“I’m happy for you,” she smiles, swiveling in her seat to face me. It skids to a stop as her small toes drag in circumference across the hardwood floor. “I didn’t want to say anything before you made up your mind, but I was hoping you’d pick Columbia.”
Quickly nodding an eyebrow in acknowledgement, I say, “I’m just glad it’s over. Weighing professors and comparing curriculums, it was driving me crazy. I was more stressed about making the right decision than going on the interviews. Once I settled on a choice, it seemed so obvious, like I only had one option all along.”
An incoherent jumble of Korean voices drone from the computer speakers behind her. This is how our conversations usually happen – abruptly, at odd dusk hours if and when our time at home coincides, and usually in the midst of her melodramatic soap operas (the inevitable obsession of tiny, little Korean women across the globe).
“Your Dad wanted Columbia, too.”
A sigh leaves my chest. “Dad knows nothing about the programs. He doesn’t even know what I do for a living. He’s only about Columbia,” I joke, knowing every joke has a bit of truth to it, “because it’s Columbia. Because he gets to tell people it’s Ivy League. Is it really that big of a deal? Don’t you think if I were going for the name, I’d be going for the wrong reason?”
In a lowered voice, my mother mutters, “Do you want to know something, though? It is that big of a deal.
“Look at how prideful Asians are. We push our children harder than most to get the best grades, to get into the best schools. Do you know the real reason? It’s a competition. It has been engrained in our minds to measure success through our children. If your child doesn’t excel, the whole community views it as a reflection of your own capabilities.”
In a sudden flashback, I think back to all the times my grandparents favored my brother and me over our cousins, who — despite being smart, charming, and well spoken — weren’t as academically “successful.” One of my last vivid memories of my grandpa is of him crying and chasing after us in a car, repeating, “You’re all I have. You’re all I have.” He had a wife, 6 kids (as far as I know), and even more grandkids — so what did he mean by that? We didn’t necessarily bond with him any more than the other grandchildren did, yet he elevated us to a higher pedestal. It was later explained that since we had the most potential (on a scale of A through F), we stood out as his pride and joy.
“Why do you even care?” I shake my head, and a disgruntled noise slips from my lips. “You know, there are so many things I can’t stand about the our traditional outlook. There are a lot of people, but the community is so small. It feeds off of bragging rights, gossip, and judgement. At family reunions, for example, why do we greet each other with comments like, ‘You’ve gained weight?’ instead of ‘How are you?’ We take excessive pride in beauty and academics; the nation’s standard of success is twisted. You are a good mother. If I fail, it is because I let myself fail. It’s not on you.”
She clears her throat, ridding a shaky voice. “When Koreans look at me, they assume I do what I do because I am stupid. When I was a nurse, I was highly regarded. Now, they see me differently. They look down on me, because the bigger wallet gets you a higher seat, and I am silent about it. But when I get to say I have a daughter who attends Columbia, it’s like I’ve made it. I get respected. I’m no longer bottom of the totem pole. They think — wow, she raised such a smart daughter. She must be somebody.”
My heart hurts a little from hearing this. I feel an undeniable shame. So, I pick up my pen and write the following words that encase my incomplete grasp of the culture that raised me:
It seems to me that pride and respect are two of the few core principles that hold the most weight in many Asian cultures. I can speak, through experience, of a Korean viewpoint: my viewpoint. There is an installment of a social hierarchy, as implied through diction and mannerisms. Formally, we rank people by age, dishing out a gradience of respect that begins with utmost respect for the highest elder. There are obvious distinctions in speech formality, and our physical etiquette extends even into casual settings.
For instance, with alcohol use being introduced and encouraged at a younger age than the Western culture, elders teach the young how to drink while the young show respect in return. The younger person must receive drinks with two hands, pour with one arm supporting the other, and consume while facing away from the elder. There are clear behavioral and lingual displays that insinuate: age demands respect. I remember being told to bow before I even knew what bowing was.
In more traditional homes, displays of affection are nearly absent. The first time, post childhood, that I hugged my family and said the words ‘I love you’ was in my second year of college. For my brother’s graduation, I could see other families hugging and laughing, but all that was going through my head was, “So… do I give the guy a handshake or what?”
For a period of time, it felt so natural to fall into formality, but so awkward to express love, yet I never acted that way around my friends. It was as if (and sometimes I still feel this way), I am wearing a mask around Korean adults. The more traditional the person is, the more guarded I stand. I’m not one to care too much what others think of me, but I have such a vivid subconscious recall of the conservative Asian perspective that I cannot let go of my tendencies. We aren’t subject to becoming the product of the environment we are raised in, but we sure are heavily influenced, as reflected in our unconscious conduct.
Less formally, judgment is passed based upon financial status, personal affairs, self presentation, physical appearance, and as my mother mentioned, the success of the offspring. There’s this superficial expectation to look a certain way (which is why plastic surgery is a staple rather than a luxury), dress a certain way, behave a certain way, etc. The shallow judgment is surely not unique to the Asian culture, but it is heightened to a point where it is cringe-worthy noticeable.
I actually fear returning to Korea, because I look fully korean but my tongue is not. If a Caucasian spoke as fluently than I, it would be impressive. But if I converse at my level (I don’t have an accent, but my vocab is limited), the more traditional folks give looks of disgust and disapproval. Back when I was serving at an Asian restaurant, I overheard people referring to me as “whitewashed” or “embarrassing.” What’s embarrassing –I wanted to say– is the fact that you’re a grown adult and you tip like you have the allowance of a 16 year old. But through conditioning, respect is given to strangers and elders even when it isn’t due, so I would bow and walk away with my tail between my legs. Even in times of impulsive fury, I am bound by cultural habits that reflect the peachy pale hues of my skin.
I, of course, wouldn’t say this extends to every Asian home, just as the All-American white-picket fence doesn’t reach every house in America. It’s a matter of parental choice on what is included in upbringing; like corporal punishment and summer camps, there is no conclusive evidence on what is right for a child. However, I bring attention to the principles many Asian families adhere to that promote critical judgement, tough love, and competition. It pushes us to our potential and helps us succeed the same way it hinders us from addressing emotions and conflicts in what is supposed to be the most intimate and open setting: our own homes.
I don’t feel shame for being Korean. I feel ashamed for the way the critical outlook within our own community gives excess value to superficiality and materialism. I feel let down by the racist and sexist attitudes that have yet to recede the front lines of our culture. And most of all, I think we could do more, as new generations take heed of upbringing, to understand respect can coexist with affection. My parents love us more than anything in the world, but it took me over 20 years to realize that. And it took just as long to understand that the criticism amongst Asians isn’t derived from hatred, but rather the influence of cultural paradigms that shape our being.
The culture we are born into gives us a foundation. The culture we are raised in shapes the exterior. But the culture we determine, through combining our formed beliefs with the ones we encounter, is what gets passed to the generations beyond us. Let’s make it a good one.