Monday, 21 October 2013

"I hated being Korean" - My Korean-Australian Story

"Sometimes I hated the fact that I was Korean because I couldn't identify myself with the culture or find it relevant in my life and what surrounded me."

Hey musers,

So as you guys know, I am an Australian-born Korean, which means in terms of culture (language, traditions, music, food... the lot), I grew up with a confusion of both Aussie and Korean. I ate Korean food at home, and Aussie food out. I watched both Aussie tv and Korean dramas. I spoke English to my dad and Korean to my mum. You get the picture.

In terms of language, I went to Korean school on Saturdays, speaking only Korean at home until pre-school (Kindergarten in some countries) then almost completely lost it once I entered primary school. This got so bad and had my parents so concerned that I remember my mum started a gentle 'game' where my sister and I were only allowed to speak Korean with her (to preserve the language), and if either of us spoke English, we received the '꿀밤' punishment - getting finger-flicked on the forehead. [I think it worked for a while, but not for long.] It was supposed to encourage us to keep our Korean language, but perhaps.. JUST perhaps it worked for the opposite - at least for me. (FYI, my sister has perfectly fluent tertiary-level Korean, whilst mine is pretty good but at an elementary level. I really believe it's a personality thing. She always embraced Korean things much better than me.)

Since I didn't really grow up around a huge Korean community though (unlike some of my Aussie-Korean friends who grew up in huge Korean churches, or extended families and local communities), it was pretty hard to sustain this 'Korean-culturing' just from my few hours at home every day after school. Everything else I did was in English.

For example, at school I spoke, wrote, read, thought and communicated in English alone.. I read English books (20 books from the library every fortnightly visit), I just pretty much thought I was Australian.. with this Korean-ness forced upon me by my heritage. Sometimes I hated the fact that I was Korean because I couldn't identify myself with the culture or find it relevant in my life and what surrounded me.

This was particularly exacerbated by any racism that was so prevalent in Australian society during those days. I went to a highly Anglo Catholic primary school. I remember wanting to hide my lunches from my friends sometimes because they would bring 'normal' food, like nutella sandwiches, ham and cheese toasties, pasta etc, whilst my mum mostly packed me things like rice, jabchae, Korean pre-packaged red-bean paste bread, kimbab - 김밥 (sushi without the raw fish) etc. Now that I think back to it, my mum was just being sweet and doing what she thought was good for me - coming straight from Korea where lunch (doshirak - 도시락) is time to pack your kids with energy-rich food.. brown rice, lots of different side dishes (banchan - 반찬). Plus, in Korea this is really appreciated and it's normal for kids to share their food with each other. I guess my mum simply didn't realise the culture was so different in Australia. Of course I never voiced this out to her so she wouldn't have known it either.

Remember this was when I was a little kid. If I had this food NOW, I'm all YUMMM! But in primary school, when you're by yourself in a very different environment and of course you are young trying to fit in and find good friends, it was hard. I remember one time I had kimbab, and the boys (or girls) sitting around me looked at it, pointing and scrunching up their noses, "Is that SEAWEED???""Do you eat raw fish??" "Eww!" It was so embarrassing. It didn't even have raw fish in it!! How mean can kids be right? Hahahaha. So brutally honest.

This makes me also realise how much times have changed. I see all different nationality kids bringing packets of salted dried seaweed for recess snacks now. They munch on it like chips and most don't even realise it's Korean until I tell them. Haha! Koreans don't eat it just out of the packet like that either.. lol so hardcore

It's interesting though because as a primary school teacher even to this day, I can see this still happening on the playground. Not just for asians, but amongst students from all different backgrounds. I've ground it down to the factor that even in our multicultural society, it's just a 'child thing'. When you're young you seem to be much more acutely aware of how 'different' you are from others, or how others are 'different' from you - hence school yard bullying etc. It's pretty bad and my heart kind of breaks when I see anything like that happening when teaching at school and do everything I can do stop students from behaving or thinking in such manner. (Students tease each other about the shade of their skin. Yes. Even now.)

For the teachers: I believe you can change this through effective teaching. If you're a caring teacher who practises inclusivity and holds no subconscious racism inside of your own mentality, you can really make a difference in how children grow up with insecurities versus confidence in their own skin.

ANYWHOS.... Moving on.

It's so funny to reflect back on this because it's sort of all just flooding in as I write about it. I haven't remembered these memories in a long time.

Growing up in high school, when I started to attend one of the largest Korean churches in Sydney (where I later met oppa^^), I began to find myself more surrounded with Korean friends. I realised that these kids might not have grown up with the worries of not belonging etc, as much as me, since most of them had each other at least on the weekends where they could identify with each other as Koreans, and be in a place where that Korean culture really came alive and was relevant.

