Finding a Cultural Fit
By Se Yong Park
First, I’d like to just give some insight into my background. I am originally from Seoul, South Korea and came to the United States at the age of 4. I did not attend any type of schooling in Korea and thus, never learned to read or write the language. However, due to the fact that my entire bloodline is Korean, growing up, I was forced to speak the language at a level in which I could communicate with my family and friends.
Now, I understand that this type of situation sounds pretty familiar to many Korean immigrants. You come to the United States with your family who has no experience in the country at all. Your family works hard for you to be able to get a better education despite the adaptations they must make to a foreign country. You then go into a fight-or-flight system, forcing you to either make it big in the world or face failure.
The intentions of this post are to relate to those who have similar stories to mine and try to persuade them that the future holds diversity. First, let me start with a little anecdote:
First semester of Sophomore year, I was applying to Finance Internships and ran into a problem that a lot of people have [outside of Yale]: I didn’t have any connections. At Yale, everyone has some type of connection, ranging from fathers who were Legends on Wall Street to connections through their cultural groups. I did not have previous generations of family that lived in America to rely on for help nor could I turn to my own Korean community. Being an Asian male made my chances slim as is; not having anyone who could put in a word for me at all eliminated those chances entirely.
Spoiler alert: My vast search for an internship at a big firm on Wall Street came up futile.
The point of that anecdote was to provide an example of the struggle I faced while growing up and still face today: too American to be Korean and too Korean to be American.
Sense of Community: Missing
All through my life, I’ve been in this sort of awkward position where I wasn’t immersed entirely in Korean culture for me to be accepted by the Korean community. They’d much rather help those students who were deeply invested in the culture and spoke Korean as their primary language of communication. Koreans generally shun Koreans who don’t speak Korean fluently as they claim it is embarrassing not to speak one’s native language The first thing most Korean people do when they meet another Korean person is ask “한국 말 하냐?” which translates to “Do you speak Korean?” Thankfully, I’ve got enough Korean in me to be able to respond confidently and thus avoid an awkward first impression. However, the encounters are always superficial as they soon realize I am not an IDEAL Korean. Therefore, my efforts of building personal relationships and connections with the members of this community often fell short.
As a result, I sought out to try to immerse myself fully in the culture. I thought that coming to Yale and taking Korean courses would help create legitimacy towards my Koreanness. I thought that eating Korean food and listening to K-Pop were the ways in which I could become more Korean. All I wanted was to be fully accepted by my own community. I soon came to realize that all of that simply was not me.
Through the vast majority of my life, I always have considered myself American. I have lived in America for more than 16 years, am fluent in English, and have immersed myself in American Culture. I also love to play football, the American sport. “However when it came down to it, all of this, even my passport proving I am an American citizen, didn’t hold any weight.
It was and still is difficult for members of other communities to consider me as an American. When I would say that I’m from New Jersey, they would say “No, like where are you REALLY from?” It’s as though their answer of “Florida” or “California” held more weight than mine of “New Jersey,” simply because they were ethnically White and I was ethnically Asian. To the eyes of most people, I am not and never will be American.
However, the cultures that I can say most influenced my upbringing are not either Korean or American cultures but rather Hispanic and Black cultures. Through my entire life, most of my closest friends were members of either community. Quite the contrary from the Korean culture in which family isn’t as important, my friends’ cultures felt as though family meant the world and that seeing each other often was a top priority. Therefore, I always felt it was the biggest honor when their families would invite me to family gatherings. These cultures have taught me that family means everything and always have each others’ backs. I’ve also picked up a couple of things here and there that are evident in my character such as having a chip on my shoulder and standing strong in my beliefs. It especially meant a lot to me that cultures that I had no roots in would allow me to feel like I was in the right place whereas my own people would brush me off for not being Korean enough.
Even then, I was only accepted fully by members of the Hispanic and Black communities that knew me. I was stuck again in this spot where I was Korean to the rest of the world… Except, I wasn’t Korean to the Korean community.
Although I have no direct fit in an ethnic community, I feel that standing where I do now in the middle ground helps lever me to a position in which I can help influence the future generations that will stand in similar shoes. The future holds diversity, and although currently I am caught in society’s transitioning phase of ethnic acceptance, I stand strong in my belief that the world will soon foster a community in which stratifications of races don’t determine communities.
My true community is not grouped by factors such as race. Rather it’s brought together by those with common goals that work hard to lift each other and those around them. I hope that this community can work to help those that struggle to find their niche and can work as a network that they can always rely on.
Sense of Community: Found