from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #11: Are You My Mother?

with 4 comments

The title of this entry is the title of a book I remember reading as a child. A baby bird hatches from his egg while his mother is out searching for a worm to feed him and he embarks on a journey to find his mother. He comes upon a kitten, hen, dog, cow, car, boat, plane, and power shovel, each time asking, “Are you my mother?” In the end, the meeting with the power shovel is serendipitous; it drops him back into his nest as his mother is returning with the worm and a heartwarming scene ensues.

This past week, the topic of identity came up on two separate occasions: a random blog on Korea and an e-mail. For a very long time, I also struggled with the question, “Who am I?”

Chicago/Seattle: The wonder years

When I was in elementary school, before I learned to discriminate, I had friends of all races—black, Latino, Asian, white. I never thought about it, that I was different. When we did those innocent but blatantly racist children’s rhymes, I didn’t realize that I was laughing with my friends but they were laughing at me. Sure, I was highly proficient at solving mathematical problems (“The Math-magician,” one white friend called me), but I didn’t realize that I was genetically predisposed to classically nerdy subjects in school.* I just thought I was smarter than everyone else.

In contrast, I became painfully aware that identity wasn’t something I would be allowed to ignore after moving to the far-removed and pigmentally-challenged Eastern suburbs of Seattle, where I—poor and yellow and from a broken home—stuck out among my “peers”—affluent, white, wholesome.

“So where are you from?”
“Chicago.”
“No, you know what I mean.”

“You speak English very well.”

This isn’t an account of racism—a story for a different time and a different audience—but through a series of moves, four times in five years, and trying to fit unsuccessfully each time, estranged and alone, I began to question my identity. As if puberty and high school wasn’t bad enough. It was the beginning of my futile journey for self-awareness, to find my “mother.”

In college, I used to care. Bright-eyed and far too idealistic, I enrolled in introductory classes in what was to be my first failure at choosing a major, American Ethnic Studies. It was only in my 5th class into it, Asian American Community, during a lesson, ironically, on identity, that I realized that the whole thing is a huge crock of shit.

Korea, 2002: Jeongche?

The experience of foreign-born, foreign-nationality, ethnic Korean in Korea is not the “right peg fitting into the right hole”-type experience you would expect it to be. Drunken Tiger put it this way in their 4th album (loose translation): “I’ve got nowhere to go/In America, I’m yellow/In Korea, I’m a 2nd-generation ‘gyopo’ delinquent.” A professor at Konkuk University stated (again, loose translation), “Foreigners that don’t look Korean are fine. When ‘gyopos’ who look Korean don’t behave like other Koreans, they become targets for discrimination.”

It’s funny, I face discrimination in Korea because I have Korean ancestry. With regard to employment, finding a job is hard enough and, now that I have a decent job, my classes are constantly cancelled due to low registration as the only minority American on staff. In social situations, people will often completely ignore me to talk to my white friend, Hole. He’s great at Korean, but my Korean’s not so shabby that people always have to comment that I must have a problem if I can’t speak as well as he does.

The Army: Wrench in the gears

The Korean Army is where it became undeniable that I wasn’t Korean. Ironic, that I learned it in a place reserved for only Koreans. Unfortunate, that I was only considered Korean when it came time for me to serve in the Army. Frustrating, that even in the Army, the government wouldn’t give me any of the rights of a Korean. Even when I had learned enough Korean to understand what people were saying, I couldn’t understand the reason for their behavior.

One late night in Afghanistan, the unit executive officer remarked over my shoulder as I slaved over his presentation for the next morning’s briefing, “Private Beck, you’re almost Korean.”

The next day, in the company of American soldiers, he remarked, “This guy, he’s almost American.”

Of course, the Army experience did much to further blur the lines. I experienced something uniquely Korean, something that not many, if any, foreigners experience. In terms of nationality and upbringing, I am American. But I went to the Korean Army.

Korea, 2010: The present

I’m a contradiction. I’m American. I’m Korean. I’m American. I’m Korean.

I’ve always been a contradiction. I’m an optimist, I’m a pessimist. I’m a realist, I’m an idealist. I’m lazy, I’m hardworking. I’m learned, I’m an idiot. I’m confident, I’m self-conscious. Maybe it’s just me. Unless it’s something I feel strongly about, I’m very wishy-washy, indecisive, apathetic.

Now, my answer is dependent on who’s asking and for what reason. Whatever’s more convenient for me. Because, to be honest, I don’t really care anymore. I had the epiphany that identity is just a word, an idea, a way for someone to feel like they belong. I don’t need that feeling anymore. Actually, I’ve found that I don’t really belong either way and not sure that I want to.

I am me. I am. I am who I am and that’s all that I am.

It’s interesting how a lot of children’s stories are really deep commentaries on life as we know it. Too bad life isn’t like a children’s story. There isn’t always a happy ending. You need money for that.

“You know what the scariest thing is?  To not know your place in this world.” -Elijah Price-

* Taken and modified from Dave Chappelle’s stand-up, Killin’ Them Softly.

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Written by Young

May 29, 2010 at 6:15 pm

4 Responses

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  1. If you would let those people who comment on you having a problem know that you are not talking to them because they are not a hot girl it might clear up some of the confusion.

    Hole

    May 29, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    • Haha. It might clear up the confusion but it’s too much effort for the sole result of them finding out I’m an asshole. My inner-asshole is privileged information.

      holdenbeck

      May 29, 2010 at 7:00 pm

  2. I just remember reading “Where did I come from?” when I was a kid. I could never get past the cartoon of a couple standing naked in the bathtub.

    Then I began to feel sleepy all of a sudden and started craving cigarettes.

    Lee Byong-Shin

    June 1, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    • Dammit. I already got that link through the deluge of work e-mails you guys insist on sending. I swear 90 percent of my inbox has been from the last two weeks.

      By the way, I don’t think Hole will be happy that you stole his desired Korean name…

      holdenbeck

      June 1, 2010 at 8:51 pm


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