It’s hard for Koreans to let loose because self-restraint is drilled into them long before the alphabet. I figured this out in pre-school when my friends found embarrassing but appreciated post-its in their lunch boxes and I was packed a single napkin. There were other differences. In pre-school, when peers found embarrassing but appreciated “I love you” post-its in their lunch boxes, I was packed a single stiff napkin. Questions arose. “Why don’t you ever say you love me?”
“Asians just don’t”, was my mother’s response, which I have found to be true. After all, there are rules to follow when raising child prodigies. You can’t say my parents didn’t try. I remember my mom painting “C, D, E, F, G, A, B” (the piano keys) on my nails. I chipped the polish off. I grew up religious, too. Instead of going to mass, though, I climbed up on the roof of the church and waited for the bells to ring so I could read Roald Dahl in peace. I skipped “hagwon” to hide in the park, trying to find gold or catch worms in the middle of regenerating their tails. Somehow, even in the blurry self-awareness of a nine year old, I knew it didn’t get better than this.
I would wake up on Mondays, tying loose ends and fitting back into my body. It still does not fit like a glove. I may charm boys and surf crowds at shows but there are always the insecurities that promised to leave at fourteen but never have. A while back, when another Korean student turned around to perfunctorily ask: “What did you get?”, I asked in return, “Do your parents ever say they love you?” He thought about it and replied, “Does it matter?”
Well, I think it does. I grew up an outsider from the culture, separated by my own sense of identity. The jars of kimchee that my grandmother buried underground, to me, looked like hacked up body parts jammed into makeshift graves. Growing up, my friends had Sweet Sixteens, Bat Mitzvahs and even Quinceañeras. Every time my father picked me up from these elaborate events he had me tell him about the monogrammed napkins, the six-layer cake. He scorned such decadence, but at the same time was proud that I was so well assimilated, so jaded, so American.
Am I, though? Our parents exhaust themselves under the fluorescent lights of laundromats and nail-salons—their ears inured to the rush of quarters clinking, legs aching for some sweet release, eyes tired of the same old world. We are expected to study, to practice the flute, to learn extra languages, to find a cure for some impossible disease or at least reach the Ivy-League. They live the American reality so we can live the dream.
The dream never worked out for me. I am not good at math, and classical music gives me a headache. I spend summer afternoons riding the A-train, sketching faces as people sleep to the roar of the subway. I am loud and impulsive. I am honest to the point of un-cool.
At seventeen, I can look back and recognize the small things, the bigger picture. At graduations, it was never “I’m so proud of you, honey”, but the silent pride, the broadening of shoulders, the absence of words speaking volumes. Love in syllables and half-smiles. Is this what it means to be Korean?
I flinch at the harsh sounds of America as I walk the streets of New York with my grandmother, hearing how profane profanity is in her gentle presence, all the while, her eyes wide, taking in the bright lights and something new and glorious. Sometimes, I feel it too. Maybe we’re all immigrants here. Is this what it means to be American? To be part of something moving, changing, swallowing—
Yeah, I feel it too.