From Voice to Identity
Growing up in a very traditional Korean family, I was always painfully aware of the differences between me and my other classmates. In Social Linguistics and Literacies, James Paul Gee states that “…historic sociocultural struggles are enacted by and on people’s bodies and minds, often with much pain and injustice” (185). I felt the sociocultural struggle the moment I set foot in the U.S. school system. When I was in kindergarten, I remember how my cheeks went red with embarrassment every time the speech therapist called me out of class in front of all my classmates twice a week. It continued throughout elementary and middle school when I was teased for “having an accent” and the other children mimicked the way I spoke. I knew from an early age that the reason why I was mocked and made to feel different was because I talked and acted differently from my classmates. My home environment and expectations were very different than those of my classmates; my primary discourse of a Korean upbringing clashed with my secondary discourse of U.S. school culture. Our primary discourse is where and how we learn to be an “everyday person”. It’s the cultural foundation of our sense of self that is always acquired at home. The secondary discourse is any discourse we learn outside of the primary discourse, often learned or acquired in a more public sphere. I felt this disconnect between home and school as a child, but didn’t develop strategies to reconcile the differences between my primary and secondary discourse until I was in high school.
When I entered high school I developed two identities as a way to reconcile the gap between discourses, but many times I did not feel that I owned either of them; I slipped them on like masks that didn’t fit as well as they should. At school, I was the carefree, rebellious, opinionated student, but at home I became the quiet, dutiful, filial daughter. In her essay From Silence to Words, Min-Zhan Lu describes her struggles switching between two discourses as “The voices of both home and school…clamoring to be heard. I tried to listen to one group and turn a deaf ear to the other. Both persisted. I negotiated my way through these conflicting voices, now agreeing with one, now agreeing with the other.” ( 444). I felt similar to Lu most often in my interactions with people outside of my family, but later to those in my family as well as I began to learn more “American” ways of thinking and acting. Koreans place a very strong emphasis on respect-respect for elders, respect for heritage, and respect for traditions: Always bow when greeting elders. Use formal language when speaking to elders. Never look an elder directly in the eye. Never contradict an elder, even if they’re wrong. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather delivering a painful flick to my forehead every time I accidentally called my parents엄마 (mom) and아빠 (dad) instead of어머니 (mother) and아버지 (father) which are the ancient, respectful, traditional ways of addressing one’s parents. This traditional form of address is not the norm for many Korean families. Even in Korea, children will call their parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ rather than ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as my siblings and I were trained to do, and many Koreans are surprised that we address our parents so traditionally. Strict gender roles were also enacted; there was an unshakeable belief in my family that men are the successful breadwinners, and women are the supporting cast, raising the children, and having dinner hot and ready for the husband when he comes home. These are just some of the tenets that I grew up with, but I quickly learned that this is not applicable to American culture.
Teachers thought I was being shy or inconsiderate when I wouldn’t make eye contact, and people got frustrated with me for not speaking up when I should have. But when I entered middle school, my secondary American discourse started bleeding into the consciousness of my primary Korean discourse, and I found myself struggling against the tenets I had been raised to follow. I had to restrain myself from speaking up for myself when I was getting in trouble because my parents misconstrued it as back-talk, and a sign of disrespect. I had to stifle the frustration and rage when I was the one doing all of the chores while everyone ate dessert, and looking after my younger siblings because I’m “the oldest daughter”. I felt the difference between being raised as a Korean and being raised as an American every time I went over to a friend’s house and saw that they had a friend-like rapport with their parents that I could never have imagined with my own because there was a culturally mandated distance between us.
My parents stressed “being American” when I was young, so they stressed speaking only English at home, even though our first language was technically Korean. I can see now that this emphasis on speaking English was part of their attempt to do some “early borrowing”, which Gee defines as “…a way to facilitate children’s later success in valued secondary discourses…[it] functions not primarily to give children certain skills, but, rather, to give them certain values, attitudes, motivations, ways of interacting and perspectives…” (175). My parents wanted me and my siblings to assimilate because they wanted us to “succeed” better than they had. Much like Richard Rodriguez’s parents in his essay The Achievement of Desire, they wanted “…to make success possible. They evened the path…For their children, my parents wanted chances they never had-an easier way…In schooling [they] recognized the key to job advancement” (521). My father came to the U.S. by himself at the age of 19, and because he had to work to support himself, he wasn’t able to go to college. My parents pushed us to excel in school because they felt that that was the only way to become successful, and while that may have worked with my siblings who went on to attend schools like NYU and USC, I rebelled.
I purposefully got mediocre grades and spent all my spare time reading, which my parents tried to stifle because they thought the only subjects worth studying were STEM subjects because studying STEM subjects would lead to a higher paying job that would theoretically lead to a happier, more successful life. My parents didn’t understand that I felt torn and confused between two selves; part of me wanted to have the kind of freedom that I saw my American-raised friends had, but another part really wanted to prove that I was just as smart and capable as my siblings and adhere to what my siblings and I semi-jokingly referred to as “The Tyranny”.
When I was in middle school, my parents started stressing the importance of learning more about my Korean heritage. They demanded that we speak only Korean at home, and assigned us Korean reading and writing homework. This only served to confuse me more, making it harder for me to differentiate between discourses. My English suffered as I got better at Korean because I started mixing up grammar rules and styles; like Lu, there was a constant parley between two voices and my primary and secondary discourse bled together at times. It would have been easier if, like Fan Shen, I had been able to “embody multiple sets of values” (461), wherein he had to temporarily desert what he called his previous ideas of self to become successful at learning English composition. But I couldn’t do that. Maybe because I was switching from one to the other constantly or maybe because this was something I had done since I was young, but I found it impossible to completely ignore one voice.
Now that I am older, I’ve sort of come to terms with my identities. It certainly helps that I am not home as often, so I am not constantly being immersed in the Korean discourse and having to switch to the American discourse. Even though I have reached a kind of equilibrium, I still find myself having to mentally switch when I do go home, making sure to become the obedient daughter I am expected to be and discarding the discourse of a college student and English major. I still have to remind myself to make eye contact when talking to professors, and that it is okay to call them by their first names. I value my Korean heritage and culture, and make sure to keep reading and writing in Korean in my spare time, but now that I am mostly engaged in the discourse of a college student, I am too busy reading and writing, studying and working, to worry about what others will think of me if I accidentally slip and use Korean grammar when speaking English. I am slowly but surely coming to accept and become “myself”, a conglomeration of all of my experiences and identities that makes me unique.