When I was six, my parents took me to my first Korean Day parade. It marched south on 6th Avenue, ending near K-town, the original enclave of Korean businesses on 32nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. It was full of the pomp and spectacle of an ancient culture, with everything from traditional musicians and dancers, historical re-enactors of all kinds, even someone dressed like King Sejong. And it was all lost on me, except for the much-anticipated post-parade meal at a restaurant on 32nd Street.
Back then, I only had the vaguest notion of my heritage, except for the food of course, and that it got me into fights with other boys in school. I don’t remember wondering why I was in at least one fight a week with some epithet-hurling white kid, or why so few kids from school wanted to play with me. The irony of my best friend being another outcast, the rare Jew in an Irish-Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, escaped me. Poetic justice: my wife and I attended a wedding in my old neighborhood several years ago, and it’s now predominantly South Asian; I saw a few white faces, but they were dour, as if their new neighbors conspired to keep them down. It was the same put-upon face I saw in Tuzla, Cité-Soleil, or even Oakland.
My dad picked me up at one point during the parade. It couldn’t have been easy for him, 5-foot-9 and a buck-twenty soaking wet, and I was already tall for six. I vaguely remember traditional drummers wearing hanbok, and endless Korean flags. I’ll also never forget what he said next: “Don’t ever be ashamed who we are. This is you.” He pointed at the parade marchers, whom he would join a few years hence.
It was, regrettably, one of the few pure moments I ever had with my father; it was also the first time I was consciously proud of my heritage. It gave me the courage to stick with fights, even talking some trash back to ignorant boys who couldn’t even get their slurs right; for a young boy, “chink” might not hurt so much as “gook” or “slope,” it’s an endlessly shifting vocabulary where two inches left or right might make all the difference. The words themselves didn’t have as much impact anymore, but let’s face it, a punch in the head was still a punch in the head. Sticks and stones hurt, but you learn how to take it. I started reading what I could about Korea in the library, but there was (and still is) too much academic drivel that went over the head of a curious schoolboy. I made a sincere effort to speak more Korean with my family, dropping my foolish notion (hope?) that I would be accepted more by whites if they never saw me speaking my parents’ tongue.
Now, I’m not someone who needs to make a roots-pilgrimage back to the Land of the Morning Calm to find myself. My visits there, and my noticeable American accent, disabused me of that by high school. I think that by my mid-20s, though, I finally became more secure in who I am, and where my parents (and now, my in-laws) came from. There wasn’t a specific event that triggered my new-found racial serenity, but I basically stopped trying to conform to anyone else’s idea of who or what I should be/do/say. Middle class Korean-American boys don’t drink themselves out of college to enlist in the Army (if they must, they join the service through West Point or Annapolis), they don’t go to Airborne and Ranger schools or (gasp!) re-enlist, they don’t speak Southern and love football, they don’t dip Copenhagen (I quit for my wife, but miss it sometimes), they don’t do something as imprudent as write in their off time, and they definitely don’t work in restaurants they don’t own. Sorry, haters.
When it came to naming our son, my wife and I went back and forth about him having a Korean name. We ultimately settled on a Korean name that is an amalgam of my wife’s and my Korean names, which he responds to almost as well as Ryan. We unwittingly named him “handsome, long life,” but then, why not wish that for your child? My wife and I (more her than me) are trying to teach him Korean, and he responds to both Korean and English. Thankfully, my in-laws and my mother speak to him primarily in Korean, and our hope is that he becomes, if not bilingual, then at least he’ll grow up conversant in a language other than English.
But what does the grandson of immigrants, who came to the States 40 or so years before he was born, owe the Old Country? Is it anything like my in-laws’ neighbors, many of whom have never been to Ireland or Italy, yet have those nations’ flags on their car bumpers? Is it revering one’s heritage above all else, honoring the Confucian tenets of filial piety and education, hewing in the opposite direction? While I hope that Ryan grows up justifiably proud of his race, I most definitely don’t want him to be combative about it, the kind of pugnaciously proud Greek/Italian/Korean/black/Jew/Latino that makes most of that person’s peers secretly cringe. Think Hoagy Carmichael wearing a hanbok. I hope he assimilates so well that his peers wouldn’t think to refer to him, as my wife’s frenemy did to her, as “my Korean friend,” which is akin to saying, “there’s at least one non-white in this world who’ll hang out with me, that should prove I’m not racist.”
Yes, Ryan, we Koreans have a long, proud, and storied history. Sorry, none of your forebears descended from royalty – not unless you count an ancestor on my father’s side who was probably a servant for the royal court. You come from a long line of soldiers, surprisingly enough, men who served two great countries. But what does this world, or this nation, owe you? It owes you a level playing field, at least here in the US. It owes you a chance to love and marry whomever you will. It owes you a decent public school education followed by relatively cheap in-state tuition, but you’ll be lucky to see either. It owes you a lifetime spent in a meritocracy where you rise or fall based on what you alone bring to the table. It owes you the abolition of the ignorance and cruel bigotry your parents grew up with, but that sounds too Utopian, so let Appa show you how to throw a solid punch…
Your grandfathers both said that we have to be twice as good as a white person to be even noticed. How about this? Just be you, and by all means enjoy and cherish your heritage, but don’t ever let it define you. Be good, if not great, at whatever you decide to do, but please don’t think your mother or I expect greatness, the absence of which would constitute failure. Be the kind of father I wish I had, and hope I am for you. Be the kind of husband I constantly aspire to be. Be compassionate. Be strong. And like my father said to me, because he liked to sum up life in pithy sayings: “never let them see you sweat.”