Stemming Away From My Cultural Roots
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Recently, I’ve noticed more and more people getting random Korean characters as tattoos, listening to K-pop, and buying Korean beauty products like Innisfree and Sulwhasoo. They go to Korean BBQ places and drink Korean soju, gushing over the novelty of traditional Korean sauces like ssamjang. Their demonstrated admiration of Korean culture makes me proud, but it also frustrates me when they don’t understand the nuances of it. A connection to authentic Korean culture is much more than aesthetics; it often includes deep-rooted patriarchy and xenophobia. I have grown up in a conservative Korean family and found liberation in the American culture of valuing individual freedom and equality. The word “assimilated” isn’t an insult to me, but rather a reminder of the conscious choice I made to embrace American values.
I’ve grown up watching Korean television, Korean dramas, Korean reality shows, and Korean movies. In fact, I have probably consumed more Korean media than American media. However, Korean media refuses to depict abortion, even after its decriminalization in the country in 2021. In the shows I watch, all teenage pregnancies end the same way: the girl decides to keep her child—after receiving a beating from her parents, of course.
It’s not just abortion. Korean censorship is unimaginable by American standards. If a Korean female pop star dares to embrace her own sexuality, she effectively ends her career. To share her true self with the world, she would need to overcome barriers within her agency and broadcasting company, and even if the content was somehow released, she would face public scrutiny. For instance, Hyorin, a Korean female pop star, wore a dazzling silver dress that resembled a one-piece swimsuit to perform her song “SEE SEA” in an awards show for actors. The next day, she made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. Articles called her attention-seeking, embarrassing, and shameful. They called her performance a “민폐”—a selfish act that harms others—because they claimed she made the audience uncomfortable. Indeed, the actors in the crowd were seen opening their mouths in disgust, refusing to smile or clap. Hyorin is a veteran K-pop idol, having debuted in 2010, and she works under her own one-person agency called Bridge. The backlash she faced for wearing a swimsuit-resembling dress while performing a song about the sea shows the restrictions younger, less experienced K-pop idols must endure. The irony is that Korean media embraces displays of nudity in underage girls, who are often unwillingly forced into these scenes by their agencies. From their debut, the Korean girl group Momoland has danced in very short shorts with little coverage that consequently exposed their butts while they danced. Their agency refused to supply safety shorts, and Momoland members, including Nancy, who debuted at 16, were constantly seen pulling their shorts down. This controversy never made headlines or trending searches.
This restriction may be easier to understand knowing that Korea has a long history of Confucianism, resulting in a collectivist culture where people are categorized and expected to behave according to their peers. There is great pressure to fit in, which is why Koreans tend to be sensitive to fashion trends and sometimes get plastic surgery. The phrase “beauty is subjective” doesn’t hold true in Korea because there is a beauty standard that people collectively agree upon. Those that stray outside of social norms, whether by getting tattoos or simply not conforming to conventional beauty standards, are condemned and shamed. This is seen in Korean public school uniform designs, where uniforms are strictly gendered and made of uncomfortable material that prioritizes beauty over student comfort — dress codes are strictly enforced, so each student is indistinguishable from the other. Additionally, Korean society emphasizes selflessness and pressures people to make individual sacrifices for the "greater good." Mothers that don't abandon their careers for the greater good of the family or children that don't take on the role of a home caregiver for their elderly parents are immediately labeled selfish.
Unfortunately, traditional Korean perceptions of modesty have traveled with my family halfway across the world, resulting in limitations on my self-expression. When I bought running shorts, for example, my mother addressed me with concern and discomfort in her voice, telling me they were too short. As a result, my wardrobe is full of shapeless hoodies, oversized T-shirts, and baggy sweatpants. Whenever I want to experiment with clothes and pick something adventurous off the rack, I immediately put it back because I can hear my mother’s voice echoing in my head, saying that I’m “showing too much skin.”
Confucian values also penetrate deeply into family traditions and expectations — gestures of gratitude and greeting are inherently my responsibilities. When my parents enter the house, I must greet them with enthusiasm. When I enter the house, I still must greet them with enthusiasm.
When my Korean relatives want a hug, I have to submit to their requests, even if I feel uncomfortable with their alcohol-ridden breaths and slobbering kisses on my cheek. My autonomy is robbed when I am expected not only to comply, but to do so with a smile. As a very vocal and admittedly opinionated person, I often feel silenced in crowds of Korean adults. For instance, when my dad made comments on Korean schoolgirls “these days,” shaming them for being too wild and unstudious by wearing makeup and short skirts, I quietly mentioned that students should be able to wear whatever they want to. I was immediately dismissed with the comment: “that’s your opinion.”
I’m now sick and tired of Korean culture. I’m fed up with calling my grandparents only for them to have lengthy conversations with my brother, who is the “heir to their name.” I’m fed up with laughing uncomfortably when I am subjected to comments about my body because I’m not supposed to offend the adults of Korea’s rigid age-based hierarchy. I’m fed up with forcing myself to eat bland white rice at every meal because the ancient origins of the word 식구, meaning family, are the Chinese characters for “to eat together.” I need to sit down at the dinner table and eat what my parents cook, as it is a sign of disrespect to leave anything on your plate.
I’m not saying American culture doesn’t have its flaws, but when I hear about gentle “American” parenting, I think of my younger self, who grew up being accused of being selfish. I think of waking up with red, puffy eyes and looking up at the ceiling knowing I will need to swallow my pride and “admit to my faults” to appease my dad. I realize that gentle parenting isn’t an American invention, but I believe that it is an extension of the American value of individuality, even in childhood.
I listen to the open political conversations that American celebrities are permitted to have and contrast them with the silence forced upon Korean celebrities. I have realized that American celebrities are embraced for being their own individuals, whereas Korean celebrities are treated as just a group of pretty dolls displayed in a glass window, admired for their beauty but expected to act according to orders from their agencies, also known as their entertainment management companies. Though I myself am not contracted under an agency, the social atmosphere that censorship promotes is one that reverberates throughout different aspects of Korean society—it impacts everyone and traps them into compliance.
Therefore, I make the active choice to distance myself from Korean culture. I still recognize the importance of learning Korea’s history, traditions, and language, but I don’t accept its social restrictions. I try to avoid Korean social gatherings—in particular, Korean Christian gatherings. It isn’t because they are religious, but rather that these communities, more than any others, push the traditional Korean culture that I’ve grown to dislike even deeper into my skin, such as the concept of 예의, which requires me to “respect my elders” at the expense of my self-dignity. Many people may view my selective rejection of Korean culture as an ungrateful betrayal of my hard-working immigrant parents, who tried their best to stay true to Korean culture throughout my childhood in America. Others may consider me a victim of American propaganda and cultural assimilation. However, in my experience, “connecting back to your cultural roots” isn’t a black-and-white rejection of American neo-colonialism. So before someone shames me for refusing to connect with the culture of my ancestors, I hope they consider the countless other times I’ve felt oppressed trying to conform to the mold of a Korean girl.