Across the Board Culture Stories

The Space Between: A Story of Identity

A lot defines a person: name, age, gender or sexual orientation, hometown, eye and hair color, ethnicity, and so on. Until recently, I never thought about it too deeply. I have Korean blood running through my veins, so it’s obvious: I’m Korean. But there is a lot more to identity than just DNA, as I’ve learned over the years. Like NYU junior JP Pak says, “Genetically, you’re Korean if you have Korean blood, but there’s another degree of familiarity or intimacy with Korean culture itself, however you might want to define that… Technically, I’m just as Irish as I am Korean, but I’ve never felt that way because I’ve always been perceived as Asian. And that sort of informs, reflexively, my sense of identity.” You could have certain genes and still never understand where you came from, because identity stems from the culture and the society around you. So, how can you identify with a culture without being surrounded by it?

Pictured here: me posing in my new hanbok (Korean traditional wear)

Being “Korean American” implies there exists a connection to both Korean and American cultures. Still, however unintentional it may be, I have found myself lost between two different worlds where I am too American for Koreans, but too Korean for Americans. I look at myself in the mirror and see an Asian girl. It comes with a lot of assumptions, like how I should be good at math (which I very much am not), and often the notion that I was born in a foreign country. To the basic American eye, I am a part of the “other.” And yet, based on how I act, Koreans see me as “other,” too. I greet people on the street and say whatever is on my mind, which visiting Yonsei University student Hyeseung “Helen” Kim says is something they don’t do back home in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. Helen says that American culture is “more abrupt, maybe, but polite in that everyone has such expressive body language and you can tell if they’re trying to offend you or not.” The way I think is open, honest, and less conservative overall. It’s “very American.”

I went to American public schools all my life, and I used to attend Korean classes on the weekends. I spoke English with Korean words mixed in—words like “gogi” replaced meat, and so on. As a child, I found it difficult to explain myself with my limited vocabulary regardless of the language. Even if I was fluent in Korean, which I was not, I couldn’t just switch languages altogether because a majority of those around me wouldn’t understand. I wanted to belong somewhere, but in trying to do so I found myself ostracizing myself from both of the worlds I was a part of. At some point, I tried choosing a side, but I instead ended up distancing myself from my Korean heritage, and in many ways, my family. All I can do is march forward in hope of rebuilding my bridge to Korean culture.

The most efficient way I have found is through family, my maternal grandparents in particular. My halmony (Korean for “grandmother”) received her master’s in English at a college in the U.S., and both she and my harabeoji (“grandfather”) lived in the states for many years to raise their two daughters. They are both fluent in English, their second language, and were gracious and forgiving of my lack of knowledge of the Korean language when I was little. Still, there was always a gap in the level of understanding we could have for one another, a phenomenon JP also found between between himself and his grandmother: a “certain degree of distance…both geographically as well as linguistically…When I spend time with her, and I’m not able to spend time with her a lot, we converse at a depth that is more shallow than I’d like it to be, and so that’s been difficult.”

Pictured here: my grandfather, Seungwoo “Sean” Ro, with my grandmother, Ija “Liza” Kim

In the past few years, I’ve learned to work with my grandparents to combat language and culture barriers, instead of relying on them to make the effort by themselves. If I can ask a question using the little Korean that I know, it ultimately makes it easier for them to form a solid answer in response. They try their best to help me understand where I come from and what they believe in, but it’s been a slow process. Then at some point, I was hit with the realization that when my grandparents are gone, I won’t have much left to help me bridge the gap. It terrified me.

“For a lot of Asian American families—and for all immigrant families, families who come to the United States from a different culture—the members of those families who knew a life in Korea all are beginning to fall away right now,” JP pointed out. “Like what do we do with our heritage? After our link to the motherland is gone and our family members have all passed away?”

For me, at least, my grandparents have given me one major connection that will stay even after they are gone: my Korean name, Sun-Ah. Names have power and give meaning to the person to whom they belong—an identity, my little cheat code of sorts in the foundation of the connection to my heritage. I didn’t receive a Korean name at birth; unlike my brother—the firstborn son of the firstborn son—there wasn’t a predetermined syllable from my paternal family for me to use. Having very Americanized parents, it just wasn’t very high on their list of Important Things for Baby. Originally, my Korean name was a jumble of syllables that sounded nice to my grandfather, and it wasn’t until I asked for a meaning that mine had any. Harabeoji searched for the hanja (the Chinese characters from which the traditional meaning of a name originates) for me, choosing the characters he believed fit me most: “Sun” as in the one who leads and teaches; “Ah” as in “me.”

A name without a story behind it doesn’t have the same power as one that does. For Helen, she finds that both her English and Korean names ground her, even if her Korean one “feels more like home.” Her second name was given to her by her English teacher, and the name connects her to the time when she first began learning English. Though she had thought about changing it, she found that “anything else felt like someone else’s name.” Like Helen, my second name grounds me in a second culture, even when I am otherwise lost and confused about who I am. My grandfather gave me a name filled with hope of and belief in the leader that I am, or will be one day. I’d like to think I’m slowly becoming the person harabeoji believed I would be.

Pictured here: Hyeseung “Helen” Kim in Anguk-dong (Seoul, South Korea)

To me, being Korean is in the effort I’ve made to connect and understand. My grandfather heard my concern and did his best to remedy the problem. It brought the two of us closer together, brought me closer to Korean culture, and brought me closer to myself. It was the starting point that propelled me to actively seek out more information and knowledge of Korean culture, instead of expecting someone else to force it on me. I am not fluent in the language yet, nor do I understand the nuances of Korean relationships that we don’t have in the U.S., but I do my best to be as patient with myself as my grandparents have always been.

The fall of 2022, my gap semester, I visited Korea with my family. Though it was my third time in the country, I felt something was different. Almost everything was relatively the same as I remembered: my grandparents’ building was still filled with students from the local university; my favorite dessert shop remained a 15-minute walk down the street; my halmony still haggled the street vendors for any discount she could get. It wasn’t the country itself that changed, but me. I had changed. For the first time, I could ask for directions, order food, and even spend the day out by myself with my broken Korean without fear of not being “Korean enough,” or even being “too American” for them. I was able to spend a month in Korea, living as the Koreans do, and the irony here is that I fit in more because I understood and accepted my differences.

Pictured here: my attempt at homemade Korean jeon (savory pancakes made with scallions, kimchi, etc.) and stir-fried chicken

I will always be more American than anything else. It may not be in my blood like these Korean genes are, but it’s in my soul. It’s found in how I act, how I talk, how I choose to live my life. And yet, it’s not all of me. The space in “Korean American” exists because I will never be 100% either—not a member of one community, but the space in-between. 

So, who am I? As JP noted, “Questions of identity are hard,” and they’re ones we will be asking ourselves every day for the rest of our lives. “Who you are versus what you know, and also who you want to be. Is this a desire in choosing how you find yourself? And I think a lot of people would say ‘yes.’”

As it is now, I have no definitive answers. Maybe I never will. I am constantly seeking out opportunities to understand all parts of myself, now without fear of not “belonging” to something. I have been shaped by the people I grew up with just as much as I have been by the blood running through my veins. I know that I am a Korean girl in America, and an American girl in Korea. It’s unfair for me to expect myself to be something I am not. I will make the effort to build out the bridge from my end, and I will wait for those on the other side to meet me halfway.

Pictured here: my brother, Christopher (middle-right), and me with our grandparents in Seoul

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