By Won-Taek Choi
Light and sound trickled into my sleep-dull mind, and I reluctantly opened my eyes and ears to receive the morning. One sound, like the light around me, pierced the fog of my thoughts: crying? I bolted upright in bed to face my mother and father sobbing in muted agony over the telephone. "Why?" my child’s mind asked, "Why do they cry? What’s the matter?" That moment has become a permanent scar in my mind: sunlight-stained curtains, burnished-blue walls, my mother turning to me, kneeling at the foot of the bed, the light brutally corrugating her young face. She opened her mouth, and eternity passed before she could make herself say the words: "Love, your grandfather has passed away…" Sometimes, the most significant things are said in a whisper.
I still do not fully understand why I cried that spring morning more than a decade ago. I never really knew my grandfather, and yet I still cried. He lived in the heart of Seoul, and I, in a quiet Virginia suburb. He was raised under the strict regimen of a traditional Korean education, and I, under the lenient though careful and loving eyes of my mother and father. We were perhaps as different as two people could be, and yet, he loved me almost as a son, albeit an occasionally rude and improper one. I, in turn, respected and honored him, and still do.
Grandfather embodies for me much of what is Korea. My only memories of Korea, even from visits after his passing, are in relation to him. We stayed at his house, ate his food, and did what he wanted us to do; he was the head of the family, and we obeyed his every word. Now, we still stay in the same house, and the climaxes of our trips have become our visits to his tomb in the hills outside Seoul. His presence, even from the dead, is inescapable. The spot he chose for the family tombsite, isolated by dense and silent forest, reflects his deep, impenetrable serenity. When grandfather built our family house, he filled it with his own character. The bare granite façade, dark-paneled interior, and plain wood and paper floors remain a testament to the spartan severity of their creator.
And yet, in this forbidding setting, I am strangely comfortable. The rice-paper floors, public baths, street markets, and foul air are a far cry from my antiseptic, dry-walled home in the heart of American suburbia. Korean etiquette is far more regimented and polite than the American kind I am used to. But, except for my difficulties with the Korean language, I can function well in both societies. In a culture so alien to the experience of my teenage years, I am comfortable; indeed, if I am away from Korea for long, I yearn for it.
One steady trend, unfortunately, has emerged. Ever since I entered kindergarten at age four, my exposure to the Korean culture has steadily decreased, so now that I am away from home, it is practically non-existent. I try to maintain a strong Korean base in my family, but my studies and concerns often pull me away from this foundation. Hence, some of my knowledge of the Korean culture remains from the point of view of a child, for childhood was the period in my life when I was most thoroughly immersed in it. As a child who "knew no better," I had greater allowance to misbehave than would a wiser adult. Now, as I enter adulthood, I still have not mastered all the nuances of Korean etiquette. I have not matured enough since my childhood in my formal knowledge of Korean culture.
Hence, my comprehension of my ethnicity, like my relationship with my grandfather, is still incomplete. Despite the lack of formal knowledge, I consider myself more Korean than American, and hold my culture in the highest regard. But why? Why do I, who have lived in America since age two, consciously retain my culture while many recent Korean immigrants are eager to shed theirs? Certainly, my mother and father still teach me about my culture, but now, it is my responsibility and desire to preserve it for myself. To let go of my culture would release me from not only great intellectual and emotional baggage, but also from much of what has formed me as a person. The significance of growing up in the Korean culture cannot be discounted. This early influence may be one of the foundations of my character, that is a bit formal and reserved, but also (I hope) sincere and honest.
I grew up in the shadow of the generations before me. In particular, grandfather stood out as a legend in my mind. Having survived the war, he toiled to raise five children and build a small company in Seoul. My father tells me that, as a child, if he woke late at night, he could always see grandfather’s cigarette burning slowly in the dark as he devised his next business plans. Grandfather also traveled to czarist Russia to search for his own father. Perhaps grandfather looms so large in my mind partly because I hardly knew him personally. I have let father’s stories and my imagination fill in for my ignorance of his character. Oblivious of any weaknesses in my grandfather, I have idealized him into a superhuman figure.
Perhaps I hold onto my culture partly for the same reason that I so respect my grandfather. I knew neither well enough to find the faults that would repulse me. I have, from ignorance, romanticized my inherited culture as well, and finding it so attractive, have decided to preserve it as my own. Indeed, the less I know about my culture, the more actively I seek it out. Despite my want of formal knowledge, I consider myself more Korean than American. Strangely, this paradox does not mitigate my sense of belonging to the Korean culture; given the sympathy between my character and heritage, I consider myself a Korean at least in character. I may have little conscious knowledge of my heritage, but it permeates my thoughts and actions.
This, perhaps, is the essence of growing up in America as a member of an ethnic group: although one often lacks a fully conscious understanding of the old culture and tradition, these elements are nonetheless present in the character and psyche. This basic influence must be the true mark of ethnicity. The formalities of a culture, although a significant part, do not comprise the entire culture. Rather, a more basic understanding is needed for any meaningful comprehension of what these formalities mean; this is the understanding that permeates both character and psyche. Thus, by studying the Korean culture, I may be seeking a better definition of an already present, though mostly subconscious, ethnic identity. And I expect many Americans search for the same when they engage in activities from their own cultural backgrounds.
During my visits to Korea, grandfather would often seat me in his lap and tell me firmly that, above all else, I am Korean, and that I must never forget this fact while I live in America. As a trusting child, I took his words to heart. Now, although I no longer accept such broad generalizations, I still see some truth in his statement. I have not realized until recently how profound an effect my ethnic background has had on my person. And until I and others recognize and accept the power of his influence, I do not believe we can be at peace with our own ethnicities.
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