Doing Culture, Part 3: What Does It Mean to be Korean American?

Following up on the post about doing culture, I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning over the last year. A couple of comments I’ve heard recently have been along these lines: You as caucasian American parents can’t really give back to your child the culture he’s lost, right? And he won’t really be seen as Korean anyway since he has white parents, right?

Well, yes and no to both questions. It’s true that I’ll never be able to give back to J all of what he lost when he joined our family. He will never know what it feels like to grow up with parents who look like him. He’ll likely never know the depth of his Korean lineage (although we’re in contact with some members of his birth family so he might learn parts someday). He won’t experience growing up in a Korean or even a fully Korean-American household. But what I can do is give him back what I can. I can have him learn the language and learn it with him. I can learn, teach, and find others to help us understand the customs that all Koreans know. We can explore the country’s history together; celebrate its holidays; and delve into its modern culture.

Which leads into the second question: So what? Real Koreans won’t see him as Korean anyway so why put out all that effort. This argument is a fairly new one to me, but looking back I can see that it has probably been the attitude of some Korean Americans we’ve met. As we’ve interacted with local Korean American community over the years, surprise would describe the initial reaction we got from many. Surprise that we know some words and phrases. Surprise that we like Korean food. Surprise that we know the dramas, music, musicians, actors, and actresses. And that surprise isn’t just that my husband and I know these things, but also that J knows them. They likely didn’t see him as Korean; at least, not initially.

That’s where I think that we as parents can have so much impact. It’s true that people don’t expect J to know Korean things since he has white parents. But once they realize that he does know, they look at our family differently and I believe they view him differently. In the last six months, we’ve encountered three different Korean American families who initially treated us only with indifference. Even in situations where we were in close physical proximity, eye contact was avoided as if to say we weren’t really there. Then at different times we’ve run into these families at places they probably didn’t expect us to be: Korean school and a local Korean restaurant. Immediately that attitude of indifference changed and in all three cases the families at least said “hi” to us and in one case we had a whole conversation.

Will J ever be a Korean Korean (meaning someone who grew up in the Korean culture in Korea)? Of course not. But our Korean American friends’ kids aren’t that either. Even with parents of Korean descent, these kids are definitely American and noted as such when they visit South Korea (including the ones that are fluent in the language, although some of J’s friends with Korean American parents speak less Korean than he does).

I believe with all my heart that we as adoptive parents put out the effort to embrace, learn, and teach the birth cultures of our children that they can be seen as “Korean” by others of that ethnicity (or Chinese or Ethiopian or whatever). It won’t be as if they never left that country, but they can have much of the same knowledge that others do. But to do that we can’t see our children as “just American.”

Over the course of the last year, we’ve really started to find our way in the local Korean American community. This is probably the most important step in J being seen as “Korean” because he’s learning from others of Korean descent not just us who are admittedly learning as we go. It’s taken us five years but we’re now finding a community that is all that I’d hoped it would be. And you know the most important thing I’ve learned from this community we’re becoming a part of: it’s that there is no “one way” to be a Korean American.

No two people we’ve become friends with have the same story. We have Korean American friends born to Korean American parents in the town where we live and have never been to Korea. These friends don’t have Korean names and knew little of the culture or langauge growing up but have embraced it as adults and are teaching their children about it now. We have Korean American friends who immigrated here as adults and still cook Korean food every day at home. Some of these families have children who were born here that love Korean food and culture, while some of the children think of themselves as fully American. We know mixed-race Korean Americans and Korean Americans who are adoptees.

And I love that our son is seeing that there isn’t one definition of what it means to be Korean American. “Being Korean” can and does mean many different things–and none of them are right or wrong. Some may think that’s the best reason to wait and see what our child’s interest is in his birth culture. I say it’s the best reason to begin building a foundation of knowledge that will allow J as he grows to make his own definition of what “being Korean” means to him.

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My Korean Culture Blog

Just a reminder that if you want to learn more about Korean culture (both traditional and pop culture), language resources, and cooking, check out my other blog: thekoreanway.wordpress.com It's filled with resources for adoptive families or anyone interested in Korean culture.

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Be Strong, Geum-Soon
Please Teach Me English
Spy Girl
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2009 Lost Memories

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