Wednesday, November 20, 2019


Ever since I started reading Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), I can't stop imagining myself as an actor in different scenes wherever I go. A sociologist, Goffman described our social interactions as theatrical performances, where our daily actions are presented, as if on stage, with scenery and props to be displayed and interpreted by our audiences.

Conceptualizing my interactions as performances has helped me understand my life in ways I never have before. I now realize that when I am with my own family and my parents, I am simultaneously in two different scenes, one with my husband and children as a mom/wife and another as a Korean daughter with my parents. Even though we are together, I am engaged in two or more separate dramas, each with a storyline of its own, one with my parents in Korean and another in English with my kids and my husband Jeff.

For example, picture our lunch together yesterday at a local pizza joint. The six of us are sitting around a table during a school fundraising event.

In the scene, I am sitting across from my parents, with Jeff to my right and the kids to his right. I am speaking to my parents in Korean (a language neither Jeff nor my kids speak), asking them what they would like to order. My parents quickly peruse the menu and mumble that they don't know what to order, that I should order for them, and that they will just eat whatever. I push back, as I put the menu back in their hands. Can you just look at the menu? Here's the section on salads, here are the main dishes. What would you like to eat?

We have played out this scene many times. We are in a public setting, and they recede, as if they have no preferences, as if they are not there.

I feel my irritation surfacing. There is a historical context to this irritation. Their passivity unleashes the resentment of the perennial parentified child. I do not want to be your mouthpiece, not again. It also threatens to cast our lives in America as a failure, a poor decision that landed us in a foreign country where we do not function publicly.

In this setting, I am acutely aware of the pressure to perform. Here we are, in a restaurant, in a public scene. I am conscious that we don't quite fit in. My parents and I are the only Asians in the place. My parents do not interact with the waitress in English. They do not send or pick up the same social cues, such as making eye contact or returning the greeting.

I am sure I am more self-conscious in these settings as a result of having grown up as an outsider in this country. To me, the scene presupposes a certain performance out of us: to be ready to order when the waitress returns, to smile back at her, and to identify our dishes. To play the part of a happy family enjoying lunch together.

While I am in this scene with my parents, I am repeatedly interrupted by my children who demand that I take in their activities; their drawings, their recounting of the day, their mile-a-minute thoughts. In those interruptions, I am pulled into their scene as a mother.

Throughout the meal, I am in separate snippets of conversation with my parents while I toggle back and forth with my own family. My parents rarely communicate directly with my children or Jeff. The language skills aren't there, and even when they try, my father's limited hearing shortcuts the dialogue. They often comment on the children to me, or they will try to speak through me. For example, my mom will often say, "Tell Jeff to eat more. Here, give him this."

On these occasions, I am diving in and out of different scenes, playing multiple roles, and tending to various needs. In this picture, I am never sure of the role I am supposed to play. Which scene am I in at any given moment? Who am I in this picture? Who do I tend to first? Once, during my daughter's birthday party, I assumed my parents would join the party. Instead, they huddled by themselves inside while our guests and their kids played joyfully in our yard. It felt like a failure on my part, a failure to tend to my parents. I failed to give them their own scene, a safe haven in our own home. I second guess myself through two different value systems, and I may find reprieve in one, but not always both.

I am often left feeling like I neglected someone, whether it's my parents, Jeff, or the kids. I am painfully aware that when I am speaking Korean with my parents, Jeff is cut off from the conversation. He is cut off from adult company by virtue of our language, even though he is sitting with us at the same table. Less than a foot away from me, he has no access to the events happening in front of him. Similarly, when I am talking to Jeff or the kids, my parents are excluded. I don't know how to be a wife, mother, and daughter, all in the same scene.

In these situations, I am alone in my emotional experience. My conversations with my parents are often laden - with history, habit, cultural differences, and misunderstandings. Their words, perhaps intended to be helpful, sometimes land as criticism. And often, interacting with them in a social setting reminds me of all that we're not as a family, all that I would like us to be.

I often come out of these gatherings slightly peevish and mentally fatigued.

Later, when I describe to Jeff all that happened at the table, he listens and nods along. He says I am a "gasket," there to keep two parts together. A gasket is usually needed to join two parts that do not fit perfectly together. It fills the space between the two parts and protects the whole from leaking when it is pressurized. To function well, a gasket should be made of yielding material in order to fill and conform to the space, particularly where there are irregularities. 

I think about being this gasket. As a gasket, I am never in a space of cohesion; instead, it is up to me to provide the cohesion. But that cohesion never feels within reach. My arms are not dexterous enough, malleable enough, or expansive enough to wrap around all of us and tie us up in a beautiful bow. It feels like playing two different songs on the piano, one with each hand. Each song has its own rhythm, logic, and beauty, but they have no relation to each other except through the person sitting at the bench. The result is dissonance - with occasional, accidental harmony.

