Navigating Between Two Cultures

I’m sure a lot of people can relate with this but I’ve always felt like I’ve been pulled in two separate directions. Among family and most my friends (now that I think about it) are Korean and every other part of my life, I’m American.

Growing up, I’ve always been told “You’re Korean!”

Yet when I talk to them, they always feel the need to explain what they’re saying in Korean because they think I don’t understand what they’re saying – I do. And it’s not like I don’t agree with them because I’m actually really proud of my Korean heritage. I think this is true especially because I’m American and I’m surrounded by many people who don’t know their full heritage. There’s also the fact that no one looks at me and automatically assumes that I’m American. They look at me and one of the first questions they ask is, “Where are you from?” Like it hadn’t occurred to them that I would every answer this question as, “I’m from the United States.”

I’m also a really quiet person, even when I was growing up, and sometimes I would go through the whole conversation not saying anything – my sister would be the one talking – and they would ask her, “Does she speak English?”

When I was growing up as a child, my parents listened to Korean trot music. We didn’t listen to old 70s-90s Western music. I think it was last year but a member from Queens had passed away and at that time, I had no idea who that was. And when I told my co-workers this they were very, very surprised. And I remember one of my managers (just a little older than I was) who said in response to my, “I’m too young”, “So? I’m not that much older than you and I grew up listening to them!”

But a lot of this also comes from how I view myself, not just how others view me. I think that I’m still confused on what I should consider myself. Korean-American? American? I’ve spoken to a lot of people who feel the same way I do and they say that this confusion is temporary. There will be a moment when how I identify myself will dawn on me and I won’t be confused as to which culture I really belong with. I’m in a weird middle spot with no idea where I’m supposed to be at. But that was back in high school, and it’s already been 7 years since then. Is there a point where I’ll be comfortable where I’m at?

After thinking about this (numerous times and I think I’ve mentioned this in a couple different posts too), I think I’m too fixated on where I “belong”. I think it’s okay to be confused! And maybe I’m not being pulled in two separate directions but I’m a part of two different communities – two communities that occasionally intertwine with each other. And that’s okay!

19 thoughts on “Navigating Between Two Cultures

  • Hey great, thanks I added your link :) Also, you should definitely continue watching Weightlifting Fairy!!

    I think that you don’t have to define what you are. Honestly, I’m half polish and turkish but I was raised in Germany my whole life and I was raised the polish way, but in a german way, if that makes any sense at all lmao. Personally I feel more German than turkish or polish, mainly because I don’t feel connected to the culture nor language at all.


  • Yeah I agree! When I was younger, I was really adamant about proclaiming my american nationality and I was trying to split myself from my culture because I felt ashamed or embarrassed for whatever reason. But as I grew older, I grew to love both sides. Like you said, I’m proud to be part of both communities and it gives me perspectives from both sides.

  • I can completely relate to you! I didn’t listen to much Western music or even watched much Western TV when I was a kid. I always felt embarrassed that I didn’t know who so and so is or I didn’t watch a certain TV program. I was the only Chinese in my school and there weren’t many people from other cultures in the area at the time. Due to that I felt ashamed to be different, even ashamed to tell people what I ate at home for dinner. I never invited any of my friends around as my mum didn’t know how to make English food and I had no idea if my friends will eat what we eat.

    As I grew up, I met many more Chinese people that went through the same thing as me. London has become a massively multi-cultural city and it’s completely normal to be “not so English”. All the people around me are so interested in different cultures, their food, their music etc that it isn’t odd that I don’t watch certain TV programs or listen to certain music. I actually love being Chinese now, and love talking about our culture to people around me.

  • I’m half white and half Salvadoran (dad comes from El Salvador) and I identify with that culture even the bad parts but I love it, because it is me, and I can’t hate myself for merely existing anymore. I know the feeling of being torn between two cultures and it sucks, but I do the best to manage it.

