During the summer of 2011, I went on a two-week summer camp to Korea sponsored by the G20 summit and by the South Korean government. The objective of the program was to bring together 1.5 and 2nd generation Korean immigrant youths from around the world back to the “homeland” to learn about Korean history and traditions. I met Koreans from England, New Zealand, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and more. I’ll never forget those two weeks. I made friends that I shared a common, cultural ground with by being Korean, yet we all differed in a way, depending on the country that we each grew up in. Learning about my new friends’ lives and experiences growing up in their respective countries, I realized just how much growing up in the States had affected my cultural identity.
I had always struggled with juggling two identities; I was too American for my relatives back in Korea, but not American enough in school because I am Korean. I spent my childhood and youth trying to reconcile the two cultural worlds that I was a part of. For years, my relatives in Korea would constantly remind me that I was Korean and couldn't lose the Korean side. I had so much pride in being Korean and in turn, this Korean pride meant that I distanced myself from being American and having American cultural habits. I didn't like being called American or Korean-American and avoided being labelled as such. But once I confronted the American part of my culture, I started to see that "Korean-American" is a separate culture in itself. There have been so many experiences in my life that are unique to the Korean-American bubble that just combining Koreans and Americans won't give you.
I am between a 1st generation immigrant (those that immigrate in their adult life like my parents) and a 2nd generation immigrant (the first to be native-born of the country). I immigrated to the US from Korea but I'm not exactly a 1.5 generation (those that move in early or during teenage years), nor am I a 2nd generation because I feel that my Korean upbringing was very established within the five years that I spent in Korea. I'm more of a 1.7 generation, which is getting nitpicky, but it's true.
It took me leaving for college for me to genuinely believe and accept how much I have assimilated into American culture. Much of my education, family dynamic, and personal style have strayed from the typical "Korean" one. I don’t wake up at the crack of dawn to study in the library before school starts, then go to tutoring sessions for hours until late hours after school as my cousins in Korea do. I talk casually to my parents as if they’re my friends, rather than with honorific speech as is traditional in a typical Korean family dynamic due to Confucian influences of filial piety. I talk openly about drugs, sex, and LGBTQ issues, which are all heavily stigmatized in a taboo-like way in Korea. I don’t fit the mold for a truly Korean girl. In a Korean’s eyes, I am American.
As part of an immigrant family, I grew up translating for my mom, even as a small child. I was her voice whenever we went out. I only spoke English at school and worried about bringing home non-Korean friends because my mom wouldn't be able to talk to them or get to know them; having friends staying over for dinner or my mom meeting their moms was just easier if they were Korean. I'd get rice and ban-chan (various side dishes) packed for lunch and because it was foreign food, I'd explain the cooking process for each dish to everyone.
More specifically in our household, we didn't celebrate the traditional "American" holidays: 4th of July, Thanksgiving, or the Labor Day weekend. I never knew what to do with those times -- 4th of July meant just chilling at home and maybe going out to see fireworks. And I only got my real, genuine Thanksgiving holiday this year when I went home with a friend for the four-day weekend.
I used to really struggle with not fitting in with one bubble or the other, and I still do but less so. I've realized that I'm part of a larger population that will never fully identify with one culture or another, but with some hybrid, happy mix of multiple cultures. Weirdly enough, the bigger problem I've had since I've moved out to college is the fear of losing my Korean-American identity. Back home, I lived in a Korean-American bubble: my friends at school, my church family, the other Korean families my parents knew, etc. At school, I'm now surrounded by a new demographic that is overwhelmingly white (from what I'm used to). Which isn't to say that it's a bad thing, just new and something to adjust to.
From spending much of my childhood fearing being called a Korean-American, it's strange to now be anxious about losing my hyphenated identity. I've come to embrace the duality of my cultural identity more than I ever expected and in a way, I've learned that it's even harder to find a nice balance between the two cultures, especially when the environment around me demands me to behave like an American over a Korean. It’s hard to have the best of both worlds.