2007 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place

Walking in two cultures, Korean and American
Jay Lee

I looked away from the television and gave my mom the most bewildered, perplexed look that my face could make. My mom had just spent the last fifteen minutes rambling on about our family’s upcoming trip to Korea, and I had done more than a decent job of ignoring her, when I heard breaking news that captured my attention.

“We’re going to extend our stay in Korea for a few more days,” she told me. “We’ve decided that we should go see Seorak Mountain.”

My disbelief and frustration quickly turned into exasperation. It was bad enough that my parents were making me take a month out of my precious summertime to go on this trip. Despite speaking fairly decent Korean and thoroughly enjoying Korean food, Korea was the last place I wanted to be. Now my parents wanted to elongate the trip to visit some puny mountain? I could feel my cries of vexation building up inside me.

“Why on earth would we do that?” I shot back fervently. “We’ve seen mountains here in the United States four times the size of it! There’s nothing special about it that makes it worth visiting!”

“Still, it’s a Korean landmark,” she replied. “It’s a symbol of Korean pride.”

Her argument did anything but win me over. Korean pride meant about as much to me as some Korean phrase that I was not familiar with. Like many of the Korean-American friends that I have, I grew up with my fair share of Korean culture shoved down my throat. I was taught that the hours following school were to be devoted to practicing my cello, that my weekends were to be spent in Korean school, and that my summer was to be spent in summer school. Seeing the dozens of other Korean-American kids growing up in similar environments, my heart began to harden towards the strict nature of Korean culture.

My life as a Korean-American underwent a drastic adjustment once I entered high school. Firstly, I entered the period in my life when I could become the person that I, not my parents, wanted to become. Additionally, I was exposed to a side of Korean culture that I had never really noticed: an extreme pride in being associated with Korea. The high school that I attend, Glenbrook South, has a student population that is one-fifth Korean. I found that lunchrooms and hallways were often segregated between the Koreans and the Caucasians, which, much to my surprise, was the doing of the Koreans. Desiring to be around people that also grew up in the midst of Korean culture, it seemed as if the Korean-Americans were unwilling to assimilate themselves with the rest of White America, and I could not help but wonder if this pride in the Korean culture had gone too far. I realized that this excessive pride was always around me, as I never understood Korea’s obsession with Chan Ho Park, the mediocre baseball pitcher, nor my dad’s insistence that our family subscribe to KoreAm Magazine, despite its lackluster quality of writing. My inability to comprehend the source of all this fanaticism only left a bad taste in my mouth.

One consequence of this segregation was that it became increasingly easier for everyone to stereotype the Korean-Americans, as they seemed to travel around in one, homogenous pack. With my newfound freedom to develop into the person that I wanted to be, I committed myself to avoiding the stereotypical behavior of the Korean-American student. I swore to myself that I would not play DDR, drive an import Japanese car, or dye my hair yellow. What made matters worse was that such segregation made me convince that I had to pick sides, and that by being friends with all Caucasians, I was somehow deserting the Korean-American side. As far as I was concerned, the Korean side of me had died.

Despite my adamant objections, our family borrowed my aunt’s car, booked a condo, and took the four hour trip to Seorak Mountain. The weather was cloudy and gloomy, doing little to help my already cynical expectations for the Mountain. Yet, as I tried to make out the mountainside in the midst of the haze and fog, I enjoyed a moment of cloudless clarity. Physically, what I saw was no different from what I had expected: an impressive, but not overwhelming, mountain. However, my moment of epiphany came with my realization of this excessive pride in Korea. Staring at the 5,000 foot peak of the mountain, I felt the sense of pride that my mother had been speaking of. Sure, it was nothing in comparison to the majestic sight I had seen last year at Mt. Rainier in Seattle. But the difference lay in the fact that Seorak Mountain was unquestionably, undeniably Korean. The dirt, trees, and cliffs of this mountain were filled with the same values and ideals that I was raised with. I understood that the strict environment that I was raised in was only because my parents possessed the hardworking, diligent nature of the Korean culture. I became ashamed that I bought into meaningless stereotypes, while avoiding the true identity that I had as a Korean American.

As I continue on my maturation process, I realize that I still have a long, broad journey ahead of me. Although I have the power to become the person that I want to become, I understand that my parents did me a big favor when they raised me in the Korean culture. I look forward to the day when I can push my son to appreciate classical music, work hard for an education, and take him for a visit to Seorak Mountain.