By Elliot Kwon, 16, Palos Verdes Peninsula HS
Print This Post
Elliot says teens should define themselves and not let others tell them who they are.

Growing up I never doubted that I was Korean. I knew the language, culture and history. I lived there from when I was a baby until I was 10. Most importantly, both of my parents are Korean. But during middle school in America I started to lose my Korean self. A trip back to Korea when I was 13 made it clear to me that American culture was slowly replacing my Korean side. I feared losing who I really am.

It started when I was 10, when we moved from Korea to Downey, a small city east of Los Angeles. I didn’t fit in very well because my English wasn’t very good. That inspired me to work harder. I watched American television. I tried to read the Los Angeles Times, and I slowly added English to my everyday life.

But as my English improved, I began to make more errors while speaking Korean at home. I figured that it was no big deal. Korean was my first language, and I would always be able to easily retrieve it. Besides, I could still understand everything when I watched Korean shows on TV, and I read the Korea Times every day. I was still clearly a Korean.

Before sixth grade, our family moved to Santa Monica, where I noticed that there were a lot more Koreans than in Downey. Many were like me—raised in Korea as kids but then they moved to the United States just before middle school. We were called the 1.5 generation because we were in between the first generation (people who came to the United States as adults) and second generation (people who grew up in the United States since they were very young).

Photo illustration by Michelle Paik, 16,
Palos Verdes Peninsula HS

These other 1.5-generation Koreans knew the latest Korean fashions and culture, watched Korean dramas on television and talked about new Korean bands. To me it seemed like they were shielding themselves from American culture, only hanging out with each other.

My attitude was different. Why focus so much on Korean things while living in America? I wanted to embrace my new culture. I tried hard to make a diverse group of friends, which worked mostly. From them I was able to learn about American culture. We watched movies, hung out at the mall and partied at the beach. I never would have had those experiences if I socialized solely with other Koreans.

I didn’t understand American slang

There was a problem, though. Even as I hung out with my American group of friends, I couldn’t help noticing how Korean I was. I didn’t know slang like “lol,” forcing me to ask my friends what they meant when they used phrases like that. Plus, when I spoke, my friends sometimes would have to ask me to repeat myself because I still had a heavy Korean accent. Being around my American friends constantly reminded me that no matter how hard I tried to be an American, there would always be a distance between me and them.

Even though I wasn’t totally Americanized, I felt my American side beginning to take over the Korean side of me. Whenever I tried to have a conversation with my mom in Korean, I would sometimes have to blurt out words or short phrases in English to complete sentences because I couldn’t remember the Korean words. My mom would give me puzzled looks, partly because she didn’t understand the English, but mostly because she didn’t understand why I couldn’t speak perfect Korean.

I felt embarrassed and grew frustrated with myself for not being fluent. I believed that speaking Korean well was the fundamental part of being Korean. Was I becoming less Korean? Compared to the other 1.5s, who immersed themselves in Korean culture, I felt like I didn’t measure up. The second generation kids seemed to have it easier, too, because they identified themselves as Americans anyway. I felt like the only one questioning my identity.

I tried to reassure myself, though, that I was still solidly Korean. My daily diet included kimchi (spicy, pickled cabbage) and rice. I still knew the geography, history and the customs. Sure, my knowledge of the current culture may have been a tad outdated, but there was no way that I would forget everything else about Korea. As long as I spoke understandable Korean and knew basic facts about my country, I would always be Korean.

As I forgot more Korean words, I kept questioning my identity. Finally, the perfect chance to resolve this “identity crisis” came the summer after seventh grade when my mom and I visited Korea.

Visiting would prove that nothing had changed about my Korean identity. Or so I thought. In reality, my expectations deflated as soon as we arrived at the airport in Korea. While going through customs I felt this strange sensation of being watched. But when I looked at these nosey onlookers, they would quickly turn away. The further I walked, the worse it got. It felt as though I was a rare exhibit—the outsider.

I forgot all about it though as soon as I saw my hometown, Daejeon. I was ecstatic beyond words! The curving road climbing gently over the forested hill, the white, high-rise apartment complexes—it was almost exactly how I remembered. I was back and I would see that it was silly worrying about my identity.

