Modern Grace is a monthly column for Best of Korea by Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in northern New Jersey, I was part of a large wave of Korean immigrants hitting the tri-state area. I remember when I first started American kindergarten in 1986, I noticed no other Asian faces in the entire school. By third grade, my best friend was another Korean girl who had recently moved to class. By the time I graduated high school, Korean kids made up between ten to fifteen percent of the student body. My mom headed up the Korean PTA, which is to say there was such a thing as a Korean PTA. There was enough of us that we were a little microcosm, an almost cool subculture (remember this was before Korean culture was globally cool), within which there were rules and hierarchies of who belonged and who didn’t.
What made you a “real” or “good” Korean? Speaking Korean, certainly. Listening to Korean pop music. Dating and hanging out with other Koreans. Knowing the right customs, like bowing to elders (even if the “elder” in question was merely a few months older than you).
The gatekeeping was dead serious, even if the methods seemed absurd. It seemed the more exclusive you were about being Korean, the more Korean you could claim to be. I remember the cool Korean kids stopped including me when I continued hanging out with my now-husband, who is white. When he and I started dating, my parents and extended family acted like I was dying—or more accurately, killing some integral part of myself. “You won’t be part of the community anymore,” I was told. “Your kids won’t belong.”
They were wrong, and even as a teenager I knew it. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. The fact that my family and I couldn’t see eye to eye on how far my identity was allowed to stretch before it would be considered irreparably broken haunted us for many years. We were locked in an unnecessary culture war. It took me nearly a decade to have my first child because of fertility struggles, but long before I had my kids, I knew their identity as biracial Korean Americans would be their birthright, not up for negotiation. I was determined that they would always feel they belonged to the full abundance of their cultural legacy, however they chose to experience it.
In practice, this has meant that I focus on access and understanding. My goal is that my kids remain open and curious toward Korean culture, that they feel friendly toward their own identities without pressure to prove or “earn” any aspect of it. This is for their own mindfulness and mental health because we all deserve to feel connected to and integrated with all the parts of our identities. But it’s for a more practical reason, too. I know that as biracial Asian kids growing up in America, it’s likely they will be challenged with that off-putting question, “What are you?” which is America’s not-so-subtle way of letting us know we look foreign. I’ve heard my son being asked that question on the playground from a kid he’d just met. I’ve seen the look of confusion cross his face. Immediately he called out, “Hey mama, why did she ask me that?”
It’s a confusing question, indeed, but one I know my kids will be asked again and again. I can’t stop people from asking my kids (or me) that question, as if by merely noticing us they deserve a printout of our 23 and me results. But I can neutralize the potential inner havoc by giving my kids confidence in their identities. I want them to know who they are, firmly and from a young age, so that no one else can tell them who they are or who they are not.
1. Keep it Simple
In our family we practice identity-building in simple, conversational ways. (Ways that don’t scream “identity-building!” After all, they’re kids not conference-goers.) We talk about where I was born (Seoul) and how this makes me Korean American and how this makes them Korean American too. We point out Korea on the map. When we see a display of flags, we find the South Korean flag. We do this with all the other countries of their heritage too, which includes Germany, Italy, Ireland, and of course the United States.
When my son was obsessed with cars, we taught him which cars came imported from each of his heritage countries. (You can do this with any special interest, just build on what they already like.) Because early literacy starts with exposure, I stocked the kids’ bookshelves with Korean books in addition to English so they’d become familiar with the shape and spacing of the letters.
My son as a toddler declared Teslas were “Korean cars” because the Tesla logo uses a font that looks very similar to the Korean alphabet. I was shocked and amused to see that he was absolutely correct. It looks like ㅜㅌㄹㄴㄷ, with an ㅡ over the last letter to make it an A. Just by simple exposure, the Korean alphabet had become a fun point of engagement like any other tool or toy in his environment.
2. Bite Sized Language Lessons With Some Help From BTS
As a new mother, I agonized over teaching my son Korean (I wrote about it here). He is six now and I’ve stopped stressing about this. Although I admire families who are bilingual or multilingual, I knew attempting full bilingual fluency was too much pressure on myself and my family. Instead, we consider learning Korean as a fun extracurricular activity. My kids learn it with my mom, who teaches a zoom class with my brother and sister-in-law’s kids once a week. The long-distance cousins bond, and they learn a little Korean. Win-win. During the worst of the pandemic when we all had too much time on our hands, my mom taught my son how to read and write in Korean. This and their warm friendship became the shiniest of silver linings.
The current generation of Korean American kids are lucky because there are so many positive examples of globalized Korean culture. My two-year-old daughter asks to watch BTS videos, and when the plane flies overhead in the Dynamite video, she points and shouts, “비행기!” She, more than my son, integrates her Korean vocabulary into conversation because the pandemic meant she heard more Korean at home with me, her brother, my parents. “When you have blue hair, you can dance,” she informs me. When it comes to BTS, these are facts. Maybe it’s just a music video, but I think of it as identity-building. I show her videos of Chloe Kim and Yuna Kim for the same reason. My daughter may not realize it, but she’s internalizing Asian excellence.
3. Culture You Can Eat
All I ask of my kids is that they are open to learning and trying new things. And in return, I try to remember they are entitled to their opinions. For instance, when it comes to Korean food, bulgogi is usually a crowd pleaser, as is mandoo, fried chicken, kalbi, and kimbap. But other flavors might be more challenging. According to Kids Eat in Color, it might take up to fifteen times of seeing a new food before a kid decides to try it. My son was five or six before he agreed to try kimchi, and he agreed only because he saw his baby sister gobbling it up like it was popcorn. She was born with a Korean palate, and will scarf down spicy soon-tofu jjigae, fish stews and fried anchovies… for breakfast. Had she been my first, I might have been tempted to take credit for her adventurous appetite, but now I realize kids are who they are.
Her love of kimchi is no more a credit to my parenting than my son’s lack of spice tolerance is a knock. Plus, the food you like doesn’t determine membership to a culture—if it did, every New American chef adding “kimchi” to their menu over the past ten years might be having an identity crisis (they might be having an identity crisis anyway, but that’s not because of the so-called “kimchi”).
Cultural Identity is a Bedrock
In the future, my kids might decide they want to become fluent in Korean. They might decide to move to Seoul and use their Korean middle names rather than their Western first names. They might choose Korean partners and become expert home kimchi-makers. Or—they might move to Norway and have children with blue eyes like their first cousins on their dad’s side. Their only interaction with Korean culture might be in the form of fond childhood memories. There are, of course, a thousand alternative futures.
Whatever their life journeys, my hope for my kids is that their cultural identities will always feel like a bedrock of security and inspiration that allows stretching and flexing without ever doubting they belong. I hope that their practice of being open and curious spills over into all aspects of their lives. No one knows it all. No one is the perfect Korean, perfect parent, perfect anything. It’s way more fun that way.
Next month: The parts of Korean culture I’ve ditched and won’t be passing on to my kids.
Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. EVERYTHING BELONGS TO US is her debut novel, which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and included on Kirkus Reviews’ Best Fiction of 2017. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her family. You can find her online at www.gracewuertz.com