I am reposting this piece from 2012 because in reading the exploration of cross-cultural/interracial/transnational relationships in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah I relived some of what I wrote about back then.
This article in The New York Times, by Choe Sang-Hun, fascinates me:
[Jasmine] Lee, 35, who was born Jasmine Bacurnay in the Philippines, made history in April when she became the first naturalized citizen — and the first nonethnic Korean — to win a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly. Her election reflected one of the most significant demographic shifts in the country’s modern history, a change Ms. Lee says “Koreans understand with their brain, but have yet to embrace with their heart.”
Only a decade ago, school textbooks still urged South Koreans to take pride in being of “one blood” and ethnically homogeneous. Now, the country is facing the prospect of becoming a multiethnic society. While the foreign-born population is still small compared with that of countries with a tradition of immigration, it is enough to challenge how South Koreans see themselves.
In 1988–89, when I was teaching English in Seoul to the very privileged men and women who came to study at the hagwon where I worked, my students often used the phrase “one blood” when explaining to me why it was so important for Koreans to marry other Koreans–traditionally, as someone quoted in Choe’s article puts it, “someone born to Korean parents in Korea, who speaks Korean and has Korean looks and nationality. Their reasoning, I remember thinking at the time, i.e., that ethnic and cultural unity was the only way successfully to maintain Korean cultural identity and pass their traditions on from one generation to the next, sounded an awful lot like the arguments against interfaith dating and intermarriage that were part of my Jewish education in the United States. For my students in Seoul–no differently than for my fellow Jews–this kind of exclusivity was not about imposing an ideology of racial or ethnic purity on the rest of the world; it was about encouraging a very specific kind of choice in valuing one’s own cultural and ethnic roots.
Amongst Jews, especially Ashkenazi orthodox Jews–I don’t know if the same is true of Sephardim, Mizrachi or other Jewish commnuities–the terms of that encouragement are very harsh. The scene in Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye disowns Chava because she has married Fyedka, who is not Jewish, epitomizes this:
Nonetheless, no matter how much your heart might break for Chava or how deeply you might condemn Tevye, there is some wisdom in the position he takes, not in disowning his daughter, but in his belief that the only way to preserve the Jewish tradition he knows is for Jews to marry other Jews. After all, if you want, in any traditional sense, to have a Jewish family, live according to Jewish values, observe the Jewish religion, it doesn’t make much sense to marry someone who does not share those values, or who is unwilling to make the changes necessary in her or his life that fully sharing them will require. This fact–that someone who wants to can become Jewish–separates the Jewish from the Korean version of “one blood” thinking. Indeed, “one blood” is not an accurate label for how Jews see this question at all, for whatever else may be true about the nature of Jewish religious identity–and the prohibition against intermarriage is a religious prohibition–Jews do not racialize it. Antisemites might; the Nazis certainly did; but as far as I know there is no mainstream Jewish group that sees the religious aspect of being Jewish as akin to any of the racial or ethnic categories with which we are familiar, white, Black Asian and so on. There might be disagreement amongst Jews as to which kinds of conversions ought to be accepted as valid; there might be suspicion of converts in some quarters and even discrimination against them; but the idea that conversion is possible and that converts ought to be accepted fully as “naturalized” members of the Jewish religious community is not a controversial one in and of itself.
Not so in Korea, where the resistance to the multicultural, multiethnic/racial integration represented by people like Ms. Lee makes clear just how deeply racialized Korean identity is. This, again, is from Choe’s article:
After Ms. Lee’s election, anti-immigration activists warned that “poisonous weeds” from abroad were “corrupting the Korean bloodline” and “exterminating the Korean nation,” and urged political parties to “purify” themselves by expelling Ms. Lee from the National Assembly.… “[People like Ms. Lee] bring religious and ethnic strife to our country, where we had none before,” said Kim Ky-baek, publisher of the nationalist Web site Minjokcorea. “They create an obstacle to national unification. North Korea adheres to pure-blood nationalism, while the South is turning into a hodgepodge of mixed blood.”
The rhetoric, of course, is very similar to the white supremacist rhetoric you still hear in the United States, stated explicitly on the fringes and then more and more subtly coded as it gets closer and closer to the center, but it’s not the parallels to our own, homegrown varieties of racism and xenophobia that has drawn me to write about this article. Rather, it’s the way the article brought back to me my own, heart-breaking experience with the “one blood” ideology and the havoc and potential ruin it caused in the life of a woman I loved.
The entire story is too long to tell here, so I will start in the middle. I returned to Korea in the summer of 1990 to see once more the married woman with whom I’d fallen in love the previous year. To tell you how Yoon and I came to be lovers will require an entire post unto itself, so I will say here, simply, that I did not pursue her; nor, really, did she start out to pursue me. Rather, we became friends first because she sought me out as someone she could talk to about how unhappy she was in her marriage, so unhappy that she’d contemplated suicide. She’d tried to talk with her family and friends about it, but because her husband was not abusive and was, in fact, by the standards of the time, really quite liberal for a Korean man, the primary response that Yoon received was that she should stop complaining, consider herself lucky to be married to him, and focus on being a good wife and mother.
