Phillipian Commentary: Korean and American Identity

Growing up, I understood that being able to speak in fluent Korean was the most valuable trait in a second-generation Korean American child. My parents would spend my childhood summers in Korea just so that my siblings and I could fully immerse ourselves in a community that spoke the mother tongue. Slowly, I came to take pride in this fluency, refusing to consider the possibility of losing it. But at the time, I didn’t realize that learning to accept my “imperfect” Korean and English would help me embrace the weird, quirky person that I was.

The language we speak–the language of our identity–comes in many forms. We must acknowledge the fact that we are multifaceted, unique human beings. The language that is personal and intimate to ourselves is no exception. Whether it be a mixture of Korean and English, just English, or just Korean, embracing and validating the language we speak is a large part of self-acceptance. As I rejected the idea of having my own “language,” which was using a mix of both Korean and English, I rejected my identity. For more than half of my life, I derived my basis of identity and self-confidence from the approval and validation from others about the language I spoke.

As a result of this complex, I became less confident in my language. I would spend more time using English, whether it was talking with my friends, doing my homework, or even writing in my diary. At some point, I didn’t even know if I had the right to consider myself Korean anymore. I felt as if I was slowly losing my “Koreanness” as I was losing my fluency bit by bit. Was I worthy to call myself Korean when my language wasn’t perfect?

I desperately wanted to regain my position as a strong Korean speaker who was also born and raised in New York. And though my Korean did improve and eventually sounded like that of a “natural” Korean speaker, at the time, that feeling of immense insecurity and anxiety flooded through me as the words left my mouth. Every time I spoke, I would concentrate on the pronunciation, diction, and every trivial detail that might have exposed the flaws in my Korean.

While I enjoyed going to Korea in the summers, I would go through internal conflicts and confusion regarding my identity as my insecurities in the language grew. Korea revealed this weird world where only half of me felt like it belonged. I would look around me, and I would see faces that resembled mine, yet I still felt like a foreigner walking among them. But at the same time, the part of me that was hidden and restricted in the U.S. would yearn for more time in Korea. I truly felt connected to the culture that was drastically different than in New York; it was like catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, feeling a wall of unfamiliarity but also experiencing the familiar pang of happiness. Only this time, I was more hesitant to speak Korean. With native speakers all around me, I put pressure on myself to sound like them, never giving them the impression that I was a foreigner. That was my true fear, being outed as a “foreigner,” as an outsider who simply looking into a world that they could never be a part of. [a]

Growing up as an Asian-American woman, I was born into a very traditional Korean household while also attending school and experiencing American culture. These external influences have all impacted and shaped my identity in one way or another, from the liberal, progressive mindset I hold to the familial respect I have for my elders, and I’m extremely grateful that I even have the chance to experience more than one culture and feel connected to them. But at times, I think there’s a certain disconnect that second generation children from immigrant families experience from both of their cultures. I question whether or not I can be Korean-American, and not simply one or the other. These two sides of me are in a constant tug-of-war, fighting[b] for dominance over my identity. I don’t fit in with other Americans because my parents weren’t born here and haven’t spent their lives in America. Yet, though I speak the language fluently, I have never quite lived in Korea and don’t understand parts of their society.

I think, due to the constant desire to be wholly part of a group, I tend to seek validation and acceptance from others than from myself. I didn’t approve of my Korean because it wasn’t akin to those who were born and raised in Korea. It wasn’t “correct” Korean because there were mixes of English in it. But nonetheless, it was the Korean I spoke. It was my Korean. I truly learned to accept that there is no correct way of speaking a language, as it is simply a reflectio[c]n of your identity.

My[d] occasional slip-ups in Korean and English display the mix and clash of cultures, American and Korean, that make up who I am. I can be both Korean and American, I don’t have to choose. As we seek validation from others about the fluency or “authenticity” of language, we are denying our opportunities to discover our own identity. To the children of immigrants, I know that wanting and seeking validation from others is so tempting. Once we have that validation we feel as if we belong, as if we are finally part of something. Yet, with our exceptions and imperfections, we are in our own separate categories: our own unique, personal identities.