neither one, or the other

March 24, 2011 |  Category:   family favorite posts growing up half life me remembering

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 coin-less 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.

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  • kara March 24, 2011 at 5:05 am

    thank you for writing this. I really, really enjoy reading your thoughts.

  • siri March 24, 2011 at 5:22 am

    I always like your posts about growing up (you should thank your parents for having so many fantastic photos from you childhood). The part that fascinates me the most is the language issue- why immigrant parents decide to speak to their children in their new nation’s language and how this ends up affecting their kids later on in life. It’s a big issue here in Norway and many people think that not only will speaking broken Norwegian to your kids make them pick up bad pronounciation/grammer/overall poor language skills, but it means that they’ll never be fluent in what would normally be their mother tongue. It would be interesting to hear how it was for you growing up- did your parents only speak English to you?

  • Susan March 24, 2011 at 8:15 am

    I really enjoyed reading this Jenna…you had a long journey, and I love where you ended up. I have to say…you were an adorable child, and your Mom is gorgeous…I think you look so much like her. 😉

  • Atsuko March 24, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Hello Jenna,
    This is my first time to post. I recently I came accross your website. Since then, I am hooked. I love the ways you write, your pictures, and your thinking styles. Moreover, recipes you shared are amazing!

    As you can see from my name, I am 100% Japanese. My soon-to-be husband, Justin, is 100% Russian who is 3rd generation and has the family keeping Russian cultures. Therefore, I go through what you mentioned in the archive. Despite of the fact both come with different cultural backgrounds, I would like to teach my child about them with no confusions in US. From your previous posts, I noticed you shared with your daughters your cultures through food. What are other things you do with them? Do you plan to have them attend a Korean school so that they can speak to your family in Korean?

    Lastly, it was very funny to hear that many think of Asian as Chinese. I face this LOTS. I do not know why, but I know each Asian looks different, which Justin recently understood in his first trip to Japan/Asia.

  • heather March 24, 2011 at 9:16 am

    that was beautifully written and the photos are lovely. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.

  • Ling.Lem March 24, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Yes, agreed with Susan – your Mom is beautifully gorgeous !! Thank you for posting this. You wrote my thoughts, Jenna.

  • Karen March 24, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Lovely post, and certainly a lot to ponder. My only comment is that although some of the old traditions may fade, you and your family are creating new traditions that will carry through the years with your girls. I’m an eternal optimist, so my reaction to this post is to just be amazed by the possibilities and opportunities that exist for each of us This post makes me want to go home to my parent’s house, curl up on a sofa and flip through old photo albums. 🙂

  • yen March 24, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Jenna, great post. One of the things I am discovering now that I am raising my own children in their own multi-culti environment is a strong need to balance American vs Asian cultures for them. And I’ve found that I almost relate more to other Asian Americans my age who have families, something about the inbetween place where we grew up related to what we want for our own kids. Anyway, it’s totally fascinating to me and super wonderful to hear your own thoughts about growing up in the States.

  • Annika March 24, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Thank you for sharing this.
    It’s fascinating and I love how you write about your childhood.
    A friend of mine has a similar story of not fitting into either society – her mother came as a nurse from Korea as well (but to Germany), married a German and my friend never learned Korean. She was the Asian in Germany and the Western in Korea.

    And your mother – I second Susan – looks so good in front of the White House.

  • Annie March 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Wow Jenna, once again a fantastic, well written post. amazing the journey you have taken and how honest and open you are about it.
    the pictures are lovely and your mom’s style and beauty are just beautiful and perfect.

  • Renita March 24, 2011 at 10:27 am

    OMG! I used to stress out when it came to elementary school holiday stuff. I remember my first ‘Kris Kringle Exchange’ in 1st grade …. I couldn’t grasp the tradition and my mother certainly couldn’t explain it. And my mother was so practical too …. I ended up exchanging socks with who ever my exchange partner was. Going to birthday parties were also a nightmare, once my mother bought underwear for my 3rd grade best friends party. HER mother was grateful, I had died of embarrassment. I still have anxiety when it comes to social things. Not necessarily from all of those experiences, but they are there …. go figure.

  • Renita March 24, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I love the 70’s

  • monica of hola!design March 24, 2011 at 10:34 am

    As an immigrant I can relate to this post. I try to adapt to the American Culture and sometimes get conflicted that I don’t celebrate my country’s holidays or traditions/. I’ve put so much effort into learning English and improving my accent that when I try to speak Spanish I actually have trouble remembering words.