  • I can definitely relate to this. My parents emigrated to Australia before I was born, from Hong Kong. So I am first generation in Australia. However, I am told I am not “Chinese” enough by the Chinese people as I am too whitewashed. However by locals or when I travel overseas, I am so Asian (because of how I look). Honestly, don’t really care where I fit in or if I fit into people’s constructs.

    nat // dignifiable

  • I’m sort of in the opposite and similar situation as you. I’m told that I am Korean — even by my mum. I respond by saying, “No, I’m American,” but they rebuke me saying that I *actually* Korean. If they mean ethnically, yes I am. But my sensibilities are more American than Korean, though I also do have some Korean cultural traits ingrained in me, so I guess it’s fair to say I am Korean-American, but to say I am just Korean is very inaccurate.

    That “Where are you from” question, though — my answer is always Korea because I was born and raised here except for the two years I was in Virginia and Japan, and that was when I was only one to three. To say I am from the US is not correct, even if I am a US citizen.

    I understand that feeling of wanting to belong. I go through the same thing. I also do question whether I’m Korean, American, or both. I don’t dwell on it, though, but rather pride on the fact that I am who I am and am proud of my unique situation. As a Korean adoptee, I’m not like most adoptee who grew up outside of Korea, but I am one of those handfuls who grew up in her country of birth. So that adds more complexity to my situation, but I just consider that being a part of me!

  • It’s a bit different for me but still quite similar. I don’t particularly feel “at home” with the Filipino community here (despite me being a Filipino immigrant) because most Filipinos here are the “mainstream” ethnic groups and they have some practices that I’m not able to relate to.

    Interesting though, I feel more at ease with other immigrant communities. I think this is why I felt more comfortable in the Bay Area. Where I live right now, people are either Hispanic or White. Not too many Asians or immigrant Asians.

    Sometimes, I do use that “Does she speak English?” to my advantage. There are times when some weirdo want to just harass you or when I do not feel like having a small talk with a stranger, and I pretend to not speak English. Haha.

    I have a friend who is “100% Chinese”, but his grandparents moved to the Philippines from China. Then, he moved to the US. I have always wondered how he answers the ethnicity question in forms. Does he put Chinese or Filipino (given that he has a Philippine passport)? But I’m too embarrassed to ask.

  • I’ve been wanting to write about the same thing! (I even have an entry in draft right now about it, lol.) Being a first generation Chinese-American makes me feel like I’m pulled in two directions too. I feel like when I was young, I tried too hard to fit into American culture, and now that I’m older, I want to focus on my Chinese heritage again.

    I was also really quiet, which caused me to be put into ESL classes in elementary school. They didn’t think I knew enough English due to being silent. It’s weird to me when people ask where I’m from, but they’re not satisfied with me saying I was born in New York. I mean, I don’t really have ties to China, so is it really important that they know I’m Chinese?

    I’m not sure if this confusion is truly temporary, but like you said, I think it’s ok to have this confusion. It’s part of learning who we are and want to be :) I like your thinking that we’re part of two communities and not that we’re being pulled in different directions!

  • you know, i’ve always find people who have two communities (or homes or whatever) as cool. i mean, who cares about people asking if you’re korean or american? you’re a person regardless. it’s just like how i’m chinese and i live in indonesia. i personally don’t like to fit myself as an indonesian and i assure you i have reasons behind that. so whenever people ask me, “are you chinese or–?” i’d tell them that yes, i’m a chinese who resides in indonesia. in indonesia, there’s this…distinctive separation between the chinese born and the true blue indonesian locals (i realize this sounds a little bit racist? i hope not. i wasn’t intending for this to be a racist remark) but like.. i’m chinese and i’m not a local indonesian. this doesn’t help, isn’t’s still confusing, lol. i’m not gonna lie, i grew up in a chinese family who has issues with local indonesian-born; yes it may sound racist but again, there are reasons. basically, in indonesia, most of the people are either chinese, indonesians (as in javanese, etc), a hybrid (between chinese and local indonesians / javanese) or foreigners. i know i never grew up in mainland china (actually, i’m glad i don’t because don’t get me started on my hatred towards the locals there) but still, like what Tara said, ethnically i’m chinese and i label myself as a chinese. mentality-wise, now that’s something else… i harbor a chinese-western kind of mindset hahaha

