was reminded of the identity struggles I grew up with as a first generation Asian-American. I often felt that I was straddling between 2 cultures, never completely one nationality or the other. Often I felt like I was expected to behave one way with my family, which sometimes conflicted with what I felt was the “American” way of doing things.
I’m a US citizen, but I wasn’t born here. I came to NYC in the 70s with my dad when I was 3 and reunited with my mom who had already been working here as a nurse for 2 years when she left Korea when I was a year old (a different story for another day). Immigrating to America when you’re 3 is a lot different than immigrating to America when you’re 8, which is when many of my younger cousins came. At 3, you’re just starting to grasp language skills. Throw in a move to a foreign country where suddenly everyone is speaking a different language and you have some confusion at a critical time when you’re learning how to speak. Not surprisingly, I am not fluent in Korean and what I do know was learned at Korean school in my later years. My cousins who came when they were older, on the other hand, can speak the language fairly well. Because of this, I felt there was always a cultural and language divide among my large family of cousins – those who were born in the US and those who came at a later age, 8 or older. I related most with my cousins who were born here since I came at such an early age and I had no real memories of Korea.
Even though the few early memories I have of coming to NY were somewhat traumatic, kids adapt to new environments fairly quickly and soon I was just about as American as any other kid on the block. Back then, in the 70s, you didn’t really want to be different even in a diverse city like NY. I assimilated into American culture so I could fit in like everyone else and even my name, my full name, was given to me by my mom because it was the most popular name of that era (Jennifer). By the time I hit public school, I was choreographing dance numbers with my friends to the BeeGees, becoming obsessed with the Jackson Five, and developing crushes on Leif Garrett and the members of the Bay City Rollers just like any other American kid in the 70s. I remember being really frustrated, however, because my parents weren’t aware of so many “American things” like the tooth fairy. When I lost my first tooth, I hid that that thing under my pillow and checked every morning, only to discover that my tooth was still there. Finally after a few fruitless nights, I took that tooth and marched over to my mom and told her all exasperated, “you’re supposed to be the tooth fairy! You have to leave me a quarter under my pillow! Why don’t you know this?!”.
At some point my parents thought it would be a good idea to reacquaint myself with Korean culture, so the one and only time I ever went back to Korea was in 1981. I was part of the first government sponsored trip of about 20 or so Korean-American students ranging from age 10-17 and we stayed with host families for a month. We toured the country together, learned about history, culture and traditions, and then I stayed on for another month with my relatives. In Korea, I was paraded around by my cousins as their “American cousin”. Their friends bought it because my hair wasn’t jet black and I wore fat red shoe laces on my Nike sneakers. At age 11, I remember getting into a fight with my mom prior to the trip about what to wear to the airport, where some of our relatives would be meeting me for the first time since I left the country. My mom wanted me to wear a dress and look nice, to show respect for my relatives. I wanted to wear jeans and a logo t-shirt, either Sassoon or Jordache, which was really popular back in those days. I knew all my other friends on the trip would be wearing the same. I guess I won that battle because my mom did eventually let me go in jeans and a t-shirt, but I also remember my Korean relatives expressing bewilderment at my “coming home” outfit.
I know most kids go through wardrobe battles with their parents, but for me and probably other first generation immigrants, it was also about something more, something deeper than the clothing. At home, we were taught never to forget our ethnic heritage, but at school, I did my best to not remind myself or others of my Asian-ness so I could fit in. It was also a defense mechanism to avoid any racial teasing because as an Asian-American, or the so-called “model minority”, there were all these stereotypes that we were geeks, adding to the pressure and expectations to be academic overachievers. To many Americans, we were also lumped together into one group. It didn’t matter if you were Japanese or Korean or Chinese. Back then, if you looked Asian, you were automatically assumed to be Chinese no matter how many times you clarified that you were not and that being Korean was in fact, different from being Chinese. This just added to the overall identity confusion. Was I Asian? Was I Korean? Was I American?
Growing up was always about that push and pull between 2 cultures. It made me think twice about doing really normal teenage things like going out on dates in high school or bringing a boyfriend home, neither of which I did when I lived at home. There’s a reason why neither my brother or I told my dad about our respective partners until we were ready to get married. I always wished I grew up in an American family where normal things like that wasn’t such a big issue and so complicated. I totally laugh about this now, but I used to worry all the time about how I would disappoint my parents whenever I decided to break it to them that I was planning on being a rockstar when I grew up. I was serious too and that stress was real, but we didn’t have those kind of role models growing up that I could point to. Asians played classical violin or piano at Carnegie Hall, but you never saw them on MTV, or movies or television shows back when I was a kid. And if you did see the rare Asian in popular culture, it was always a role that perpetuated stereotypes (Long Duk Dong in 16 Candles, anyone?).
But a really unexpected thing happened when I left my NYC art school to a attend a small town liberal arts college in Washington State. There were all these student groups that were organized by ethnicity. There were Students of Color. There were the Pan-Asian and Asian-American Coalitions. This was a new thing for me and I joined in on some events and meetings because I was encouraged to do so, but it was a jarring experience. Suddenly, it was all about Asian Pride and that just didn’t exist in the 70s and 80s. I can’t say that I felt entirely comfortable in these student groups. It’s sort of the same experience when I compare it to going to Koreatown and not being able to speak to anyone in Korean. You’re looked down on and there’s this air of disapproval. Suddenly I didn’t feel Asian enough because I didn’t know the language well enough, or the history and I wasn’t actively engaging in any of the traditions.
Needless to say, it’s been a long journey to get to where I am now, where I no longer feel uncomfortable straddling two cultures. By the time I moved back to NY and went to grad school, I was hanging out with more Asian-American friends than I ever had in my life, but we were all a bit older and we weren’t dealing with so much identity angst from our childhood and college years. It was just fun to go out and have group karaoke night in Koreatown, or organize a game of Mahjong on the 4th floor of the Tisch building or have dimsum in Chinatown.
Now that I’m a parent, I realize that it must have been hard for my parents too, to balance the traditions and expectations with a world they had just left while assimilating into the culture of a new home in America.
I think it does say something about the world (or maybe it’s our part of the world) that the issues I dealt with growing up haven’t been on my mind at all. While the sad truth remains that some of those traditions will fade as our family continues to grow into second and third generation Americans (not to mention the whole multiracial aspect of both my children and my brother’s kids), I’m doing my best to teach and remind the kids about their various ethnic roots and what being American means. I wasn’t born American, but in 1984 I chose to be. I stood there with other soon-to-be Americans in a courtroom and took that oath in a Naturalization Ceremony. Was I still Asian? Yes. Was I still Korean? Yes. Was I American? Officially, as of that oath, yes. I guess it just took many years to realize that I am all of these things.