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14 Feb

Peeling the onion – Things have been a bit on the hectic side lately. The middle of last week was occupied by a three-day holiday (Lunar New Year). Of course, public holidays don’t really mean much to me in terms of work—I normally work straight through holidays, at least when family obligations allow it. Half of that three-day holiday was work and the other half was driving around Seoul, etc., visiting relatives. The end result was that it was far more tiring than my regular schedule.

“What exactly does it mean to be American?”

My computer is also sick and needs to be taken out back and shot. We’ve been meaning to get another hard drive for some time now, so we finally took the plunge and ordered a 160GB drive that arrived today. Tomorrow I will install Windows on the new drive, move the important stuff over from the old drive (40GB), then blast the old drive clean. I tell you, 40GB just doesn’t go as far as it used to. It’s amusing to think that my first computer had a 40MB hard drive—that wouldn’t even be enough for any self-respecting game these days. With 200GB, though, I should be OK for a while.

So why am I telling you this? I don’t know... maybe I feel guilty for basically not writing anything either here or at The Workshop for a week. I’ve been so prolific lately that I feel guilty letting more than a week go by—with my (usually) frequent posting at The Workshop, it feels like I’m putting something online at least four times a week these days. Well, with the exception of last week. Thus the lame two-paragraph opening excuse to today’s entry.

But enough with the excuses. I’ve actually had a lot on my mind lately, I just haven’t had the time to write it down. Last week I wrote an entry that was ostensibly about the Super Bowl but ended up being more about why American holidays just weren’t as important to me here (with Thanksgiving being the primary example). My exploration of the conflict between cultural upbringing and current cultural surroundings led me to a fundamental question that I just wasn’t ready to answer: what exactly does it mean to be American?

Part of me feels a bit silly for even asking the question. It feels like it should be so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be asked, but I just can’t get it out of my head. I avoided it last week, but I have decided to tackle it head on this week. I don’t think it’s as important for me to find an answer as it is to simply clarify the question. There must be an answer out there, of course, but I don’t know if I’ll find it today. Part of me fears that I have begun to peel away at an onion, and that in the end I will find only layers and layers of peel and no substance at the center. But that’s never stopped me before.

Nationality is an interesting concept, if only because certain cultures perceive it quite differently from other cultures. When my wife and I were first married (almost eight years ago now) one of the things we discussed was the possibility of moving to the States at some point in the future. I asked her what she would do about her citizenship if we moved to the States, and she shrugged and said that she would just get U.S. citizenship. She said it so nonchalantly, so carelessly, that I was taken aback. My U.S. citizenship is extremely valuable to me, and I couldn’t understand how she could be so flippant about giving up her Korean citizenship.

In the following years I quickly came to realize why she was so ready to give up her citizenship—to her (and to Koreans in general), citizenship is a matter of convenience. Living in Korea, it is more convenient to be a Korean citizen, but if we were to live in the States, it would be more convenient for her to be an American citizen. A passport is a legal document, a piece of paper that says nothing about her as a person. She could give up her Korean citizenship and she would still be Korean. The pastor of our church, in fact, lived in the States for 25 years and is an American citizen, but if you asked anyone in our church if he was American or Korean, they would laugh at you. For the average Korean, citizenship has no bearing on nationality.

Having lived in Korea for some time, I can now understand why my wife was so ready to give up her citizenship. Yet I would never give up my American citizenship for any amount of money—why? Convenience does play a part in my decision, but the part is a minor one. Is it because citizenship does have bearing on nationality in the States? And while we’re attempting to define terms here, what exactly does nationality mean? Merriam-Webster Online gives a five-part definition, two of which correspond to what we’re talking about here. The third part reads, “a: a legal relationship involving allegiance on the part of an individual and usually protection on the part of the state; b: membership in a particular nation.” This seems to be on the same level as citizenship.

The fifth part, however, offers a completely different definition: “a: a people having a common origin, tradition, and language and capable of forming or actually constituting a nation-state; b: an ethnic group constituting one element of a larger unit (as a nation).” This defines nation ethnically and thus cannot be applied to nationality as it is understood in the United States. In the States, “nationality” means “citizenship”—the varying origins, traditions, and even languages, not to mention ethnicities present in the population do not allow us to apply this second definition.

One would think that in countries like Korea, where the population consists overwhelmingly of a single ethnic group, that the two definitions above would both be valid definitions of the concept of nationality. In fact, only the second definition is a valid definition of nationality in Korea. The first definition refers to citizenship and is independent of nationality. The word in Korean for the first definition is “gukjeok,” which could be literally interpreted as “a document declaring which nation state one belongs to,” and is best translated as “citizenship.” It’s actually a bit difficult to talk about the Korean terms in English because of the differences of perception—if you look up “gukjeok” in a Korean-English dictionary, for example, you will find “nationality” listed alongside “citizenship,” but that is only because the two terms are considered synonymous in English. It does not mean that they are synonymous in Korean.

The Korean word for “nationality” (i.e., the second definition of nationality quoted above) is “minjokseong,” which literally means “the character of belonging to a group of people.” The term “minjok” can be translated as “race,” “people,” “ethnic group,” and of course “nation.” A Korean citizen can go to the United States, be naturalized there, return to Korea, and he or she would still be considered a member of the “Hanminjok” (“Korean people”)—like the pastor of my church. In fact, this distinction between citizenship and nationality is so utter in Korea that Korean-Americans (i.e., those born to Korean parents in the United States and raised in the United States, called “gyopo” in Korean) are considered to be Korean by most Koreans—not American, and not Korean-American. I have had a number of Korean-Americans tell me how hard it is for them in Korea, especially if they don’t speak Korean. Koreans are always berating them, saying, “You’re Korean! How can you not speak our language?”

