an edited version of this article was published on racialicious here
When I see articles like Jezebel‘s “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery,” which I only found after reading Feministing‘s awesome response, I am immediately reminded of my middle school self: a somewhat obnoxious, insecure Korean American girl who was eager to get a self-righteous thrill by observing how superficial and less enlightened people other than me could be.
Growing up in the Korean American community of LA, it was common to make fun of “fobs” (fresh off the boat), the more recently immigrated, less assimilated, Koreans of our generation, sometimes with love but more often not. Existing in our clearly divided groups but occupying similar spaces, we would make fun of their cutesy antics, superficial looks, plastic surgery craze, and love of k-pop. We may have considered it all in good humor, but ultimately it assured us we were morally superior, a higher art form, closer to the ultimate goal of assimilation. Perhaps we thought that by defining ourselves against the less assimilated, we could stamp out our own sense of foreignness.
When I finally grew up a bit and began challenging my own internalized racism, I began to realize my judgments of South Korean culture were more about my desire to define and raise myself above it rather than any real attempt to understand or better the world. And once I finally started paying attention, I began to be challenged by the depth and power of the Korean side of my bicultural divide, a complicated side of my identity that has the power to both alienate and embrace me.
I am now living in South Korea, the place I was never from but to which my life has always been bound. As I center this society and develop a deeper, more complex and humanizing view of “Korean Koreans,” I have begun to recognize and love our shared soul even more and make the connections between Korean society today and its incredible history of struggle and endurance, which echoes throughout the next generations and across diasporas.
Throughout a country where, not too long ago, there was vast stretches of farmland, there are now concrete jungles of rampant consumerism, endless rows of skyscraper apartments, overpriced chain cafes, and expensive Western and domestic clothing brands. It is the frenzied symptoms of a country, severed from its other half and rapidly swept up into the capitalist world without time to process or redefine after colonization, war, coups and dictatorships, political repression, and resistance, a place where the landscape was wholly transformed before the people could change with it.
Today in South Korea, Western brands are generally much more expensive, and western culture is portrayed as elite. It’s interesting to observe how companies in South Korea use the image of whiteness in their ads to sell capitalist culture to the people, a tactic that profits from the complicated relationship that Korea has with the western world. In the US, the little we are taught about the Korean War leaves us thinking that the US went over to liberate the Koreans. Rather, the US engaged in a proxy war using Korean bodies for their own interests, and twisted things so that they would be welcomed as saviors. There was incredible cruelty and massacre carried out against the Korean people, North and South, under the watch of the US military, and the US continues to maintain its military presence here today (in fact, it can use any of South Korea’s military bases “at will”) and regularly intervenes in South Korea’s economy and politics. I recently spent time with activists in Jeju, who have been protesting since 2007 against the construction of a military base on the small South Korean island. The base is being constructed illegally, without the required permission of Gangjeong village, whose land the base will devastate, according to the needs of the US military, during a time when the US is expanding its imperialistic arm throughout Asia. This problematic history and relationship continues to be a presence in South Korea and contributes to warping the society’s sense of self.
I have begun to understand that many older Korean people who now walk around armored in expensive brands can remember times when they were too poor to eat. I can empathize with their paralyzing fear of looking poor, feelings of shame over humble pasts still fresh. Rags to riches is the national story, a story that has been trumpeted left and right by forces that want to take credit, from Westernization/capitalism to nationalism to Christianity, and despite rising inequality, no one wants to admit they didn’t make it out okay. The obsession with brands and “uniformity” may be seen as a reason to reduce South Korea to a superficial society, but I see the human side of it all.
When you eat with other Koreans, they will always insist you eat more, heaping the best parts of the meal onto your plate instead of helping themselves. Everyone tells me that when the country was poor, people were shy about taking more since there was never enough, so it became built into the culture to insist again and again. It is a central part of social life to share the experience of food, to describe the exact textures and tastes and feelings of different foods while eating, and to make sure everyone around you is eating it in the best way possible. Dishes are still made to be medicinal and nurturing, and despite the entrance of multinational fast food chains and products, foods still center around natural and healthy traditions passed down generation after generation, in contrast to the US where healthy eating has become a highly commodified, classist mess. At the end of a meal, everyone will try to pay for everyone else, because gestures of extreme generosity and taking care of one another are important parts of our culture. I used to feel impatient when my mom would always call to ask about what exactly I had eaten that day, but now understand why our parents still ask us before all else, “Have you eaten?” and tell us that we are good for eating well.
