Since our family’s trip to South Korea in April of 2019, I have been delving more deeply into my Korean roots. I have been mourning the loss of my Korean culture and traditions for the past several years. It has definitely been a journey, but the past year and a half has guided me deeper into this reconnection and reclaiming.
With parents who immigrated to the United States in the 70s, I was started out my life between two cultures. One was Western, the other Eastern. One was viewed as aspirational, the other was something to leave behind. One was compatible with Westernized Christianity, the other was more problematic. One was first world, the other was considered “third-world.”
In between these two cultures, I grew up with the message that assimilation was key – not just for survival, but for success. Looking in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word assimilate is defined as follows: “to take into the mind and thoroughly understand; to take in and utilize as nourishment: to absorb into the system; to absorb into the cultural tradition of a population of group; to make similar.”
It wasn’t enough to imitate, you had to absorb and ultimately become as similar as possible. But what happens when you absorb? You lose something. You are consumed and then transformed into the thing that you allow to absorb you. It makes me think about the chameleon – how they change depending on their environment. It is also a way that they protect themselves through camouflage, but generally, it is dependent on the circumstances that they are in – all in the name of survival. But the beauty of the chameleon is that they never change who they are – they are still a chameleon. They aren’t giving up their essence.
In assimilation, there is a sense that who you are has to change to fit your surroundings in order to survive. And it is this essence that I have been working hard to reclaim. For so long, I was busy at work trying to fight and fit my essence into something that it would never be – it could never be.
Remember those shape sorters for toddlers? No matter how hard you try to shove that circle into the star shape, it wouldn’t fit. Each of us has been created uniquely. Part of who we are is our culture, our roots, our ethnicities. Those are things that we cannot change – it is embedded in the depths of our being – of our essence.
The destructive part of assimilation is that it tricks you into thinking that all of those things can be changed or erased. The denial of our core being fires back at us as self-hatred and oppression of ourselves and others. I hated being Korean for many years of my life. I wanted the blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be American – like all the other white families in my school. I was ashamed of the Korean language, Korean clothes, those trips to Korea, Korean food. How could I erase my Koreanness so that I could be more acceptable, desirable, and more like everyone else? I didn’t want to stand out – I wanted to fit in. The only way that I knew how to do that was to assimilate as much as I could.
And so, this is how I became an assimilation chameleon. Wherever I went, I did my best to become like my environment and surroundings. I would be the bright, outgoing, bubbly friend if that’s what was needed. Other times, I would be so highly organized, responsible, and anticipatory of needs that you would never experience an empty water glass, a missing bottle of glue, or ever run out of bandages and sunscreen.
The never ending search of who I was was always elusive because I was too busy being someone else. I could rattle off the gifts and talents of everyone around me, but me? I couldn’t think of a single one. I didn’t think I had any, which fueled my insecurities even more. I sought after the question, “Why do you like me? Why am I your friend?” – hoping that someone would have an answer for me that would give me my own ah-ha light bulb moment.
Throughout the past several years, I have been doing a lot of internal work of self-examination as I’ve delved more into my own personal journey and work in racial justice. I have always had a strong sense of racial justice as a child, which turned into a lot of self-hatred for my Korean-ness. Upon that examination, I discovered my shame for being Korean-American. Peeling back layers and layers of that shame, revealed the strong root of the assimilation chameleon.
The trip to Korea in April was a pivotal moment for me, personally. Not only was it a chance to rediscover my roots, but with my own self-discoveries, I got to see Korea with a renewed perspective. In addition to my own journey, I got to share it with my daughter. It allowed me as a parent, to tell a different narrative that embraced the beautiful and unique ways of who she was and is – it applauded, nurtured, and held precious her essence.
I still live in this in-between world of two different cultures, yet have allowed myself to appreciate and treasure my often ignored Korean culture. Letting go of my assimilation chameleon has been hard. I’ve put in time to learn more about Korean history, traditions, and culture. I’ve watched hours of Korean dramas and variety shows. I’ve listened to K-pop non-stop and rediscovered my favorite singers and groups from my childhood that I loved in secret. I have read books about theology from the Korean and other Asian/Asian American perspectives in efforts to make sense and to rethink my own faith journey. The most difficult part of all of this, though, has been learning to love myself – my true self – my essence. It’s taken time to find that core of myself that I had been trying to erase for most of my life.
For those of you who might be between or embracing more than one culture, how have you been loving yourself and your essence?