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.

No comments:

Post a Comment