I’ve always been frustrated by the impossibility of translating the Korean language into English. The casual speech of my relatives spills over with such intense feeling and raw authenticity that shatters me, and the playful humor and wit that color everyday interactions are rendered lifeless in translation. Korean language is an indescribably beautiful, deeply idiomatic world, honed over time and lives to capture such an elaborate scope of experiences and interactions that eludes the literal, and so evokes poetry. It is a language meant to be used as a community, to ease and lather at times, and perform ceremony at others. Between friends and family, it expresses things strongly, bluntly, to poke and play, and feign exasperation as a sign of closeness. When used formally, it is graceful and rich in ways of respecting different situations, nuanced in a way that traditional English is always wanting.
As South Korea dives into rapid urbanization and corporatization, it is a place full of contradiction. The language has undergone rapid change as well, now rife with haphazardly adopted English loanwords, to capture the existence of a sudden, new world. Consequently, the changes due to Western influence are almost delineated by the trails of English burned onto the native tongue.
But despite all the change, Korean society holds onto its roots of humanness. It is a place where people’s hearts still bleed with a powerful sense of empathy, a culture that still highly values integrity and respect towards others. Since I arrived, my relatives have shown me how to love big, humbling me daily with their incredible generosity, overworked and hard-pressed as they may be. My aunt told me very matter-of-fact that it’s like my mom is in her body, making sure that I’m okay. It’s the kind of love mixed with pain, a love they cultivated as 9 children of poor farmers, where food and opportunity were spread thin between them, and love was sacrifice and survival.
Looking back, I remember the creases of my silent grandfather’s forehead, his unchanging, solemn expression revealing a life without time for casual smiles and wasted words. I remember how he would surprise us with his warm light and humor for a moment, before returning to his distant world. When I think about him, the Korean immigrant experience in the US, my Korean American friends and our intimate sisterhood, my family and their stories of childhood and the painful history their lives have traversed, my heart splits with a raw sadness for all the truths that are regularly erased by the constant flood of negative representation that would convince us that the Korean story were a superficial and ugly one.
I suspect that my musings on Korea and my Korean American identity may all start to sound sappy in an American context. But what could appropriate emotional expression possibly mean across cultural contexts, in a world where all things “appropriate” have been decided by the dominant segment of the world, which happens to be the part of the world whose identities are not closely tied to loss. Using their framework, surely the rest of the world would look like melodramatic fools. Korean society, including its diasporas, has gone through many different traumas, which we were not given time to understand before quickly being ushered into the role of a lucrative Asian market for global capitalist needs, with the country’s military at the service of American imperialism.
I don’t write to romanticize this country or hide its problems. I know many of its problems very personally, as my identity does not fit into its expectations. I write to speak my truths based on my bicultural lifetime in the Korean American diaspora, and my experience living here now. I write because, as a Korean American, learning to love my Koreanness in an environment so devoid of truths about our experiences has been a revolutionary act.
I am still overwhelmed by the endless dualities of this country and culture and have more questions than answers. But as South Korea rises in international significance, the western world becomes increasingly concerned with representing and defining this country and its people according to its needs, picking apart our “bizarre” or problematic habits, using Orientalist assumptions rather than any real understanding of the context to make their points. That’s why I find it so enraging when the white teacher is featured on NPR’s This American Life as the expert witness on South Korean self-image issues, and Jezebel’s troupe of pseudo-feminists puts South Korea’s “superficiality” on the dissecting table, without ever understanding the depth and complexity of the issues they try to tackle with their limited, Western-centric frameworks.
As Korean society comes up against the dissonance between its lived history and the demands of its present situation, flails through unpredictable world forces bigger than us all, makes its way across broken structures and traditions and through a maze of changing demands, I think it becomes increasingly necessary that Koreans remember the things we love about ourselves. The beautiful parts of our culture and the strength and love of our communities are most often the things that aren’t useful to capitalism or white supremacy, and therefore they are the most quickly erased and forgotten.