    anyway, my point is… it’s alright for you to consider yourself korean or american or korean-american. i personally don’t care because if you’re cool then you’re cool. although i sounded like i have something against indonesians, i’m not completely against them because i do have indonesian friends and they’re cool too. i hate how your manager replied to you though, tbh but maybe that’s just me. if someone said something like that to me, i’d reply them with a, “oh? so that makes you more american than me? let’s see my ID then” lol it’s probably a bad idea because it’s like i was asking for a fight but you know what i mean (hopefully) :P

  • I couldn’t relate enough to this post, honestly. It’s weird coming across this post because I was talking about this topic to a friend recently actually. I can totally relate, I grew up in the UK and so I identify as British but my ethnicity is Filipino/Spanish (a mix!) so sometimes having the variety of “identities” did confuse me a lot when I was younger and I hadn’t had a clue on what I should be identifying as.

    I do remember saying I am british once and being totally made fun of by people at school who kept calling me chinese. Ugh. I’ve grown to be really accepting of my differences and loving the multi-cultural environment I’ve grown up. It is hard because sometimes they are world’s apart but I think that’s what makes it really interesting! Staying true to yourself! <3

    Thanks for sharing lovely <3

  • H’ooooohmygooood. I relate to do this on so many levels! I wish I’d read this before I’d posted mine, cause it could have been like a response.

    Honestly, you don’t have to define who you are. As long as you’re comfortable in yourself, that’s the main thing. In saying that, I also have difficulty identifying with either of my races/cultures. I also get “Where are you from?” a lot, which ends up annoying me more than anything.

    Thank you for sharing this <3 Know that you are not alone in this crazy journey we call life!

  • People always assume I’m not born in the US. It gets pretty annoying sometimes when they assume they know more about you than they actually do. My family has some tradition that they practice and try to adopt some American ones (like Thanksgiving).

    Like you said, it’s okay to be confused about where you belong. I’ve been trying to find the answer myself and I’m almost settled on “I am American with Asian roots”. It’s fine to be part of multiple communities as well. Just find what fits you best! :)

  • I think picturing you’re being both Korean and American as two different communities is a great way to look at it.

    I’m as American as they come. I’m Cherokee Indian, English, and Irish, at least on my dad’s side. My mom was adopted so there’s a whole other part of my heritage that’s a total mystery. I guess I’ll have to get a DNA test to answer that question.

    Anyway, don’t be too discouraged, I’m sure you’ll get passed this eventually. Some people don’t know that Americans come in all shapes, sizes, and roots. ;)

  • Thank you for sharing your story. It can be difficult to understand who you are, and much more complicated for you, especially when you have a lot of people who judge others on appearance alone. :(

    I hope that you will reach a point where you know who you are and comfortable with yourself. <3

  • I don’t know how that must be like, but I am sure is hard. Everybody wants to belong somewhere. Everybody want to feel like they fit in, that they belong there, like that’s who they are. But in my opinion I see it this way, it’s not wrong to belong the both cultures. It’s who you are.

    It’s ok to be confused and it’s ok to question these things, but don’t let them take power over you.

    Have a nice day <3

  • When I was born and lived my first 10 years in the Philippines, everybody, at least in my environment always made a big deal about English fluency like it’s some kind of a status symbol. I was a bit rebellious as a child back then, attended a Catholic Montessori school, being run by teachers who spoke nothing but English to their students throughout the campus unless if we were in Filipino (language) class. It’s not to say that I was lazy or that I wasn’t good in English then, but I had a mindset of “I can read and write in English, but I don’t need to speak it because Filipino/Tagalog is the national language,” etc. etc.