    BY the way, I can’t get over at how beautiful your mom looks in these pics.

  • sarah March 24, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Love this post & the pictures Jenna. I’m always so interested in the backstories of the bloggers I follow, and your writing is so enjoyable to read. Thanks for sharing!

  • Phuong March 24, 2011 at 10:55 am

    My family immigrated to the US when I was 1 and a half years old so I can relate to not being born American but practically so. We are Chinese from Vietnam which adds an interesting twist. I have also had my moments when I wished my parents were more American but I also remember times where I felt very lucky to have 2 (or 3) cultures from which to draw insight from. My parents made a very conscious effort to speak to their kids only in Cantonese and I’m forever grateful to them for it. I have no idea what I will do when I have kids. My Cantonese has gotten so bad after years of not living at home.

  • patricia March 24, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Great, great post Jenna. I was born here and lived my teenage years (the 80s) in Colombia so I get SO much of what you’re saying. I totally remember Jordache as a kid, then I experience several years of Different Strokes, Love Boat etc dubbed in Spanish (among others) while away, and I had never heard of Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club until I got back for college. I have Colombian friends that consider me the “gringa” and American friends that don’t really consider me fully American even though I was born here. I’m in the middle—talk about teenage identity crisis! You may have been lumped in with the Chinese, in Texas we are all lumped in with Mexicans. So it’s been interesting to say the least…

  • C March 24, 2011 at 11:19 am

    we all need to label ourselves because we think we need to define ourselves by saying I’m “american”, “asian american”, “korean-american” etc, if we keep thinking more about this, the more we feel torn and divided about trying to stay “true” with each roots you grew up with or because for instance, your parents wanted you to…

    i tell people, i only become chinese temporarily when i go to a chinese restaurants or eat rice or anything that is my favourite asian food…

  • Catherine March 24, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I love this post, Jenna. Great photos, too. This very same topic has been on my mind lately also (probably in light of the Alexandra Wallace video scandal). But I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying. I didn’t move to the US until I was almost twelve and my parents encouraged us to continue to speak Tagalog (Filipino) at home. My struggles dealt more with rules and norms – and dealing with the ways my parents preferred to do things and trying to respect that – vs how I was learning to deal with things being in the US (then Canada at 17!). In high school, there was a point were I remember wanting to assimilate. I agree, we didn’t have any good role models back then! We all go through a period of cultural shame of some form. I have never identified as either American or Canadian, per se. I did not spend my childhood in Canada. I’m comfortable and take pride in being Filipino first, but someone who grew up in North America. It frustrates me to see Filipinos/Asians who grow up hanging on to cultural shame (usually passed down by their parents) and haven’t found pride in being a product of BOTH cultures.

  • Sue March 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    LOVE the flashback and your thoughts…I detect a goldenrod Pinto and a cottonwood Nova in that first pic – I’ll bet there’s an 8-track player inside each of those, with a Rush tape waiting to be inserted!

  • Christina March 24, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for another lovely, thought provoking piece. I think everyone growing up struggles with self-identity, but it is all the more difficult when there are internally/externally perceived differences from the majority (e.g., differences due to race, tradition/culture, religion, size, physical/mental handicaps, etc.). Based on your posts, you seem like a very well-adjusted, perceptive and open/tolerant person and I’m sure you’re passing all those wonderful things on to your daughters (and to people like us!).
    BTW, regarding your comment about “automatically assumed to be Chinese” … I suspect that may be related to our country’s history and migration patterns – the early Asian immigrants happened to be Chinese so often all Asians were lumped together, in a “you are more like ‘them’ than like ‘me'” mentality, regardless of actual ethnicity. Plus a lot of pop culture in the 70’s related to Asians were of the Bruce Lee / Kung Fu mode.

  • Bernadette March 24, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I’ve recently started reading your blog via Little Brown Pen. I love your photos and writing. Your children are beautiful as are you.

    I felt compelled to comment on this post because I feel exactly the same way. I was born in the 70s in Chicago to Filipino parents. I grew up listening to the Carpenters, the Bee Gees, roller skating and watching Donny and Marie. I don’t speak the Philippine language and really feel like an American inside and Asian/Filipino on the outside (I am 1/4 Chinese and look more Chinese…so I’m told). Sometimes, I am more knowledgable about American culture in the 70s/80s than my 3rd generation Irish/American husband!

