For the past two-plus weeks I’ve been living in and traveling about the Motherland, South Korea, an adventure which can be summed up by the following highlights:
1) The garbage Valentine Dining Hall calls food is going to be a rude awakening.
2) This country is fucking beautiful.
3) Ladies take their fashion seriously and I love it. And men are much more style conscious than their American counterparts…it’s totally normal, if not encouraged, for men to wear tinted face lotions and cover-up! Curious.
4) There are few bonds stronger than blood ties. Though my father and grandfather are hyperactive, stubborn men, they sure know how to show me some love…and the entire South Korean peninsula. I literally have had no time to sit and relax (or write a She-Bomb post!) because we always have to be doing something. Let’s just say that traveling with the Parks is not for the weak or weary.
My experience thus far has been an odd mixture of familiarity and total alienation. I am what you call a “Kyopo,” a Korean who is not raised in Korea. Basically my Kyopo status means that in Korea I often like an awkward, manner-less, and slightly masculine social goon in far too many situations. Picked up your chopsticks to grab at that delicious kimchee before your friend’s father tasted it first? Rude. Didn’t have the foresight to buy your grandpa’s ex-student tofu-crackers after he treated you to an expensive dinner…and your Korean girlfriend did? Damn. How do they raise you girls in the States?
Not to mention that I came to Korea totally stoked to finally not be the token Asian in the room like I often find myself at Amherst. At first I thought that I blended in, you know looked like everyone else, until some dude totally called me out for my nose piercing on the metro. He pointed at my nose ring, asked if I could breath out of my nostril, then proceeded to ask me if he could touch it! I was mortified! Though my dad was trying to explain to me that such public humiliation is socially acceptable, it’s pretty obvious that proper Korean girls should not be donning too many piercings. Thank God my tattoo isn’t in visible spot.
So while I am sitting here still trying to figure out how, when, and to whom I should bow to, I am realizing more and more that I am about as American as a Kyopo girl can get. I suppose all second-generation children experience isolation from their homeland-culture sooner or later, but I wasn’t prepared to feel like such a failure.
This visit may be the last time that I will have blood-ties to South Korea since everyone in family except a cousin and a grandpa has immigrated to the States. Unless I marry Korean, my children and grandchildren will likely be reduced to tourists when they come to Korea to explore their own ethnic roots (based on my romantic track record, my fairytale ending probably doesn’t include a Korean prince charming). Relying on tour guides, tour buses, and translators hardly make for a truly authentic or personal experience. What’s worse, their cultural disconnect will be a result of my shortcoming. As their mother I ought to be able to “show them the ropes,” but I am not equipped with the cultural knowledge, let alone language skills, to do so. I worry that I will be at a sorry loss of words when my kids ask me what it means to be Korean.
Perhaps my greatest dilemma is that I’m questioning whether or not my Western feminist beliefs could ever co-exist with my Korean cultural heritage, one that places a premium on patriarchy and filial piety (a product of Confucian ideology). Though I scorn the image of a woman spending her evenings in the kitchen cooking and cleaning, a reality of many Korean housewives, I find that I’ve been spending many of my evenings doing just that for my 82-year-old grandfather.
At first I was pissed that he didn’t say “Thank You” when I placed dinner on the table, that he dared to criticize the dryness of the rice that I had just cooked, or that he didn’t offer to help me with the dishes afterwards.
But then I realized that such subservient care was one of the greatest ways I could show him my respect and love. (As a side note, Koreans are not about that lovey-dovey, touchy-feely hugging and kissing shit.) In fact, I’ve come to the point where I’m proud that I’m caring for my grandfather in this manner, and I genuinely feel complimented when company comment on how good of a granddaughter I am. I don’t want him cooking or cleaning as long as I am in the house because that would just be plain rude and unloving.
Does my behavior in Korea make me a fake feminist?
What’s more, I now realize that I will probably want to care for my husband and children in the way that my mother and my grandmothers have cared for their loved ones. (I’m not saying that my foremothers are demure lotus blossoms because they’re definitely not. My mother, for example, is one of the fiercest, most capable, and sassiest ladies out there, and no one dares to fuck with her shit.) But if I do follow in their footsteps, the majority of domestic chores will fall on my shoulders…and that’s neither “right” nor very feminist! Is it?
I still agree with the mantra, “Fuck subservience, fuck patriarchy, and fuck filial piety” in theory, but I wonder if I’ll carry these values out in practice. My posh New York City-dwelling, lawyer-aspiring cousin once said, “Of course I’m gonna’ cook for my family. Food is the glue of the family.” And I agree with the latter part of her statement 100%. To me, a properly functioning family unit will be one where food is on the table come dinnertime. But whose responsibility is it to get said food on said table? If I go with my Korean side, that’s my call of duty. If I go with my American side, it’s a toss-up. Add to the mix my slightly pathetic second-generation desire to grab onto and hold anything that remotely resembles my cultural heritage, including female subservience, and who knows how the future will play out.
And let’s say that I decide to organize a properly American feminist household where chores are divvied 50-50, does that mean that I am abandoning my Koreanness? Unlike many of my peers back at Amherst (correct me if I’m wrong!), I am going to have to eventually pick and choose which parts of my Korean ethnicity and feminism I’ll adhere to. However, I worry that such a hybrid ideology will mean that I’m not being very true to either.
Fuck. It’s almost dinnertime, gotta’ get the chigae going…then getting my drink on! #kyopogrlproblems