    Then 10 years later, we ended up moving here in California, and it was then that I regretted for being stubborn. I took 2 years of ESL class so that I can finally get used to speaking English. The American-born Filipino kids were of no help to me then mainly because none of them spoke Tagalog, and the fact that they also looked down on their own kind. I’ve been called “fob” several times in my life by these same kids that I started to question my real identity. After a few years, met new friends (non-Filipinos), that I finally identified myself as American, even though I still retain my old Filipino ways.

    Today, for some reason, (older) Filipino women can’t even recognize me as being Filipino, and that they always say that I’m some other race (Chinese and Indian are the popular misconceptions about me LOL). They even get shocked when I speak Tagalog to them and asked me if I was born here or not (obviously not lol). As for the Filipino men, they immediately recognize me as one of their own, and I find that respectful.

    So, to make it short, you’re not alone on this one. There are a lot of things and habits that Filipinos (in the Philippines) often do that I feel ashamed or disgusted for, to the point that I still question my identity: Filipino or American? Bottom line, stay true and proud of yourself, keep your head up as always, regardless of these misidentifications of race or origin.

  • Ahh, Rezina, I am so glad you shared this. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot and it is so reassuring to hear I’m not alone. I was born in the UK but my parents are from Hong Kong. As a child, I always insisted I was British and it wasn’t until I grew older that I started paying more attention to my ethnic roots. Since then it’s been a difficult tug of war between whether I am British or Chinese. The identity conflict. In secondary school, being the only Chinese girl in my year, I felt more Chinese than British but when I came to uni and made friends with international students from Asian countries, I suddenly felt a lot more British. I’ve spent ages trying to figure out where I ‘belong’ but now I think I’m more content knowing that I can be both, that I don’t have to fit neatly into this or that.

    Thank you again for this, Rezina! It’s a topic I’ve been hoping to write about and this has made me think more about it again :)

  • Belonging to a certain culture can happen in different ways. Even if you are not genetically linked, you could be linked simply by spending half your life in a country, and also even if you were not born there. For example, I identify with Japanese culture so much because I studied it and I feel that a lot of what I do is inspired by Japan.

    Some people don’t identify with the country they were born in, either. I know that some Caucasian people move to China and start a life there because they feel like they are Chinese. They speak the language and live and breathe the same life.

    I can completely understand that you don’t feel like you are Korean even if your background is Korean. Getting the “where are you from?” question is a difficult one because some people mean where you are based, while others are really asking for your ethnicity. People should be specific if they are really that curious! I don’t like how it opens up a bunch of other questions though, like how long were you in x country or what languages do you speak or where are your parents from, etc.

    I don’t think you have to choose one definite culture to identify yourself with. It can be one or many.

  • Surprisingly, my identity as Vietnamese American didn’t really bugged me as a kid. Being poor was the primary “identity” that bothered me the most since I think I was most insecure about it. I grew up with friends and classmates who were better off (but still middle class), and so that socioeconomic difference was more apparent than anything else. And if I had to pick an underlying theme with most of my closest friends, it’s that we all share similar socioeconomic background growing up, rather than ethnicity. (But I did grow up in a very diverse community, so I’m sure that helped since it felt like everyone had their own cultural background.)

    Ethnically, I’m technically Chinese-Vietnamese, but both of my parents (both also Chinese-Vietnamese) kept their Vietnamese side and so I only know my Vietnamese culture. I have cousins and relatives who speak Mandarin but can understand a bit of Vietnamese. So many of our family events, people may know either one or two or all of the three languages: Vietnamese, English, or Mandarin. So I’ve always took it that everyone has a different cultural background in addition to being American.

    Also, I was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 4. I remember my parents telling me that we are Americans now thus I took on that new identity as a given. And I take American as my nationality and Vietnamese to be my ethnicity, which is usually how I’ll reply. (But if they’re rudely asking me where I’m from in that beat-around-the-bush tone, then I’ll say California/hometown just to end it there.) Oh course, as I get older, I do think about Asian American issues more as I’ve gained more perspective.

    And I definitely felt very American when I was in Europe and Asian, from behaviors to mannerism and expectations. Then again, when I’m in Texas, I’m really feeling Californian. XD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *