There are lots of struggles that immigrants face when they come to America. I’ve heard about them, and have also seen them first hand when I witnessed my parents’ difficult exertions.
It’s a struggle that’s seen quite often in movies and written about in many books. But often times, the distinct problems that the native born children of immigrants face is lost in the mix. Now, I’m not writing this to diminish the efforts that my parents and many other immigrants faced, but to show how their difficulties also were profoundly felt by their children as well.
One of the biggest struggles I faced as a son of immigrants was the cultural dissonance. You know that generational gap that you face with your parents? The way you find their older mentality annoying? The difference of opinion in music, movies, politics, and pretty much everything else that makes up your life? Well, imagine that plus the cultural differences between Korean and American social life that enhance every disagreement we have.
One of the worst parts as a son of Korean immigrants is that the Korean and American culture is so different. In my experience, the American culture identity exemplifies a sort of rugged independence; it lionizes individuality, creativity and an intrepid spirit for a man to go out and find his own way- whatever the cost. I often saw it in movies as I grew up where, more often than not, the main protagonist is a hero who, for whatever reason, finds himself alone with minimal help and must save the day using his own ingenuity, and American fortitude. Pretty much, every action movie of the late 80s-to late 90s was flooded with these ideals. Die Hard, damn near any Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and every single western that I grew up watching with my grandfather extolled these virtues. I even saw it in the musical revolutions of rock, and later hip-hop music, where people would buck the trend and go their own way, even at the cost of great controversy. Some of my favorite artists were known for this- such as the counter culture punk rock of Rise Against, and the controversial lyrics of Eminem.
In stark contrast, the Korean and much of East Asian culture exalts the total opposite. Most East Asian cultures stem from a common background of Confucianism, which emphasizes the importance of filial piety, family and social harmony. Children, especially the sons, live for their parents. A good Korean son will obey his parents’ wishes, get a stable career of their choosing, marries a Korean girl, and provides for the parents.
It’s not that individuality or creativity is stifled; it just isn’t encouraged much. A person’s decision should be based on the outcome of the group, rather than himself. Personal ambition is quite often thought of as a negative quality. One should be good at what they do, but not too good to where they stand out amongst the crowd. That is the mentality that my parents grew up with in Korea.
This was the same mentality that they brought to American shores. This was what they tried to teach me during the times when they were home. However, it was a lost battle. Everyday at school I saw how they fostered the American ideals of creativity and independent thought. I saw it in the responses of my non-immigrant friends, who gave the most ridiculous answers to the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up”. My mother would have lost her damn mind if I gave responses like the ones my non-immigrant friends gave. She wanted me to be a doctor, surgeon, accountant, lawyer, or some sort of government bureaucrat or diplomat. They were all stable careers, and every one of them were professions that I knew I’d consider boring. They pushed me into music; not to find my passion or to potentially make a career out of, but rather to use as a tool to fit their intended plan.
I always found myself living a double life culturally. Inside the house I was to be an obedient son who lived for the wishes of his parents, but outside I was my own person with my own goals, dreams and desires. I could never keep these two lives apart and often this would lead to arguments and fights between my mother and I.
A proper Korean would kneel in front of his parents and accept their decision or punishment for any perceived wrong doing. Respecting them, even if I believed they were wrong was what was expected of me. In that sense, I was admittedly a terrible Korean. My independent American streak, in addition to my Korean stubbornness, meant I rarely sat quiet as I argued and belabored my point time and time again.
However, cultural dissonance is a two-way street. I found myself bringing my Korean background out more. Even to this day, when I meet someone such as a superior, or an elder, I find myself instinctively bowing, as is Korean custom. People are expected to bow to a person of higher respect and avert their eyes while doing so. The deeper the bow, the greater the sign of respect. In American culture, I saw that respect came in the form of a firm handshake and meeting the eyes of the person you’re addressing.
My difficulty in doing so often led people to view me as meek, or a subservient personality, and I was treated as such. A great example of this is how Harold, the Korean protagonist, was often viewed by his peers and co-workers, in the movie “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” People walked all over me the same. The idea of social harmony meant I often agreed to things I wasn’t a fan of for the sake of keeping the peace. It was weird, but like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the other personality kept coming up at the wrong times.