It was, in other words, out of a kind of desperation that she sought me out–I’d been her teacher–and while, in hindsight, I can see how agreeing to be her friend under these circumstances might have made our sexual and romantic involvement inevitable, that was the farthest thing from my mind when we sat down in the Charlie Chaplain coffee shop around the corner from the school where I taught. Equally to the point, I believed her then–and continue to believe her now, even though she is long gone from my life–that she did not set out to seduce me. Anyway, I will tell the entirety of this story another time. What I want to tell you about here is what happened when Yoon and I were out to dinner that summer in 1990–her husband was traveling–and she told me that, had I asked her to come with me the previous summer when I returned to the US, she would have said yes without hesitation.
“I wanted to ask you,” I said, “but I had no way of supporting you. We would have had no place to live; I did not have a job. It would have been a disaster.”
This was completely true. When I came back from Korea in the summer of 1989, I moved in with my grandmother. I simply could not imagine showing up on her doorstep with a Korean woman and her five-year-old daughter in tow–because I could not imagine that Yoon would leave her daughter behind as well. “Hi! I’m back. Meet my new family.”
By the time we were sitting in that restaurant in the summer of 1990, however, I did have a job, and a place to live, and I believed I could–I was more than ready to–support her and her daughter no matter what it took to do so. I was ready to marry her. “If you still feel the same way,” I told her, assuming that she would of course understand my invitation to include her daughter, “if you are still as unhappy as you were, come back with me when I go home.” I don’t remember exactly how it came to be that Yoon told me yes, though I know she did not give me her answer that night. I do remember well, however, the moment she told me that she would not be bringing her daughter. We were walking around Seokchun Lake at sunset talking about what our lives would be like in New York. We stopped in a secluded area to sit for a few minutes, and I said something about registering her daughter for school once we got to New York. Yoon looked away and explained that she would not–could not, actually–bring her daughter with us. Simply put, it would have been kidnapping. At that time in Korea, in the event of divorce, fathers retained sole custody of their children. I was devastated. Had I known this, I would never have asked Yoon to come with me, but this also is not the part of the story that Choe’s article brought me back to, and so you will have to wait for another post to hear about it.
Rather, the moment that reading Choe’s article made me relive was the night Yoon brought me to the building where her older sister lived so that she could show me to her. On the way there, Yoon explained that she’d been talking to her siblings a lot since she’d decided to come with me, and she was pretty sure she’d convinced them that leaving her husband was the right thing for her to do. Nonetheless, once we got to her sister’s building, Yoon asked me to wait out of sight on the landing just below the apartment. She didn’t know who else was going to be there and she didn’t want to take any chances. Yoon knocked and her sister came to the door; the two women exchanged a few words; and then Yoon called for me to show myself. When I stepped into view, her sister’s eyes went wide with shock and her mouth quivered with hatred and disgust. Clearly Yoon had not told her that I was migook saram, an American. “Go!” She screamed and Yoon translated the rest for me later. “Be an American’s whore! May your daughter do the same.”
Yoon, I think, had expected this response, or at least it had not surprised her. I, in my naïveté, had been completely unprepared, though I have sometimes thought that maybe her intention had been all along to strip away any illusions I might have had about what her choice to be with me would cost her. I would watch Yoon bear the burden of that cost over the several months that she lived with me after she arrived in the United States; and when she told me she would have to move out of my apartment, I understood it was largely that burden that motivated her, and when I received in the mail the Korean Airlines frequent flyer cards that she had sent to my address–as, I am sure, a way of letting me know she’d gone back to Korea–I knew the burden had finally grown more heavy than she could bear.
I am still haunted by the fact that I never got the chance to say goodbye to her.
I often wonder what this story sounds like when Yoon tells it. She and I never had a chance to come to terms together with what we’d done, and it may very well be that the sense she has made of our broken attempt to be together bears no resemblance at all to the sense I have made, and am still making, of it. Nonetheless, however true it may be that I acted out of an arrogant, selfish, and self-delusional naïveté in thinking that I could so easily make a life with Yoon and her daughter here in the US, it is also true that loving her, that her loving me, unleashed upon her–and no doubt within her as well–the fury of a culture hell-bent on preventing that kind of love from infiltrating its borders. I regret many things about my decision to ask Yoon to come with me to the United States, and I often wish I had that moment to do over, but I do not regret loving her; I do not regret one second of the time I spent with her in Korea.
This is why Choe’s article struck such a chord with me, I think: because it means that a mixed couple, like Yoon and me, could fight to be together in Korea in a way that was not really possible when I was there. I am not trying to dismiss or trivialize the difficulties and complexities, the moral and ethical questions that our relationship was tangled up in because she was married and she had a child; I am simply acknowledging that, it seems, the simple fact of our loving each other would not be now the obstacle that it was then. And that can only be a good thing.