Friday, August 3, 2012

On Identity - Being Asian (아시아인)

This is the last in a three-part series of posts I am writing on the intersections of personal identity and Korean culture. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In my final post, I will write about Asian-American identity.

Of the three cultural workshops that I've attended where a crucial aspect of my personal identity has been discussed, I would say that the workshop entitled "Not Looking the Part, Ethnically Asian but Culturally American: Things to Expect for Your Year in Korea" (wow, what a mouthful) was the most lighthearted and engaging. Eric, the Camp Fulbright CI who was leading the workshop, is a funny guy who was definitely intent on putting a positive spin on the issue.

But what is the issue, exactly? That part was hard to tell from the content of the workshop. There were about two dozen ETAs there, most of us of East Asian descent. Also in the audience were a few South and Southeast Asians, some mixed-race Asians, and at least one white ETA who was probably there out of cultural curiosity. I think that we were all expecting a discussion of the challenges faced by ETAs who either are Korean-American and don't fit in to the mold here, or are Asian-American and could probably pass as (or be mistaken as) Korean.

Asian Identity in Korea
As it turns out, Eric is a Korean adoptee who had never been in Korea or learned how to speak Korean until he began his Fulbright grant last year. Given his background, his talk was specifically geared toward people who look Korean (aka Korean-Americans) but cannot speak completely fluently. We discussed how we might feel if we were approached by Koreans who expected us to give directions or something in Korean, but ended up being overly (or rudely) curious about why we couldn't speak it well.

This has actually happened to me three times already. Once in the town of Goesan, an older couple approached me and asked for directions -- I didn't catch where -- but all I could say was, "I don't know, sorry!" They immediately assumed that I was a foreign student at Jungwon, which I corroborated. Another time, on campus near the main building's elevators, a woman kind of off-handedly asked me on which floor could she find a certain room. Again, I said, "I don't know, sorry!" and when she heard my accent, she also said, "Oh... sorry!".

When I thought about these occasions of mistaken ethnic identity, I felt that it was actually kind of amusing to be mistaken for Korean. I'm Taiwanese, and I don't think I look very Korean. But even though Korea is very homogenous, there are actually a variety of face types among Koreans, such that I bet that if I were ever to become completely fluent, I would have no problem blending in. In the meantime, however, instances of awkwardness when being confused for a local are sure to abound. What Eric wanted to draw out of the audience were words like embarrassment, frustration, and shame (especially for the Korean-Americans who might have been told that not being able to speak Korean fluently made them a bad Korean) as a consequence of struggling with the language in public.

Eric did make a brief note, however, that perhaps each awkward situation could actually make us feel emboldened, instead of embarrassed. I definitely agree. Every time I have another conversation in Korean with a local, if I screw up, it means that I simply need to study harder and listen more closely, but if I successfully communicate my point, then I can give myself super brownie points for coming as far as I have! During the workshop, the audience was very (perhaps unusually) active in giving feedback, especially during the discussion. I piped up at one point to defend the notion that awkwardness and guilt could be easily brushed off. Because, in all seriousness, what else are you going to do to overcome common cultural problems such as a language barrier? If you can only complain or shut yourself out from the world (playing the foreigner card to get out of unwanted linguistic situations), you're never going to improve. Asians who could be mistaken for Koreans don't get free passes for not speaking the language. Instead, we get more chances to practice and learn. Other attendees were less convinced that as the "micro-aggressions" built up, it would still be no sweat to keep calm and carry on.

However, the language barrier doesn't only arise with strangers asking how to get to Family Mart. Some ETAs expressed a legitimate anxiety of not being as appreciated as a "true blue American" would be at their placement schools. Even during our site visits a few weeks ago, some of the Caucasian and African-American ETAs were a hit with the kids. I mean, if I were the principal of a Korean school and I had to choose between a tall, white, all-American foreigner and a short, skinny, black-haired, glasses-wearing kid who still looks like a teenager... of course I'd go for the white guy. I'd probably even question if the Asian one were really American or could speak English as well. But while Asian ETAs might not get the "rock star" treatment that more "exotic" (haha?) ETAs receive everywhere they go in Korea, it actually gives us an opportunity and the motivation to try harder to impress our school. In the end, we want to show that we deserve to be made a big deal of because of our skills as English teachers, not just our looks. We all want that, as ETAs. But the ones who don't look the part of the stereotyped American just get an early start.

We will also have the opportunity to teach Koreans about the phenomenon of second-generation Asian-Americans. I've found that in Taiwan, many people are familiar with the term ABC (American-Born Chinese) and don't blink an eye when I explain that I grew up in California and thus speak English much better than I speak Mandarin. But I've gotten the feeling that Koreans as a whole are less familiar with a large generation of Korean-Americans who don't speak Korean the way their parents do (or even with their parents), or consider Korea "home", or look exactly like everyone else because they grew up on a different diet and got more sun in their childhood than Korean parents here will allow. We will all probably have to do a lot of explaining with regard to the Hyphen (Taiwanese hyphen American, Japanese hyphen American, Korean hyphen American), but I'm personally looking forward to it. More brownie points for being able to deconstruct a complex social phenomenon and then explain it to someone whose cultural framework is completely different!

Because the workshop was mostly centered on issues of language and communication, I wished that we could have had more open discussion on other potential problems such as Korean stereotypes of other Asians. For example, they dislike the Japanese, and there are two (and a half) Japanese-American ETAs. I wonder what they think of Taiwanese people? Indian people? Vietnamese? What about Jewish people? One of the ETAs is half Korean and half Russian Jew, so her experience is going to be quite out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, no one in the workshop could answer any of these questions. I think that it would have been great to have a panel of past ETAs talk about all of their experience together, because I don't think we were all very satisfied.

It just goes to show that you can't lump all kinds of Asians under one catchy title and address all of their concerns equally. I'm Taiwanese-American and living in Korea. A part of me is looking forward to exploring the "pan-Asian" identity while I'm here, but at the same time, I won't stop being proud of who I am.

Translate