I think about sources of frustration -- and inaction. When we cannot act, we are sometimes caught in a crevice between different scenes, wedged between conflicting value systems. One of my professors recently commented that we cannot possibly hold all of our values at once. There are too many that we have collected over our lifetime, through too many different contexts, and they don't always align. She said that we may have to let some go in order to attend to what is in front of us at the time. I'm not sure how to work that into my life yet. I find myself juggling, trying to keep them all afloat. It never occurred to me that we can put some down. Perhaps because attached to these values are lives getting shorter by the minute.

I live a life of dissonance. This dissonance often gives me a headache and diverts me from where I would like to be. I cannot always be as attentive as I would like, and I may play a lesser part than I had imagined for myself. It can be lonely in this space, and there is always a yearning for something more, something better. At the same time, I like to think my striving counts for something. I'm trying to make something coherent out of disparate parts, not through anyone's choosing, but because that is what life is at this time. Abandoning this effort has never been an option. And I relish the occasional harmony, as fleeting and sporadic as it may be.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Finding my identity in Jeronimo

Recently, after watching a documentary called Jeronimo about Koreans in Cuba, I've been thinking about the struggle of people like us, those who have been separated from their people. In this film, the descendants of Koreans who landed in Cuba in the early 1900's struggle with their identity. Are they Korean? Cuban? Both?

Their struggle for identity is compounded by the fact that the original settlers have no country to return to when Korea becomes colonized by Japan. Later, after World War II, the Korea that existed 35 years ago is no more as one country splits into two. In the swirl of these geo-political movements, Jeronimo Lim Kim emerges as a revolutionary who, alongside Fidel Castro, fights to reorganize (and later maintain) Cuba's political and economic system.

The paradigm that we Korean-Americans are often presented with - the binary framing of identity as whether we are Korean or American (or both) - never felt accurate to me - and overly simplistic. The richness of identities that people assume in their ordinary lives is denied us. Instead of the array of descriptions that I can present for my identity (an impatient yet striving mother; a dutiful daughter who cuts fruit skillfully; resilient middle child; a Queens escapee who once had a Texas drawl; challenging wife; ex-lawyer ejected from the big law firm world; beginner therapist; middle-aged introvert who never backs down from a fight or an opportunity to call out an indignation; recovering fingernail biter; aspiring writer; cancer dodger; and trove of other such descriptions that I can claim), I am reduced to geographical designations, as if those designations reveal the essence of who I am. In our smorgasbord of identities that we call America, we are reduced to an identity of what the other is not: a foreigner, an Asian, an immigrant, a Korean.

One of the questions the film asks is, how do you anchor your identity when geographies shift around you? What does it mean to be "Korean" when the Korea you knew no longer exists?

The process of seeing what is more or less my story (i.e., cultural transition) play out in front of me in the form of people who are similar (i.e., Korean) and yet dissimilar (i.e., Cuban) in a different context (i.e., in Cuba) helped me see what I could not see before. I was that frog unable to make sense of the temperature of the water in which I was sitting.

As I watched the Korean descendants in Cuba struggle to make sense of their identities and histories, I wondered if I have been asking the wrong questions all along. Since our family moved to the US in 1979, I always assumed that the key to my identity was anchored in geographical definition. Do I belong in Korea or in America? What does it mean to be a Korean who does not live in Korea. How do I help my children stay connected to some parts of Korea, even if they were born in America?

As I watched the film, I started to wonder if geography has nothing to do with it.

I started to imagine my family as five birds separated from their flock.

When we had been a part of the larger flock, we had cast magnificent formations against the backdrop of the sky. We had been a part of a flock that made those on the ground marvel at our beauty as we danced out nature's choreography. We knew we belonged there, and we were safe there. We knew we were flying in the right direction because we found our bearing in relation to each other.

Once separated, who were we without our flock? Did our flock miss us? Who could even spot us in the sky now? And what was wrong with us that we should lose our flock, when others still had theirs?

What happens to our identity when we lose our community, when we are tethered to nothing outside of ourselves?

As in conversation, I think of identity development as an iterative process. To be in conversation, I need to be heard, acknowledged, and responded to (and I need to do the same for my conversation partner), and only then can conversation develop and expand -- and be meaningful for both of us. For identity formation, what happens if others do not understand our social context and our value system, appropriately interpret the meaning of our actions, and affirm the interpretations we place on them?