By this time, my Korean had pretty much disintegrated. I could understand the basics (save the hard vocab), but couldn't string a sentence together properly. Pronunciation was pretty bad too. 2-3 hours on Saturday was simply not enough to sustain one's second language skills. The only thing I was exposed to that was Korean was the food I ate at home, some of the weird Korean dramas my mum and dad watched (I really thought they were lame, acting was bad, stories were so predictable, and my mum pretty much forced me to watch a lot of them with her hahaha), as well as the Korean pop music. THAT, I did not mind. I grew up listening to G.O.D., FINKL, SES, H.O.T. (omg they were so big back then hahaha) and the likes. Anyone identify with?

How things have changed! G.O.D.'s music was so good. I still listen to their songs sometimes. Does anyone remember 거짓말 (lie)? (Woman shrieking "싫어! 싫어!"ㅋㅋㅋㅋ)

So anyway, when I started going to the Korean church during about Year 8, where there was approximately a 70/30 mix of both Aussie-born Koreans to Korean-born Koreans (thus lots of 'FOBS' who spoke better Korean than English), I started becoming much more Korean in everything I did. I chatted online in Korean, spoke much more, sang Korean Christian songs, read Korean stuff, went out with a Korean 'fob', and even had my own Cyworld - Korea's version of Facebook, before Facebook existed. Naturally, I started liking the Korean view of beauty better too. It was just more suitable for me.

So as you can see, my Korean-Australian upbringing had lots of ups and downs. Lots of internal struggles, lots of self-reflection and search for identity and belonging (feels like a HSC belonging essay).

Now, it seems almost a lifetime later and of course way past the puberty adolescent teenage emo stage, I am proud to say I am a true Aussie-Korean.

Here's my view of it all now:

I have found the balance between being an Australian and a Korean.
I believe I'm intrinsically Australian in the way I relate to and operate in Australian society, but am inherently Korean in the way I relate to and operate in Korean society. I realised many years ago that I don't have to just identify with one in particular, or completely be one and not the other, but approach both of my identities with respect, honour and love for both cultures. Thus, when relating with Koreans I become a Korean. When relating with Australian society I become an Australian.
I sing the Australian national anthem with pride, and teach Australian history to students with a sense of honour and significance in knowing that the next generation will grow up with an appreciation of how our country came about. Note: This ancient land really belongs to Aboriginal Australians, so no one has any right to feel superiority over anyone in the first place. We are all immigrants here!
I sing the Korean national anthem with a sense of love for the country of my ancestors. I acknowledge the Korean way of thinking, even things which are so completely opposite to the Western ways (e.g. daughter in laws, expectations of women etc - perhaps I will do a separate post about that too since it's so little talked about and many still struggle with this).
It took a while, and lots of struggle, but God taught me how to balance this and have peace about it.

So, although my English is definitely 3000% better than my Korean, and I am actually much more Aussie than Korean in pretty much all aspects except for 'beauty-related matters', I can truthfully say I am proud to be both Korean and Australian. Many might not understand the plights I've just shared, as living and growing up as the first generation in a society where you're the minority, is an experience you just can't identify with unless you go through it yourself.

Another thing that makes me perfectly confident in myself, no matter what environment or who I am surrounded by, is that I present myself as just... well, me. I don't present myself to people as a Korean, nor an Australian. I am just who I am. If I'm at work, I am a professional. I present my skills and good workplace attitude, because that's what I'm there for. When I'm a teacher, I am that - a teacher; when I was a student, I was simply that - a student. If you know me in real life, you'll know that I am not afraid to confidently participate in discussions or get involved with things without letting that racism cloud get to me in the least (you guys know what I'm talking about - you can't see it but you can feel it in the air). The only thing your race should affect is in giving you an upper hand in openness, broad-mindedness, and a rich culture to boast about. Having said this, you shouldn't ever need to hide your ethnic background, but seriously - be proud of it.

Be humble, work hard, be professional, be genuine - and others will start to treat you by your standards rather than by the stereotypes of who they think you should be.

Being an Asian in a Western-dominated society can be confronting at times. Sometimes you need to be that extra 5% more brave than others. Sometimes you need to pull out your blind eye to the blatant racism that surrounds you. Above all, just be who you are. Be excellent at what you were born to do. Excel in your talents and present them to society. Show your care and virtues. Stay true to your personality. If you're shy, that's ok. That's who you are so be proud of it!! If you aren't accepted on the basis of your looks, others are missing out and it's their problem. As long as you remain focused and treat people right, you're doing your job without fault. Challenge yourself to greater heights and you will grow in ways that you never thought possible.

In all, I'm just grateful to God for who He made me and where He chose me to be born. And in appreciation of who He created me to be, I'm embracing all of it whole heartedly.

I love Korea and I love Australia. And I'm proud to be from both countries!!

That's my Korean-Australian story.
What's yours? :)

Love Jen