byline: The Fake Korean

The protagonist of my novel is someone who was born in Korea. He is not me. First of all, I am not male. Second of all, I was born and raised in the States. I did not live through any wars. He does eventually come to live in the U.S., but his experience is distinctly different from mine. But he and I are both Korean, and I feel very close to my character through the bond of history. After all, blood is thicker than…most things, no? Roots are…the things that connect us, no?

Yes, I know I’m bringing up the tricky issue of race and cultural identity. It seems that no matter what I say about this, someone ends up being very very hurt and/or angry. But I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this on a regular basis, even if it’s painful. I don’t bring it up at the dinner table, but maybe this blog will be a good forum for it, as so many of you have been so insightful and supportive and enlightening. We are all here to learn from each other.

Today, I feel this bond of history questioned. Recently, I got an email referring to a post I made on another blog, a humorous tongue in cheek list of ways in which I don’t fit the mold of a typical Korean girl. While a few people (mostly other Korean Americans) found it funny, I faced a bunch of protests from Koreans living in Korea. The most recent comment is the most heated:

I want to say that your post is very misleading. It should be “why I am a bad
Korean-AMERICAN girl”. Obviously you have never lived in Korea before, and you have no idea what real Koreans are like. What you have seen all your life is KOREAN-AMERICANS ie Kyo-pos. I think your post gives a very misleading impression of KOREANS LIVING in KOREA, when you have no idea what Koreans are actually like. You are making generalizations about Koreans based on what you’ve seen from your parents or old Korean-AMERICANS (KYO-PO). Koreans nowadays are not like what you have described, and being a “good (real)Korean girl” in the 20th century is not like what you have described above. Given the fact that many americans who don’t have a clue about Korea, visit your website and will get this misleading image of REAL KOREANS living in KOREA, I suggest you clarify this misleading post.
After all, KOREANS are NOT KOREAN-AMERICANS(Kyo-po).
p.s.
I am quite offended by your post. What the hell do you know about MY(REAL KOREAN) CULTURE anyway?

I apologized for not specifying that this was about being Korean AMERICAN. I should have written Korean American–but I just assumed people would think I am Korean American, and I did not expect to be so disowned by Koreans living in Korea (in the U.S., saying “I’m Korean” means you’re of Korean descent most of the time). My mistake. I didn’t intend to misrepresent. I’m actually horrified. But–what concerns me most is that the writer thinks that I am not a “Real Korean” (read: “What the hell do you know about MY (REAL KOREAN) CULTURE anyway?”)

Now I have to wonder how honest my novel is–as it is written by a “fake Korean,” aka Korean American. Though really, I do not feel all that fake. What does he know about MY (REAL KOREAN) CULTURE anyway, right? His letter both pisses me off and humbles me. I can’t figure out how to navigate between the two extremes right now (it has not been too long since I received this email).

And before I get a history lesson on all this, I am not a stranger to this debate about “being Korean Korean” versus “Korean American” and the ambiguities of being a “gyopo” (a Korean living abroad, mostly referring to Korean Americans). I have gone to Korea many times, sometimes for one week, other times for months on end. My Korean (American) friends have been spat on in the streets of Seoul, I have been poked for not speaking perfect Korean, I am well aware that there is a divide. I have studied about it in my Asian American studies classes as an undergrad, I have lived it, I have witnessed it. I just thought, naively, that that divide had become less pronounced in this globalized world. (btw, I am not mentioning much of how wonderful Korea is, and how much I love my mother country, and how many ties I have to Korea. The minute I hit the tarmac at Kimpo and now Inchon airport, I feel a part of me truly home).

I have previously brought up my concerns about writers writing characters of another race, and I have now encountered the same issue in my own writing. I am Korean American–can I write about the “Korean” experience (at least the first couple of chapters is set IN Korea)? We’ll see. Will I piss off a lot of Koreans? Probably. Am I prepared for that possibility? Not really.

Now I have to practice what I preach. I feel humbled.

As an addendum, I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in my concern about my authenticity. Daniel Alarcon, kick-ass writer and author of War by Candlelight wrote an essay in the Washington Post this past summer on the eve of his book’s debut in Peru. He is Peruvian American. And he writes:

I write about the country where I was born but not raised, using English, a language not spoken there except in classrooms and boardrooms. At times, I’ve flattered myself into thinking that I am writing from within the culture and that the language I use is a mere accident of migration, but clearly this is not true. My relationship to Peru is complicated by the fact that I am always translating. There are certain things I cannot know, and so I must invent the sense of them. This is the work of writing, I suppose, and I would be doing much the same if I were composing stories about my American childhood, though perhaps on another scale.

He continues:

In a few months, my first book of stories, War by Candlelight — published last year in the United States — will be published in Peru. I’ve been looking forward to the Spanish version anxiously. It’s not just a matter of worrying about how the translation will sound; it’s deeper than that. My incomplete knowledge of the place will be on display before critics who are least likely to be forgiving. To be panned by an American reviewer would probably have more of an impact on my career, but similar treatment at the hands of Peruvian critics might do more spiritual damage. I’ve taken what I know about a place, written it in English, and now those people depicted in the stories will have their say. Exoticism will not color their understanding of the work, and the stories will be read on their own merits. These readers will not be seduced by a pretty sentence or a well-observed detail: They will know instantly if the book is true or not, whether I have added something of substance to the discussion of Peru’s national trauma or have simply plagiarized our suffering.

