Usually, we rejoice in living within two cultures, but sometimes it strains us. After all, it means straddling conflicting realities, each with its own expectations, assumptions, rules, norms, and pressures. What we want and who we are can get lost in this in-between space. As the Korean saying goes, when the squid and the whale fight, it is the shrimp that gets a broken back.
This morning it so happens that the materialism of Korean culture has got us down. Specifically, the emphasis placed on acquiring the outward symbols of success (which ties into “face” as well) at the expense of what we US Millennials might call “our dreams.” Or personal goals. Or self-actualization.
We just went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and my husband and I shed a few tears about the meaning of life. It wasn’t so much that it was a great film (it’s not), but on the heels of our own international adventure, it struck all of the places in our hearts that needed validated. Specifically, that life is about taking leaps of faith and following our hearts, having profound experiences, and cultivating a story of purpose and meaning. Which for us means seeing the world and pushing ourselves to grow as much as possible.
It’s times like these that we must face the fact that no matter how comfortable we may have felt in Asia, our psyches are profoundly imprinted by the template of American culture. At our core, we’re still individualists, optimists, and people who believe we can shape our lives to our liking through grit and hard work. This is all highly threatening to my Korean mother-in-law, who wants nothing more than for us to accept “the box” and the extrinsic satisfaction that comes with it. Then, we will have the resources to buy things that make us comfortable and she will sleep well, assured that we have a good life.
I understand why she feels this way. At least I think I do. For someone who grew up fleeing the approaching North Korean army and enduring a kind of poverty I cannot imagine, material wellbeing is essential. She went to bed with an empty belly, jockeyed for a seat near the charcoal stove at school to keep her fingers from freezing, and sacrificed much to give her only son the future we now enjoy. The trouble is not in empathizing, but in knowing what her story means for our lives. Entangled in the web of family life, it can be hard to discern where her dreams for us end and our actual lives as individuals begin.
Americans, of course, also sacrifice their dreams in order to keep up with the Joneses or to provide for their families, and especially in light of our unravelling middle class, dreams now seem an out-of-reach luxury for too many. And even when the economy was strong, most adults eventually gave up on becoming an astronaut or rock star and took office jobs instead. Even so, the abandoning or foregoing of what we really want out of life is understood by mainstream Americans as a tragedy, something to fight against and even mourn. Walter Mitty truly begins to live by letting his own inner light dictate his actions. In Korean media, it is the other way around: the dreamer finally grows up and listens to his parents, conforms, and finds fulfillment in the family-determined expectations. To do what you want is childish and selfish – a juvenile impulse that one eventually outgrows.
Two different perceptions on how life is and should be – settling vs. striving – are hard to reconcile in a single soul. So you see, as we embark on another year, some conflict overshadows us. Is it possible to be filially pious in a Korean context while also pursuing the individual life that US culture demands and encourages? I’m not sure. But the beat of our inner drummer compels us to keep exploring, to keep striving, and to keep living a life that is authentically ours. Even if the tallest nail gets pounded down. 2014 is the Year of the Horse and we’re ready to run free.