    Life even got more interesting for me when my parents decided to move from Chicago to Montana while I was in high school. Everyone thought I was a foreign exchange student and spoke very slowly to me. I loved and hated the look on their faces when I spoke to them in non-accented english!

    One question I had for you, do other Asians (especially strangers that you encounter anywhere) try to guess your nationality? It’s a game that I call ‘Name Which Asian Country I’m From’ – no one ever can guess. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • Caroline March 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Wonderfully written! There’s always a clarity of thought in your writing that brings me back as a reader. Thank you!

    So so identify with your struggle.. I am Hong Kong born and transplanted to Canada, now married to a Canadian guy and raising our mixed race daughter. Mix in the confusion that already existed in my family from being mixed (great grandfather changed the family name from Mackenzie to Chan to try and assimilate with the Chinese) and you have one confused puppy! But like you I’ve come to terms with it in recent years.

    It helps that in Chinatown or even back in Hong Kong, people are less judgmental of overseas Chinese who are Westernized, or inbetweeners who arent fluent in Chinese. There are just SO many overseas Chinese and overseas-educated people that I think cultural identity has become more fluid and less rigidly thought of than before.   

  • Julie and Nina from Casablanca March 24, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    wow what a really moving post, It is really interesting to read about your childhood and the fact that you always had to adjust even without noticing sometimes between two identities. It is also weird for me to think that my daughter who is french, born in France and came here in Morocco when she was 3 will maybe have no memory at all about her past life in France ( fortunetaly I have tones of pics and videos but stil it is stange to realise that now at 4 and a half she starts not to remember the details of what we were living in Europe…) but it is and it was certainly the same for your parents good to see her fell at ease in what is still a foreign country for me but sure is her country now 😉

  • gina March 24, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    My story differs from yours in that I am an American born woman of Korean heritage. Each of my parents emigrated to the US in the 50’s and met while graduate students in Seattle. They straddled the cultural divide but fortunately for me and thanks in part to their socially progressive attitudes, they strove to assimilate. While never forgetting their respective pasts, each embraced
    the present.

    Unlike your experiences in the 70’s and 80’s, ethnic and cultural pride was alive on college campuses. As a freshman in the mid 70’s I met all kinds of students who were dragging me to everything and anything having to do with ECHP (Ethnic Cultural Heritage Pride). It was great and confusing because for me, my
    “culture” was Pacific NW not my supposed “motherland”. But the push for recognizing ethnic origins and creating awareness that “American” does not always = Caucasian was a welcome change. Clearly we have far to go.

    My children are half Korean and half mutt and the first time I heard some kid pulling his eyes and singing “ching chong chinaman” (or should I say “ching chong, ling long, ting tong”?) to one of my boys I was shocked. That was 10 years ago and here we are today with the rant about the hoards of Asians at UCLA who have no “American manners”.

    Because of my slanted eyes, men have spoken to me in Japanese or Korean because they assumed English was not my native language and women have marveled that I speak “with no trace of an accent”. Ya gotta have a sense of humor.

    Ah so.

  • michelle March 24, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Loved reading this one.

    I grew up in Virginia in the 70’s and it was the same thing here:
    it didn’t matter that I was Filipino, all the other kids assumed
    I was Chinese. Also, in wanting us to assimilate, my parents did not teach us Tagalog.

    Also wanted to say that J. Lyons has nothing on you, girl!
    The socks with the sandals, the red slingback clogs……you were clearly ahead of your time!

  • Lani March 24, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Great story, Jenna. I love reading about your childhood. I especially love those pictures!

  • mary katharine March 24, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Great post. Super captured images … and your mother is so beautiful!!

    Reading this reminds me of an old movie … Bhowani Junction (1956). Great movie … similar theme.


  • Jennifer March 25, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Thank you for sharing your story–it was very interesting to hear your experience. I grew up in the same time period, but in an area with little cultural diversity, so I loved learning about what your life (and other commenter’s) life feels like.

  • Emily March 25, 2011 at 6:19 am

    I can really empathise with this post. I was born in New Zealand to and Australian mother and a British father. I grew up in Australia. I currently live in England. It’s difficult for me whenever someone asks where I’m from. I have to say this giant mouthful of, “Well I was born here, raised here…” and often they simplify it (in their minds) as “Yes, but where do you call home?” I find this question extremely challenging, mainly because it’s so personal to me. I don’t specifically have a ‘home’ – my parents are separated and live in different countries. It’s interesting how often this happens in our modern world. Thankyou for this post, it helps me to see that this issue affects a lot of people and I’m not so singular after all.

