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).
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.
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!