I’m not going to get any further into what it means to be Korean. I will simply say, by way of moving back to my original question, that I now have a much better understanding of what it must be like for foreign immigrants to the United States—and just how parochial and ignorant it is to say, “If you don’t (like it here/want to learn our language/accept our customs) then go back to (insert inferior country here)!” That sword cuts both ways, but I’ll save that for another day, preferably a day when I’m in the mood for lots of hate mail.

The question I set out to address, though, was what it means to be American. Unlike Korea, America is an amalgam of people from various backgrounds, with various traditions, and speaking a variety of languages. We cannot fall back on the ethnic definition of nationality to hold us together, and thus citizenship becomes much more important to Americans (on the other hand, gaining Korean citizenship is a matter of convenience and doesn’t make you “Korean”—you will always be considered a “foreigner”). But is citizenship the only thing that holds us together as a nation? Or am I asking the wrong question—is the idea of a single, unified United States a myth?

Honestly, there are times when I wonder if we are even united at all. I see all the hate, fear, and division, and I wonder what it is that holds the nation together. It’s not that the United States has a monopoly on division—regionalism in Korea is some of the worst you’ll ever see. But Koreans can always fall back on the concept of the “Korean people.” When push comes to shove, what holds Americans together, if anything?

It is said that human beings are social animals, and I interpret that to mean that we all seek to be part of something bigger than ourselves. No one wants to face the world alone, and we find courage and strength in numbers. The family is the most basic social unit, and the principles of human behavior seen at work in the family are, to some extent, present in the interactions of all social groups. To give a concrete example, my younger brother Brian and I fought incessantly when we were younger. As his older brother, it was my responsibility—my duty—to beat him to a pulp on a fairly regular basis. But when the neighborhood kids came around to get him, they had to go through me first—and they never got through me. It didn’t matter if Brian was at fault. You touch my brother, you die. It was that simple.

Size definitely has an effect on social dynamics, and a nation isn’t just a big family, but the same principle can be seen in domestic and international relations. Members of a nation may argue or even fight with each other, but should an enemy threaten the nation as a whole, people will put their differences aside to show a united front.

Or, at least, that’s the theory. That’s the way it should work. But I look back at American history and I see things that make me cringe with shame. When the Japanese attacked America and brought us into the Pacific War, America was divided along racial lines. Americans of Japanese descent, no matter how much they may have loved their country, were rounded up and put in internment camps. They were treated like criminals because of their ethnicity—in fact, Americans confused ethnicity with nationality. In more recent times, just look at the way Arab-Americans or Americans of Arab descent have been treated in post-9/11 America. We don’t round them up wholesale and put them in internment camps, but again racial lines are being drawn in the sand.

The sad thing is that these are not isolated incidents. The two examples I just cited did not occur because Americans were suddenly confronted with a crisis and suffered a lapse in judgment. No—Americans were confronted with a crisis and they suffered a lapse in restraint, allowing what had existed in the undercurrents of society to rise to the surface. America has always been divided along racial lines, and I fear it always will be.

So does it really come down to ethnicity? Are all my logical and linguistic arguments just smoke and mirrors to conceal the truth? Is America really the white population—or, more precisely, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant population? It shouldn’t be, and I don’t want it to be, but sometimes I wonder. I never intended to get this negative—I was just trying to figure out what it meant to be American.

Let’s make this personal: what makes me American? Is it that I was born and raised in America? That seems like the obvious answer, and for most people—especially most Americans living in the States—that’s enough. But what happens when you leave the land where you were born and raised to live in a foreign land? Is it enough to be born American, as it was enough for Brian to be born my brother? I think it is, because I feel just as strongly—no, more strongly—about my native land even after all this time in Korea. It’s just that sometimes I want it to be more than that. I don’t have the constant reinforcement of my nationality that I would have if I were in the States, so it’s hard sometimes. Without that reinforcement I look for something else to hold on to, and even though I know that being born and raised in the States—being raised in that culture—is enough, it sometimes seems empty, like an answer that’s too pat.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: being born and raised in the States may be enough to make me an American, but my being born and raised in the States is something that happened in a past that is becoming increasingly remote as time goes by. The question I can’t help but ask is: will that always be enough? And if not, when will it stop being enough? I lived in the States for about twenty-two years, and I have lived in Korea for the past nine and a half years. While it’s true that I don’t have to worry about “becoming Korean” in the strict sense of the term, I can’t deny that my thinking and personality have been shaped by my environment, and I am most likely a very different person than I would have been had I stayed in the States. If I stayed in Korea for another twenty years, would that make me more Korean than American? It may sound silly, but these are the things I think about sometimes.

I set out to find what it is that makes me American, and I guess I was hoping for something that would transcend my current situation—something that I could relate to in the present. In the end, though, I have not found what I was looking for. I don’t know what that means, if it means anything at all. I am not encouraged. I am not reassured. If anything, I have more doubts now than when I started writing this. But that is life, I suppose—a road whose signposts are questions and whose milestones are doubts. As long as I am alive, I will question, even if I don’t always find my answers.

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