Annual trips to Korea in my childhood gave me glimpses into the crowded streets of Seoul, where morning and night blend together and life thrives incessantly on the main streets of the city. I’ve seen the red tents that pop up in the early evening and stay up late into the night, under which steaming vats of street food are sold to tired students and drunk businessmen alike. If I think carefully, I can hear the way the roar of the trucks and the murmurs of sleepless youth meandering through the streets below slip through the window of my grandparents’ 30th floor apartment.
These memories are juxtaposed beside a collection of pictures in my head of suburban childhood in America — of learning to ride a bike under a canopy of willow trees adjacent to the street and selling Girl Scout cookies door to door; where it is common to live in a house and not in a high, sky scraping apartment building.
While I’ve spent most of my life in the latter, I grow strangely nostalgic for the times I spent in the former. This is what it means to be a hyphenated American. A Korean-American. An Indian-American. A Mexican-American. To know two worlds so different, and love them just the same and use both to define yourself. It’s natural to have a cultural lens if you’re a “hyphenated American.”
The inclusion of hyphenated Americans creates diversity. And Berkeley loves its dynamic student population, as we’ve been told since CalSo. And diversity is good, right?
I went to a high school that was mostly divided into Caucasians and Asians; these two groups rarely intermingled, and racial separation was an obvious phenomenon. We were acutely aware of our differences, and while no one promoted separation by race, it was tacitly understood that it’s difficult to be indifferent to our differences.
I wasn’t, however, always in such a setting. I attended an elementary school where there was a large number of students of every race. My best friends spanned the ethnic spectrum. Our awareness of cultural differences manifested itself only to the extent of the Asians getting shocked when our Caucasian friends called adults by their first name, and jealousy in the exotic food that we all brought from home. But these differences were objects of marvel, not of obsession.
To children, race is understood but not really important. It’s not a sensitive topic, nor is it a huge factor in deciding friendships. The older I get, however, I realize with much amusement that by putting the importance of race and culture on a pedestal, it makes it harder for racial integration. Even on campus, there are so many clubs dedicated to culture and race. Don’t get me wrong; maintaining culture is an important responsibility for second-generation minorities. I’ve never seen any wrong in it, and I still don’t. But I was caught by surprise when my Caucasian roommate wondered aloud how racist it would seem if there was a “Caucasian Club” or a “Whites Unite” club.
In an almost embarrassed way, I realized how much I focused on separating “Korean culture” from everyone else. Minority races undoubtedly need to keep their voices heard. But I wonder how often we get confused between keeping minority voices vibrant and keeping them utterly separate from the rest of the campus? After all, diversity can only be appreciated to its fullest when we see how it all works together, not only as separate entities that are unaware of each other.
I began to think of how often my ears perk up every time I hear about an accomplishment of a Korean. When Kim Yuna won the recent Winter Olympics figure skating gold medal, I obsessively watched every single one of her performances. Her talent and skill are remarkable, undoubtedly, but I wonder how much of an influence her “Korean” label had on me in becoming her fan.
I adore my culture, and I am proud of who I am because of it. Sometimes, however, I wonder if I am too aware of it.
I don’t spend all of my time obsessing over my Asian heritage, but it’s obvious that it’s always on the back of my mind. If I’m with a large group of Asian friends at a restaurant and the wait is unnaturally long or we’re seated in the back, I automatically assume it’s because of my race. Or when I’m in a group of Koreans and notice others staring, I suddenly go from not thinking about my race at all to becoming self-conscious that we are being “too Korean.”
So many people have complained to me that while they understand that it’s easy for people of the same race to get along (similar childhoods, similar traditions and mindsets or what have you), it is a bit rude when it goes to the extreme. People have said, “You’re being too Korean,” not meaning that my words are all obviously affected by my Korean heritage, but meaning that I am overly distinguishing myself from others in a way that is plain obnoxious.
I’m realizing more and more now that in a larger campus like this, it’s easy to bank on our race to find us a group of friends. We distinguish the races so that we can see them all separately and call it diversity, but there’s a thin line between acknowledging the different races and separating all of them in your mind. It’s important to remember that drawing lines between all cultures is fine when they’re dotted, but solid lines only diminish diversity.