Once we moved to the US, we were stripped of the context in which we had been socialized and with it, the framework that had made our actions and identity comprehensible. Filial piety makes no sense in America; even the phrase sounds awkward, strange. Language organized according to social hierarchy and age -- these concepts have no place in America, yet our lives were structured around such ideas.

Studies show that people do not recognize faces or emotions of others from different races as well as they do within their own racial group. In other words, outside of our own group, we are simply not seen or recognized the way we would be by those within our own group (however that group is defined).

I feel this acutely these days, especially since we moved to San Diego nine years ago. We live in a mostly white suburban coastal town, and people regularly see through me, as if I'm not there. I wonder if waiters or lawnkeepers feel this way. They aren't given an identity, just utility, a function. As long as their lawns are cut and the food arrives on time, there is no need for further engagement. For me, I don't even serve a utility; I am simply not relevant to these people and their social maneuvering.

What happens to people who are not understood or seen? Who is there to see us when the people we live alongside do not even know how to pronounce our names - or the combination of the syllables in our name do not exist in their lexicon? How do we perform the actions of our lives when we are not seen or understood? Who are we performing for? Where is our audience?

What happens to stories that are deemed irrelevant? What becomes of our history? Who will create the space for our stories to be told and remembered?

Maybe the quest for identity is not as much a quest for definition as much as a fight against invisibility. The defining matters only insomuch as it helps us find our group. When we are part of a larger group and we belong, we can be seen - just as a large flock of birds can be seen by outsiders and from within. When we lose our group, we become the incomprehensible and misfit ugly ducklings -- unable to be seen for who we are.

In the film, we see the Korean-Cubans organize as a community to learn Korean, sing BTS songs, and revisit the motherland. But as the filmmaker makes clear, there is no Korea they can return to. The Korean song they sing is an outdated version that only exists in history. One of the elders insists on a unified Korea and refuses to acknowledge the current political rift between the two Koreas. The country of their imagination is no more.

I always thought of Korea as a noun -- a place I can use as a reference point. In my conceptualization, Korea has always remained a thing I can return to, a fixed thing I can compare or contrast to my life in America. But Korea is not a just noun. It is also a verb. By the deficiency of our language, we do not distinguish between naming of things that stay more or less stagnant (like a table) and things that change (like any living thing). We have no category for things that are in constant flux, as culture is.

When I say I am Korean, what am I really saying? I am not relating to the geographic region as much as identifying with what we call culture, social mores, and relational norms as expressed through the 50+ million people who live there - or more accurately, as expressed through the people who lived there in the late 70s when my family left. The Korea I knew as a child is not the Korea that exists today. Korea was never fixed, but always dynamic and elusive. Yet, I clung to it like an anchor.

The more I think about it, the more it doesn't make sense to ask these questions of identity in terms of whether I'm Korean or American. Toggling between two cultural reference points is a useless exercise. There are no reference points to toggle between, just flotsam that drift with the waves. Maybe all I'm saying when I say I am Korean is that I once belonged. Our whole family did. We were seen and recognized. We were understood. We were accepted. We were worthy of belonging.

And maybe when we raise these questions of identity, we are striving -- and juggling the question of how to belong once again without being erased. It doesn't really matter if we're Korean, or Portuguese, or Javanese. We just want to regroup somehow and belong once again -- without being rendered irrelevant, invisible.

In the film, the raising of the question about identity is the vehicle for regrouping. The Korean descendants organize to gain formal recognition of ethnic identity from the Cuban government. Jeronimo travels the country to gather identification cards of all Koreans in Cuba in order to submit them for an official count. Ironically, the government denies them official recognition, but the people gain a group identity through this process. They come together, forge bonds, and claim their ethnic heritage. In this process, Korea is not the end goal. It is a vehicle, a commonality to help them create the community they need. It serves as the means to identify the people on the same journey, those who suffered the same struggles. Perhaps that is all we really need.

A Jewish rabbi in the film eloquently describes the experience of diaspora as pain - and the gift of diaspora as innovation. I love this framing. Separation is painful and traumatic. Losing those with intimate knowledge of our context is tremendous. And at the same time, it liberates us. As we break from tradition and custom, we are forced to forge our own path. As we break, we become the stewards of a new way of life. We are forced to become leaders, even if we had been content to follow before. And maybe from there, we find a path to create a history of our own.

The film serves as a beautiful metaphor. A people splintered and unable to return to their land are forced to settle on a foreign island. There, a son of immigrants emerges as a leader in the upheaval of his new country's political system and secures a place for himself and his family. A filmmaker visits to tell his story, and we become the audience to a story that almost escaped unnoticed. And through this storytelling, we affirm our community.