Even before my birth, my parents wanted to live vicariously through my intended successes, yet I’ve been nothing but a disappointment to my parents. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. Instead, I quit both piano and violin in exchange for a drum set and an undying appreciation for hip-hop music. I ignored looking for stable careers as some suit and tie wearing yuppie. I chose to become an Infantryman, and am pursuing a career in either law enforcement or private security work.
You see that’s one the hardest parts of being born to immigrants. My parents moved across the world to provide a better future for me. So I have to work twice as hard because I’m supposed to succeed even more than my non-immigrant friends. I have to make more money than them so that all my parents’ struggles, all the tears, all the sacrifices and gambles they had to take on are validated. That is a huge burden to rest on the shoulders of a child.
I understand that they obviously meant well. But in some selfish way, I resent them for that. Why did they have to make this decision and go all in, so to speak, on me? I wish I could live without the pressure they’ve put on me. I look at my friends, who spent time between school and their career, traveling and finding their identity, and I am envious. My parents would never understand or support a decision like that.
The language barrier was also an issue. I can read, write and speak Korean fluently. However, my parents cannot say the same about the English language. They can speak it decently, and can read and write moderately, but with difficulty. Often times I’m stuck with handling legal documents, filing forms and handling any interaction that involves E-mail or communications through the telephone. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to impersonate my father to accomplish tasks. When my friends come over for dinner, there is a lack of small talk that I often hear in my American friends’ homes. It’s not that my parents are cold or distant to my friends intentionally, but the awkwardness of a quiet dinner is only surpassed by my attempt at creating conversation with everyone. Sometimes, the silence is deafening.
My dating life has taken a huge hit, as well. My parents have always wanted me to marry a Korean girl. Korean people tend to be very proud of their culture, often to the point of xenophobia. We are very cliquish. This left me in a bit of a quandary as the environment I grew up in were predominantly Black and Hispanic, and then eventually a mostly Caucasian suburb. I dated a Puerto Rican girl, and my mother almost had a heart attack. It wasn’t that she’s racist or anything, she just could never imagine her little baby boy dating anyone but a Korean. In a weird sort of twist, this Puerto Rican girl liked Korean guys and enjoyed the Korean culture and food. This helped bridge the cultural divides a bit, but it was still doomed to failure. After her, there was a Caucasian girl of German and English descent, she had zero knowledge of Korean culture and even with my instruction made multiple faux pas in the Korean culture. This made my parents’ resent her, and in turn made me resent them.
The only relationship that my parents approved of was my relationship with a Korean girl. While we were dating I saw the huge difference in my parents’ reaction to my girlfriend. She was often given gifts, and sometimes even small amounts of money to spend. It was as if to say, “We approve. Keep this one around.” They were more open and relaxed with their conversations at the dinner table, as we all could speak Korean, social faux pas didn’t occur, and they were even willing to meet her parents. We’d all go out together on occasion to restaurants and the like. This was something that never happened before. Even for me, having a similar cultural and ethnic background made it easy for me to interact with her parents as well. Her father approved of me, if I’m to judge it by the gifts, and the money he gave me to go out and have fun with his daughter.
After that relationship ended, my mother kept stressing the importance of finding and marrying a good Korean girl. She wouldn’t stop talking about how people of different cultural backgrounds wouldn’t understand our ways such the way we celebrate our ancestors’ lives in a ceremony called Jesa¸or how we spend New Year’s day, along with our distinct food culture and social mores. To be perfectly honest, I’m beginning to see their point. Every girl I’ve talked to since then has approached my culture almost in the same way people approach an animal in the zoo. They view it as some weird, different and exotic distraction, while I viewed it as what it is to me; normal.
Sometimes I wish I just grew up in a completely American household because I wouldn’t have to wrestle with this question of my identity, it certainly would make my life easier. Other days, I’m grateful for having this intriguing duality of character as it gives me different set of eyes to see my world in, even though it creates friction in my life.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that my struggle as the son of an immigrant family is more of an internal conflict than an external one. I stand here before you as 26-year-old with an identity crisis. Am I an American? Do I forge my path by alone even at the potential cost of my relationship with my family? Or am I a dutiful Korean son who lives for his family and owes loyalty to them even above my own happiness? To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever know.
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