Saturday, June 21, 2008

On being "Korean Enough"

Through his blog "Koreanish," writer Alexander Chee links to an essay published in Guernica titled, "Korean Enough: Alexander Chee on New Korean American Fiction." I highly recommend it, for anyone interested in the complexity of ethnic identity as it spans geography, generations, and even measures of authenticity.

I was interested in the article from the start, but by the second paragraph the article was thoroughly resonating with what I have found in my own experience and seek to convey as time (and my research) goes on:

My father’s family in Korea keeps traditions they brought with them from China in the 15th Century that the Chinese no longer keep; they use an archaic Chinese script in the keeping of our family’s records. They perform, inside the confines of my family, these rituals of this lost homeland—even as they tell me they fear I’m “not Korean enough,” with no sense of irony whatsoever.

Even this short paragraph is so packed with nuance: a) Korea's proximity to a dominant and large nation (China); b) How narratives are transmitted in a literate and oral context; c) The performance of ritual as a way to ensure continuity and affirmation of an all-too-fragile sense of identity; and d) The tenuousness of authenticity and representation.

I have to say that it hit me on a personal level of course--anyone who's ever been singled out as visibly different in their primary context of operation may relate to the feeling of being an 'alien' or of feeling "yes I belong" and at the very same time "how could I ever really belong."

As an ethnographer, or, "Professional Stranger," (as Michael Agar has written), the feeling of being an Angel, Ghost (as Grant McCracken has talked about), or Alien in the context one is studying--is part and parcel with the ability to see things as if one doesn't belong. And yet, we have the need to function (or sometimes not) within that context. When it's your job, culture shock is not shock anymore per se, but rather a constant state of orange/red alert that is physically and emotionally taxing and also par for the course.

In her address to the class of 2008 at the Berkeley School of Information last month, Genevieve Bell from Intel recounts her emotional experience with a Korean shaman and tells those in the audience that if one is not in tears at least once in the field in that manner, then one is not really embracing the experience.

Me thinks to self: Yep.

In my fieldwork experiences, my authenticity has been tested implicitly and explicitly many a time. We do this in many ways. Even as gamers, there is the said and unsaid about whether or not someone is "hardcore" enough--and almost a destructive culture of intensity where one's authenticity and social status hangs in the balance. Pain of (virtual?) death should one not prove worthy. I've written about this as it pertained to a particular raid in World of Warcraft.

Culture is shared knowledge in a system of meaning. In the Korean context, I was often told, "Once you know x, you will be truly Korean." x, at times equated with the ability to eat spicy food, knowing when to pay for the bill, knowing Seoul's expansive subway system, or how/why Tim Horton's to Canadian national identity can't hold a candle to the affinity Koreans feel for Kimchi and it's pervasive role in society, life, and death.

Alexander Chee's article was an excellent piece--driving home just how very much a state of mind authenticity is, and just how true (and necessary) the myths and fictions we create for ourselves often are. Have a read.

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Blogger Alexander Chee said...

Hey, Florence. Thanks for this. It's a great way to meet you.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Florence Chee said...

And you! :D

9:31 AM  

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