What’s the most important difference between China, Japan and Korea? To understand Korea and Korean-ness, realizing its position as a beleaguered buffer state is key | By Doug Kim (Spring 2020 issue)
To all Korean Americans: Have you ever wondered how “being Korean” or “having Korean blood” affects you personally? Have you encountered others having preconceived ideas about you because you are Korean/Korean American? Where do these ideas come from? Is your self-perception affected by thoughts about your own Korean-ness?
For decades, I have been seeking answers to these questions so I can better understand and appreciate what we Korean Americans uniquely “bring to the party.” I hope this will be the first of many columns sharing such answers, and that you, the reader, will participate in this column by sending in challenging questions in the future (there are no dumb ones!).
Let me introduce myself. I’m a bit of an anomaly. My parents came from Korea in 1949.
I was born in Minnesota in the 1950s, and raised in the Midwest. That makes me about 15 years older than most of the “second generation” in the U.S., i.e., American-born children of Korean parents. Like many of my generation, I felt considerable friction between the cultural norms and expectations of my immigrant parents and the realities I faced growing up in America. Unsurprisingly, I had my share of identity confusion and discomfort.
Serendipitously, in college I was introduced to Asian culture in a way that was unexpectedly relevant and accessible. I went on to major in East Asian studies, which compelled me to then spend a year in Korea (the first of many visits) learning the language and experiencing the culture first-hand. Over the years I have frequently taught about Korean American identity (most recently at San Francisco State University), and twice worked as an adviser to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Department. For more than 30 years, I have served on the staff and leadership of SaeJong Camp in Michigan, and had the great joy of raising fraternal twins with my Korean American wife of 27 years.
I’m not an academic, but one who has struggled mightily to understand the cultural baggage that comes with being Korean American. I continue to look into antecedents, the hows and whys, and what benefits or hinders us as individuals and as a community. I hope readers, of Korean descent and any other ethnicity, will benefit from my experience and observations.
Because this is the first column in this series, we don’t have any questions from readers yet. (Details on how to send in questions are below.) So I would like to answer a question I’ve encountered many times over the years, and about which I wondered a great deal growing up:
What, if anything, makes Koreans and Korean culture distinct from Chinese or Japanese culture?
This is a big and important question. Growing up, I was often taunted by classmates being called “Chink” or a “Nip” (a derogatory term for Japanese). My mother would try to console me saying, “That’s silly, you’re Korean.” But this was little or no help, because she never really explained what that meant or how being Korean differed from being Chinese or Japanese.
Over the years, I’ve observed that most Korean Americans — including me, at one point and people even older than me — are often not very good at articulating what it is to be Korean and how it is different from being ethnically Chinese or Japanese. As elusive as this answer is, I think it is fundamental and essential to understanding “Korean-ness.” This is why I have ruminated over the question long and hard.
There are, of course, many similarities among Korean culture and other Asian cultures, such as fondness for rice; shared Confucian values and customs, such as bowing and respecting elders; or even aspects of our appearance, including black hair and a non-white skin color.
However, to me the most important distinction comes from Korea’s geography and its significance to the nation’s political and social history. If you look into how Korea, Japan, and China, have related to one another over time, it is easy to see is of a “buffer state” caught between two larger, and more powerful neighbors. Like Poland, caught between the two enemy states of Russia and Germany, Korea has suffered much tragedy as China, Japan, Russia the U.S. fought over it.
An ancient Korean proverb grimly observed “when two whales fight, the shrimp gets a broken back.” Korea was fought over many times throughout history: The Mongols invaded in the 1200s and the Japanese in the 1500s. In modern history, Russia and Japan battled over dominance of Korea and Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese war (1904 to 1905); the Japanese invaded and colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945; and subsequently, the U.S. and the Soviet Union divided Korea into two states. When North Korea invaded South in 1950, the result was the Korean War, an immensely traumatic and destructive war, which in 1953 ended as a stalemate.
The “broken back” in the proverb is a sad but accurate metaphor for the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has divided the country for seven decades. Korea has been viewed as “the land bridge to China” from the perspective of the invading Japanese, and “the dagger pointed at the heart of China” from the Chinese perspective contemplating invasion by Japan. While similar to China and Japan in many ways, Korea has never invaded either neighbor. Rather, it has suffered greatly from the wars between its two neighbors, and by other countries that have battled in and over Korea.
To this day, the Korean peninsula remains a geopolitical “drumhead” being pulled in different directions by Japan, Russia, China, and the distant but equally influential U.S. There is no other place on the planet where the interests of so many powerful nations physically intersect, not even the Middle East. Like an actual drumhead, Korea cannot free itself from those forces. In many important ways, it is impossible for Korea to act autonomously or unilaterally. This reality makes the prospects for reunification of South and North problematic at best.
Invasions and wars have shaped Koreans in two crucial ways. First, it forged that most Korean of emotional/psychological traits: hahn (also spelled han).The emotion known as hahn is different from the syllable “han” used in hanguk mal (Korean language) or hanguk (Korea). There is no Western equivalent word for this emotion, but it can perhaps best be translated as unrequited sorrow, resignation to the unfairness of life, and/or pent-up anger and frustration.
It can be hard to discern the sense of hahn in Korea today under all the glitter and noise of K-pop, K-dramas, high technology, and conspicuous consumption, but it lies just beneath the surface where it has been tragically ground into the Korean personality over countless generations. I suspect one reason Koreans produce such wonderful dramas is that, as a people, they have experienced deep and complex suffering for so long.
The second product of being a buffer state is Koreans’ traits of tenacity, resilience, and an uncommon strength of will. Evidence of this resilience is Korea’s development into the 12th largest economy in less than a generation since the complete physical and economic destruction it confronted in 1953 at the end of the Korean War. Unlike Japan and Germany before World War II, pre-war Korea had no industrial base. Post-war Korea did not have the advantage of a huge aide program like the Marshall Plan that helped Western European countries after World War II, or a benign planned post-war reconstruction as did Japan under U.S. administration. It should be noted that these Korean “personality traits” while often seen in a positive light, add credence to the notion that Koreans are among the most stubborn and implacable people on the planet.
So, the short answer to this question is that Korea’s position as a buffer state caught between China and Japan gives it a profoundly different past and personality. This history, starting in ancient times affecting Korea to this day, has profound implications for Koreans in Korea, Korean Americans and the global diaspora.
Author’s note: To submit questions, please use the “contact me” link on my blog: wisedragonfather.com. The first post of the blog explains the “Dragon Dad” reference. If you request, your question can be used in the column anonymously.