I live in a neighborhood that has a lot of South Korean immigrants, which makes sense, since I am married to a South Korean and live with my South Korean in-laws. As I wander my neighborhood, I am fascinated by the cultural differences between the first and second-generation Koreans I see. It is usually pretty easy for me to tell the difference between the two, before I even talk to them. Well, at least when it comes to the men. I can’t tell the difference as quickly with women, though that probably has more to do with the fact that I don’t pay much attention to women. (One difference I have noticed is that first-generation women are a lot more likely to be wearing gigantic Burberry sun visors.) When it comes to men, here are the most striking differences I see in second-generation Koreans: They often walk with a swagger that is much more American than Korean. They sometimes have pierced ears, with gigantic faux diamond studs. Their haircuts are often wilder than first-generation men—mohawks, faux hawks, or LOVELY long, wispy cuts. (Mmmmm mmmm!) Second-generation men are also much more likely to have tattoos. It is rare to see first-generation men with tattoos. When I was first dating my husband, he told me, “Only gangsters have tattoos in Korea.” (The first time I met his mother, he made me agree to wear a long sleeve shirt to cover my tattoo, even though it was during the hottest days of summer.)
I have noticed recently that the tattoos on second-generation men reflect more Korean patriotism than I have ever seen first-generation men exhibit. Some have tattoos of the Korean flag. Others have the flag above the words “대한민국” (which is the formal name of South Korea in Korean, and translates literally to “The Great Korean People’s Nation”). I saw one fellow recently who had gigantic arm muscles, and on one of his upper arms a giant tattoo read “한국” (the shortened form of 대한민국) in gigantic, computer font style script.
I am really fascinated by this patriotism. Most of the second-generation kids I tutor express more patriotic loyalty to Korea than to The United States, even though most of them have spent no more than a couple of weeks or months in Korea. Most of them cannot even write or form grammatically correct sentences in Korean. Most are probably able to navigate American culture with more ease than they could Korean culture. But alas, their loyalties lie with Korea!
I think this is similar to Americans with Scottish ancestors who walk around wearing kilts and bragging about their clan tartans. Except in those cases, many more generations have usually passed. Second-generation Koreans still grow up with a strong connection to their ancestors’ food, spoken language, history, and culture. So I think that a tattoo reading “대한민국” seems much more meaningful on a second-generation Korean’s arm than a kilt does on some guy whose ancestors came from Scotland two hundred years ago.
But who am I to say? My ancestors come from so many different countries that I wouldn’t even know how to begin expressing pride in my heritage. I would feel like an impostor if I did try, because I have such little blood from any one people.
Wait… I think that means…I’m…AMERICAN!