He speaks the truth for sure. He ends his essay with “…how would a real Peruvian have felt?” It’s curious to note the use of “real” in his piece, and the email sent to me about my casual offhand blogpost.

Thank goodness for writers who continue to share their thoughts on what makes them quake to their very core. At least I know I’m not quaking alone, feeling like the impostor that I am!

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11 Comments

Filed under Life, The Novel, Writing

11 responses to “byline: The Fake Korean

  1. I feel your pain; I have similar issues, and more so, because I’m only 50% (ethnic origin redacted). Your stance about writers writing characters of another race makes me uneasy, because if I subscribed to that, well then, would I be allowed to write about all my relatives and their country, since I am only half(Ethnicity) and anyway I was raised here?

    I dunno. I think as writers we have to tell stories we want to tell and see if they work. Maybe a story will work for some and not for others. Personally I think that the people in the original country just have to deal with the fact that their kinsmen/women move to other places, assimilate somewhat, change, and also claim the original culture. Things evolve. Get over yourselves!

    Meanwhile, my relatives in the home country are all evolving and changing too – the culture of the home country changes from one decade to the next. They emigrate to other places that are not the US but are very modern and global and corporate, and they become these international creatures.

    Chris Abani talked about the dual nature of the mixed-race/ethnicity person. I feel it. As a writer this can be terrifying because it amplifies the fear that you aren’t legitimate, don’t deserve to say what you have to say. My mother tells me “you aren’t a real (ethnicity redacted)” and then of course in my father’s country they look at me (and listen to me talk) and say “you aren’t a real (ethnicity redacted)”.

    I say I’m the real thing and the rest of them just have to catch up. Jane Smiley writes in her book about novels that the novel creates its own reality that changes the people who read it, and eventually might change the world. Strong statement. Maybe the folks in country of origin resent that someone not as affected by the pressure to conform in the society dares to write about the society, therefore redefining it and possibly changing it.

    Thanks for bringing up the topic. I have been afraid to tell you before this of my discomfort with your stance on writers writing characters of another race. It’s not that I disagree with you, I am not sure I have a strong conclusion yet. I just fear that the argument will lead to someone telling me I can’t write what I’m driven to write because I don’t deserve to because I’m not (name the ethnicity) enough.

  2. Ah to clarify–I don’t say NOT to write a character of another race. I just say that it’s a Big Deal and ask people to understand that it’s a weighty decision and responsibility. What I do object to are flippant decisions to write a character of another race without understanding the social implications. It’s clear you understand this, Leonessa, and you will create many worlds as a writer!

    But nonetheless, I feel like quite the phoney tonight. I think it’s healthy for my writing, but very uncomfortable, and so I understand a little of what you and others in the same situation feel. Compound that with the general doldrums I’m suffering and you’ve got me here, alone in the dark, with a ton of self doubt.

    In writing, nothing is black and white. Then it would be easy, and everyone would have a novel written and published. It’s hard and very gray, and there are no hard and fast “rules.” Of course I cannot tell writers what to do–I’m feeling it’s a bit like censorship to say “can’t do this or that” to artists. If the Muse moves a writer, then a writer must take that wave. But I pray that we writers take that road with awareness and responsibility. Also, I hope this space is a place where we can all be honest with each other and really enlighten each other. I am still learning, and so while I come very opinionated to this space, I am also asking for different voices to make my understanding more complex and truthful.

    And well, shit. I may change my mind in a few months.

    (Hrm. Rules. as for rules, I was thinking about doing a post on the “myths of creative writing”)

  3. w

    I’m pretty inarticulate when it comes to discussing this, so I’ll say (for now at least) that I think you’re correct about the need for awareness and responsibility from the writer. I’m Chinese American writing about Chinese immigrants, and this dialogue is important for me because I try to explore the authenticity of experience—that is, the questionability of authentic experience. Er… but hopefully in a more interesting way than what I just wrote. Thanks for tackling this, and for quoting the spot-on Daniel Alarcón article.

  4. Ericpl

    Don’t lets forget that the author of Memoirs of a Geisha is a white dude and the main character is not only female, but Japanese AND a geisha who “lived” during WW2. I, for one, don’t think it makes one bit of difference if you are “real” Korean or not. This dude went right off the rails IMHO. Its his opinion only.
    Dude, you write what you need to write – from a place of integrity and honesty and you’ll be right.
    Biggest hugs.

  5. Well, for one thing, this guy seems very obviously one of those rampaging Korean netizen types. Some of whom insist that every mention of Korea be in a positive light. You turn on Arirang TV and you’d think that Korea has achieved Utopian status. Well, my girlfriend works in a hospital in one of Seoul’s red-light districts, where she treats gangsters and hookers, and where the cops showed up twice to check out the stories of women attacked by a serial rapist who, of course, was not on the news, because that would make Korea look bad. So often it’s the case that people insist only positive depictions of “their people” or “their country” and I’m sorry to say but it’s not only misrepresentation, it’s utter bullshit.