I didn’t belong in Korea either

But as the days passed I started to notice the way everyone, from vendors at the markets to even my friends, subtly hesitated and flashed uneasy looks whenever I spoke. Sometimes, people would even ask me if I was from America. It felt as if there was a bright neon sign above my head that advertised where I came from. I wasn’t sure how they knew. Didn’t I look like other Koreans?

The answer came from an unlikely source: a taxi driver. After my mom and I visited our old favorite restaurant, we called for a cab to go back to our apartment. The taxi driver didn’t say anything, which was unusual because taxi drivers in Korea were notorious for talking to their passengers too much. Since my mom and I were both bored, we talked to each other in Korean instead. When we were discussing the exact date of our departure and my mom’s plans before we had to leave for America, the driver suddenly broke his silence.
“Oh! So you’re from America?” he asked.

“Yeah. We’re just here to visit,” my mom replied.

“So that’s why …”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, at first I thought your son was kind of … um … mentally disabled but now I see why his speech seems kind of awkward. I see …”

At that point, I really wanted to punch him, but I resisted. I was very angry at his rudeness, but I finally figured out why I stood out so much from the crowd. It was my pronunciation.

When I spoke Korean, I mixed in some English vowels and consonants, like how I always mispronounced the Korean consonant that has a sound between “r” and “l.” Also, I had left Korea when I was about 10 so my vocabulary and sentence structure were limited to that level. No wonder that taxi driver thought I was slow.

Even if I wanted to be a complete American, I knew I would never be one. Simple differences set me apart from my American friends, such as not being able to say things like “What’s up?” to a teacher and instead feeling the urge to talk in the formal “Good afternoon, teacher” fashion.

Rather than resolving my Korean identity problem, this trip only served to show how out of place I felt everywhere.

Questions about my identity haunted me up to high school, when my family moved to Rancho Palos Verdes. Almost half of the students at my school are Asians, a mind-blowing number for me. Some of them are 1.5s, but many grew up in the States.

At the beginning of the school year, I simply avoided other 1.5 Koreans. I feared that if I hung out with them, I would lose the little American side that I had. I would end up getting permanently stuck in between these two cultures.

Instead, I tried to make a diverse group of friends, but it didn’t work. At my school Koreans associate with Koreans. Chinese associate with Chinese. Even 1.5-generation kids associate with other 1.5-generation kids, the second-generations with second-generations, and so on. I ended up following that trend, too, and hanging out with the 1.5s.

I met others who made me more comfortable with myself

After a couple months, I realized it was wrong for me to think that the 1.5s would talk only about Korea, because their conversations ranged from movies like I Am Legend to the difficult chemistry test we took that day. Their interests were much more diverse than I imagined. They were like me; they spoke imperfect Korean, too. Since then, I’ve become friends with them.

Ironically I started to finally become comfortable with my identity through them. We all know that it’s impossible for us to speak perfect Korean. So we mix in English sometimes. The best part is, I don’t feel ashamed about it anymore, because we all are like that.

Just talking in Korean gave us a chance to take pride in our heritage and culture. The fact that I used my native language outside of my family made me feel like I was getting more in touch with my Korean side. Though my mom still wasn’t exactly proud of my Korean, she was happy to see me using the language more.

Being around people who had the same heritage and immigration experience as me helped me start to realize that I have a choice of how I wanted to identify myself. I didn’t have to throw away one side for the other. Around Americans, I could speak English and talk about American pop culture. Around Koreans, I could speak Korean and talk about Korean dramas. I became more confident in who I am.

In the end, I’ve come to understand that no one has it any better. My second-generation friends in church sometimes admit that they wish they knew more about Korea and the language. They have it just as hard. It’s universal.

Talking with my friends about identity and finding where I belong opened up my perspective, allowing me to redefine “Korean.” I thought that the knowledge of history, current culture and language is what made a person a Korean, aside from the ethnicity.

But I realized the most important thing to being a Korean is to feel like one. The appreciation and maybe even the pride you feel whenever you see your country on television or whenever the national anthem plays, your love and devotion to your own heritage define your true identity.

Now I’m not afraid to admit that I am going through this internal struggle, the feeling of not fully belonging in Korea or the United States. I am proud to encompass both my Korean and American identities. I am a Korean-American. I am my own.