  • Erica March 25, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Hi Jenna – There are so many things in this post that I can relate to – I kept saying “that’s me too!” I definitely feel like there’s something missing or holding my older cousins and I back from getting really close. I always thought it was the language barrier – I barely speak Chinese and they speak it as their first language. The part that struck me the most and something I never actually realized was what you wrote about your time in college. I joined the Asian American Club, but never felt like I fit in – I never felt Chinese enough. It was also really hard when I was planning my wedding to try to meld my parents’ traditional expectations (tea ceremony, inviting all my parents’ friends) with my and my husband’s more Americanized wants. There were certainly a lot of arguments! Now, I feel a lot more comfortable in my skin and have a good middle ground. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t expect to be the super-Chinese American who knows everything about both sides of culture.

    Love the photos!

  • Esther March 26, 2011 at 6:32 am

    Always love your posts. Specially when you talk about your childhood. It was interesting how you express the your identity. I was more thinking I am ‘not’ Korean or Australian. I.. kind of get it now. I am ‘all’ too!
    Thank you.

    p.s About your mom… sure she was nurse? Too gorgeous to be a nurse.

  • Jenna March 26, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    @Siri, the fact that my brother and I are not fluent is a sensitive topic. My dad talks to me in Korean probably 85% of the time. I speak to him in English. People have remarked that it’s interesting to hear us talk to each other back in forth without missing a beat in 2 different languages. I think it’s because I came here at a young age and I was encouraged to learn English to assimilate in this new country – plus growing up, I spent a lot of time in daycare, babysitters and eventually at school so I was speaking more English than Korean. But like anything, if you don’t practice, then you just lose your language skills. I was much more fluent when my grandmother lived with us for a number of years after my brother was born. It’s amazing. She’s been in NY for 35 years and still doesn’t know how to speak English.

  • sally March 26, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    your mother is gorgeous!

  • CHOEUNYOUNG March 28, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Great story, photo. i awalys expect ypur post~. i’m your pan.
    ? ??? ? ????,.?? ???? ???????? ????? ?????,
    ?? ????? ???? ,?? ??? ????? ???? ????~

  • Manya March 29, 2011 at 5:11 am

    I adore this post! Jenna your clothes remind me of “That Girl”…remember? The early 70’s was my favorite era, because that was the time we moved to the States to live with my dad. I got my first Twiggy and Dawn dolls, tasted peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches, and pressured myself to drink milk, because the rest of the kids were drinking! I had to grow up in America but the Greek way….imagine that! I have a very looong story to tell about it!!!
    Kisses from Athens!

  • ChantaleP March 29, 2011 at 9:44 am

    This hit home. Really. Like reading about what I’ve been thinking all these years.. all those pressures of achieving, of being born here and not speaking the language, of being looked down upon by other koreans because of it, or seeing the pity on their face. It was hard for our parents, it was hard on us and after all these years, I’m still too ‘north american’ for the asian side and too asian to be a quebecer. I embrace both now but still feel like I’m floating around. Awesome insight Jenna.
    I only wish I had your fashion sense when I was a kid too. ?

  • Anna April 4, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I was born in Korea and came to the US when I was 3 as well! I can’t speak Korean fluently either. I forgot it all and never got it back despite 7 years of Korean school. I want to become an American citizen, but my parents are against it. Your pictures are beautiful.

  • fine little home April 9, 2011 at 3:13 am

    thank you for writing this, i can relate in so many ways. i of course could not have written it with such grace. i am born and raised in the US but my mother is from Mexico and my father is from Texas but also Mexican. my mother speaks to me in Spanish and my father in English, i started to speak only in English at age 4 and i feel sad that i didn’t keep my first language. i don’t feel Mexican and I don’t feel American but like you somewhere in between. as a young girl i wanted to look more “Mexican”, i didn’t want to blend in. i wanted darker skin and to speak with a accent like my mother. i also loved having a name that was different from the children in school. it made me feel unique. now as an adult i just wish i spoke more fluently in Spanish but at least i understand it. thanks again for sharing your life with us, Dagne ; )

  • maja April 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you for your story 🙂