    I also think you’re 80% on the mark with those stereotypes. This guy is pretending things have changed more than they actually have here. Clothing sizes, makeup, fashions — yes, burberry’s still a thing here. Yes, marrying a White Guy is still a horribly big deal here — people still use the word “Yang Kongju” on the street here, or accost women for being with foreign men sometimes. Yes, a lot of fashion looks like the kinds you mentioned, like Ann Taylor, and mostly in the ridiculously small sizes you mentioned. Nice clothing is much less available for women of even slightly larger sizes. Many young women still do cover their mouhts when they laugh, instead of cackling and knee-slapping. Yes, big boobs are still rare, even though a marked rise in breast size has been mentioned by bra manufacturers, and attributed to more surgery and dietary changes. Despite those dietary changes, skinny is definitely the way to be, and women who are bigger get nagged about it constantly. Korean women have amazingly negative body images. Having a figure your average Western woman would envy, they consider themselves fat. You see, more than anything else, chicken legs sticking out of miniskirts, while women who have actually nice legs hide them in shame of imagined fatness.

    Women very rarely make lewd jokes around men unless maybe alone or on the make — though I think among women it might be different. And yes, women who are married and not immediately pregnant do get looked at as weird, or, especially, as unfortunate. And yes, there’s still a preference for boys, and anyone who insists otherwise is a bloody liar. So is anyone who disagrees with the fact that the workplace is in general strongly skewed to the idea men keep jobs and women quit to have babies when they get married. These are all simple facts of life here, things that women actually deal with on a daily basis, and some man coming in and spewing at you for misrepresenting his country deserves to be smacked and told, “Listen, motherf*cker, you should be thankful I wasn’t more blunt.”

    But…

    The preference for boys and the discrimination against women are both slightly less profound now — baby girls aren’t named things like Seob-seob (“Disappointment”) or Hu-Nam (“Boy Next”) anymore like they were in the “good old days”… my girlfriend’s treated old women with both those names, for example.

    And the birth rate is declining here — it’s one of the lowest in the world, if not the lowest, and more women *are* waiting to have kids… though they still get nagged and get funny looks.

    I think you meant Hyundai when you wrote Honda, though, and the Burberry thing is a bit retro — more of a thing 3-4 years ago, really — and Korean girls here mostly don’t drink Heinekin or whiskey — it’s mostly Hite beer and soju — and I’ve never met a Korean woman who actually plays golf… though I knew a few who took a “golf class” at University as an elective credit. Yes, I’m not kidding. And I think that I know more about making kimchi and cooking Korean food than most unmarried Korean women and most Korean men, married or not. Women do the cooking, but Korean “girls” certainly don’t. They help mom make kimchi, and rarely make it themselves till they marry and it becomes a necessity. Even then, sometimes mom just keeps sending it. And Koreans do overwhelmingly condemn difference, to the point of considering any difference or nonconformity a bad or scary thing, as your idiotic uncle does. Christianity is widespread here (as if Christianity is any less foreign than Judaism, by the way), but lots of Koreans don’t go to church, or are only nominally Christian…

    So what’s my point? That in a lot of ways, your post on that other site was actually on the money, though in a few ways I agree, it’s either dated or out of whack. The fact that this guy got mad suggests how close you are to reality, past or present… because if you said, “I am a bad Korean. I don’t own a chainsaw,” he wouldn’t have been angry, he would have been puzzled instead. The sad fact is, it’s the small errors or dated bits that made him think, and gave him leeway to criticize,”Ah, she’s speaking from no experience, just stereotypes.”

    In fact, I think I’m going to go eviscerate that twit on your site.

  6. Using a psuedonym, mind, since I don’t need some dipshit emailing my workplace to try get me fired. Which has been happening to foreign K-bloggers lately.

  7. Argh, are comments closed there now?

  8. Hi gord–I totally deleted that post, I was just so frustrated with the disconnect there. The post was brewing discontent more than laughter (my original intention). In fact, that whole blog is put on a slow roll thee days. Thank you for having my back, you have really buoyed my spirits with your commentary.

    Someday, we will meet and have a fascinating conversation–in the interim, we will help each other build new worlds as writers.

  9. It’s probably for the best — the comment I wrote to post there was a little harsh. No, a lot harsh.

    Woah, meeting. That’ll be cool. Till then, yes, as you say… actually, I may have a story I’ll be asking for feedback on sometime, meaning, likely, in April or May. There’s only a small Korean-American character but his role may change in the redraft, and I’d like some feedback on him.

  10. of course, gord! would be happy to provide feedback.

  11. Gabriela

    I’m involved with a non-profit organization that works with Korean teenage students. Facing the differences first-hand in your home can be an interesting learning experience. The korean nationals are teenagers, speak English, and they stay 6-10 months. If you want more info, e-mail me or call the organization directly at 1-888-743-8721.

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