Our baby grows inside of me. In a few months she will come out to see us. She will be half-French from her father, a quarter Korean and a quarter English/Irish from me, Quite a mix. Will her Korean ancestry mean anything to her? I don't know, but I hope her father's ancestry will mean more to her than mine did to me. I hope that, unlike me, she will speak her father's native tongue.
My father arrived in this country at age 20, a student on scholarship who planned to stay for only four years. But he met my mother in college, and, at 67, is still here. He never returned to his home country except for brief visits.
Thanks to his marriage to my mother, his entire family was able to immigrate-parents, brothers and sisters, their spouses and children. They all live in Southern California now, with more than half a million other Korean Americans.
But we lived in Florida, far from the world of my cousins, whose parents all married other Koreans, and went to Korean churches, sang in Korean choirs, shopped in Korean stores. Growing up in north Florida, I didn't know anyone else who was Korean. Nor did I think much about my ancestry. Time and again, I searched my blouse, wondering what I had spilled, before I realized that the person staring at me just wasn't used to seeing Asians-or Orientals, as we said in those days.
"Where are you from?" people would ask. It was a question that I, native-born, always resented. "Ohio," I would say innocently, naming my birth state. I sometimes felt my physical appearance kept me from fitting in anywhere. To my mother's family in Ohio, I looked completely Asian. To my father's family, I was impossibly Caucasian.
But as far as I was concerned, I was just another American kid. Korea and things Korean were far away. I thought they didn't affect me. Sure, my dad was shorter than any other dads I knew-only 5-foot-3. He did a few funny things, like wear white socks under his sandals and get really upset if a little food went bad in the refrigerator. And when my grandmother called on the telephone, I couldn't understand anything she was saying. I wondered about Korea. It had a magical, storybook appeal. I would to try to get my father to talk about his country, usually in vain. I understand now that the privations and horrors of Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War, in which my father fought, were not things he wanted to remember.
Then, in 1995 and 1996 I taught English as a Second Language in the Republic of Korea (South Korea to Americans), first in a conversation school and junior college in Taejeon, and then in a university in Puchon, outside Seoul. For the first time, I learned to speak a little Korean. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who looked-and acted-like my father. Incidents from my childhood, little things that seemed nonsensical in northern Florida, suddenly came into context. It rains a lot in the Florida summer, and I was always barefoot. "Put on your shoes," my father used to say. "You'll get worms." I never knew what he was talking about, but I spent my childhood imagining worms that could crawl into my body through my feet. One day in Puchon, I heard a colleague talking about an Asian parasitic worm that does just that. "That's what my father was talking about!" I exclaimed. It was like finding the key to a secret code language. I had spent my childhood worrying about a worm that didn't exist on the American continent.
This phenomenon — my father behaving in ways that made sense in Korea, but were completely out of context in the United States — eventually led to my parents' divorce when I was 16. The irony is that neither I nor anyone in my family had any idea that the roots of this divorce were cultural.
One day in my first year in Korea I went to a hot springs resort with an American friend who had recently arrived to teach in the same school. We were relaxing in the sauna, listening to a group of Korean women talk when she turned to me. "Are they going to hit each other?" she asked. I looked at her, amazed. "They're not even arguing!" I said.
What to Koreans is perfectly normal conversation, with a little friendly kidding and complaining, can sound to an American like something verging on violent hostility. To my Midwestern mother, raised to avoid open conflict, the way my father suddenly began shouting when he was angry was incomprehensible and unacceptable. To me, it was frightening. But I observed that, when my Korean grandfather yelled at my grandmother, she yelled right back. And more often than not, she had the last word.
After living in Korea, I understood that sudden bursts of anger were considered normal, and indeed, in a setting where they were expected, not frightening at all. A colleague who had lived many years in Korea told me that Koreans will rarely come to blows, but more often solve disputes by shouting, and that "the fellow who shouts the loudest will be the winner."
Koreans are lovers of music, great singers, eaters of the hottest chili peppers in Asia. I came to appreciate Korean bluntness, so different from the politeness and subtlety I had encountered teaching English in Japan. At least, I thought, with Koreans I always knew where I stood.
My mother, who had never lived in Korea, nor spent much time with Koreans other than my father, had no idea that her husband's behavior was cultural, and my father had no way of knowing how upsetting and alien that behavior was for her, since her habits of avoiding conflict kept her from bringing it up until the day it was too late.
I look back to my childhood and it is as if my father were dancing in a room full of people, moving to a music only he could hear, making steps only he knew. Back in Korea, or in Korea Town in Los Angeles, others were taking the same steps to the same music. But in Gainesville, Florida, everyone else — including his family — was doing a different dance.
Penny Chang lives in Charlottesville,VA, with her husband and baby, who is expected October 1. She recently left her job as a part-time writer and editor for the Communications office of the University of Virginia School of Law. She is a senior in the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, a four-year energy healing and personal development program.
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