Saturday, October 12, 2013

Being Half Korean in America

My full name is Christopher Choi Polk.  'Choi' is my mothers maiden name, and my two brothers have it also as their middle names.  I am from a suburb of New Orleans, Lousiana, called Slidell.  I remember on numerous occasions having to correct white and black teachers on the first day of school on how to pronounce the name 'Choi.'  I remember hearing them say things like "Chow," and "Troy."
In high school, my brothers and I played football for Slidell High.  I remember our friends giving my older brother the nickname, "Bok Choi."  I became "Baby Bok," and my little brother was "Brussel Sprout."  

My mother is an amazing cook, and she used to cook Korean bar-b-que for our teammates and friends.  My brother used to joke, and tell them that my mother was cooking dog meat, and we used to tell them that the reason we had our dog, Annie (God bless her soul.  She recently died at the age of 16.) was to fatten her up for a future bar-b-que.  But they knew we were joking, and it would get a laugh, because some of our teammates that didn't know us as well as our close friends would actually believe us.  

Some of my first memories were eating kimchi and rice for lunch at the dinner table with my brothers and my mother.  I remember my mother licking the red pepper off of the kimchi, so it wouldn't be too spicy for a little boy such as the one that I was at the time. 

According to the Korean consulate, there are around 4000 Koreans living in metro New Orleans, so my mother has always had a lot of Korean friends.  As a little boy, I called each of them "ajumma."  When I got older, I called them Mrs. So and So.  

My aunt and uncle live near my mother, so between them and my mother's numerous Korean friends, hearing conversations in Korean in my house was a daily occurance, but I was never taught it, because my mother wanted us to be Americans.  Many of my foreign friends here in Korea get upset when we are hanging out with a group of Koreans, and they speak Korean to each other.  It never bothers me, because hearing a different language without understanding it is quite natural for me.  I am quite comfortable when that happens, and many times I will find myself listening and nodding along, as if I am a part of the conversation, even though I don't know exactly what is being said.  

At school, I never really saw myself as Korean.  I've always identified with my white friends, and saw myself as such, because my brothers and I never had any major problems fitting in with our white peers at school.  I was kind of a nerd/dork in elementary school, but it wasn't because I was of Korean descent, it was because I am naturally a little quirky.  I began to hang out with the popular crowd in middle school and high school, because I played football, and also because my older brother was always popular, and well liked.    

I've always looked just like my father, so people in school used to ask me if I were adopted, upon seeing my mother.  

It's ironic that I grew up calling my Korean mother, 'Mom,' and my American father, 'Appa,' which is the Korean word for dad.  He is from a town in south Mississippi near the Louisiana border, called Picayune.  He speaks with a thick southern accent, and I never realized that I spoke similarly until I heard my Canadian, and American friends not from the south tell me that they like my accent.  I am proud to be from the south, and proud to be from greater New Orleans.

Growing up, my goal was to be as white as possible, so I could fit in with my friends as well as possible, and I believe I did well, because I never had problems making friends, but despite that, fitting in with the popular crowd was difficult, not because of my Korean descent, but because of my inherent quirkiness, and the fact that, during high school, I was self-conscious of it.  

One day, as a young professional working in sales in the cellular industry, being the young single man that I was, I suddenly became interested in what Korean female celebrities looked like.  I can't explain exactly what spurred that curiosity, but I suddenly became extremely fascinated with Korean culture, and my roots as a Korean.  Throughout my academic life, I tried so hard to be white, and to suppress the Korean in me in order to fit in with my friends, and at a point in my life when fitting in was no longer necessary, I developed a strong fascination with the my Korean descent, which led me to embrace my Korean heritage.

Anyway, on a random night on the sofa with my laptop in my lap, sitting with my roommates, coworkers, and friends while relaxing, and watching a random NFL football game on the big screen at the house we shared in Baton Rouge, LA, I googled, "beautiful Korean celebrities."

Kim Tae Hee, and Song Hye Kyo were the two most prominent Korean celebrities that appeared in Google Images.  There is no denying that they are both gorgeous.  Any man would think that, and I was no different.

I was back home, and working in sales in America when Kim Yuna won the gold medal in women's figure skating at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I was also home during the World Cup in South Africa, as I openly pulled for the South Korean team, who was rather competitive.  At the time, I would have pulled for them against America had they played each other.  And in the Olympics, I would have pulled for the Korean athlete if they were in direct competition with an American.  

A few years before that, I remember being secretly disappointed when Apolo Anton Ohno controversially won the gold medal against a Korean in short track speed skating during the Winter Olympics.  Ohno was seen sort of as a hero among Americans, but I never saw him as such.  To me, the Korean would have been, had he won. 

Kim Yuna and the Korean World Cup soccer team helped fuel my intrigue.  I began to look deeper into the blogosphere about Korean culture, because I had a strong desire to know what life was like over there.  I became addicted to learning about the culture of modern South Korea.  My hunger for info became almost insatiable.  

During the period of my fascination with Korean culture, my father, who works in the oil business, had an opportunity to accept a job in Malaysia.  My mother soon followed him, and they lived there for over a year.  While they were living in Malaysia, they suggested that we meet them in Seoul for a vacation.  My brothers, my sister-in-law, and I would fly over from America, and they would fly up from Kuala Lampur.  To say that I was extremely excited was an understatement.  It's funny how the timing of things sort of works together.  I don't believe any of it was a coincidence.  Moreover, I don't believe in coincidences.  

We spent one week in Seoul, and three days in Jeju.  When it came time to fly back to America, I didn't want to go back home.  I loved being in Korea.

Again, it's kind of funny how things work out.  Looking back, I believe it was the hand of God who blessed my desire to come to Korea, because around the time that I returned home from my vacation, I lost my job in sales.

I began to look for ways to return.  I quickly found out that teaching English was the best way to do that, and I had no problem finding a job.  I accepted a teaching position in Gwangju, and to say that I was excited when it was time to fly over the Pacific ocean for the second time in my life would be quite an understatement.

And now, here I am.

In my next post, I will discuss what it's like living in Korea as a halfie.  Stay tuned...    

1 comment:

  1. I love your blog so much as a half-korean myself, it's so relatable! Thank you for your posts and I too used to try and be 'white as possible' but I realise how much I love Korean culture and embrace it...a bit too much...