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Duty, honour, and family

A story of personal experience with identity and expectations

It’s a Thursday morning. I’m standing on a metro platform, hair wet and hungover. I feel a slight sense of pride – then disappointment. Then self-resentment. And guilt.

You’re probably wondering who I am, and why I was feeling those things. In many ways, I’m your average Jane. Well, an average Jane for my ethnicity and socioeconomic background. I’m from Korean descent, grew up in an Asian-dominated area of Toronto, studied science in university, and went to grad school to do neuroscience research. I have six piercings, but they’re all on my ears. I’ve thought about getting a tattoo, but it hasn’t happened yet. I played it safe most of my life. I conformed to what society told me I should be. To who my parents told me I was meant to be; to the person my friends and acquaintances told me I was capable of being. The following is my story, my experience, and my struggle with identity coming from an immigrant family in Canada.

“Meeeee-chong. That’s a weird name. Where are you from?” I remember in elementary school, when kids would ask where I’m from, I’d tell them I was Korean. “Where’s Korea?” they’d ask. “You’re Chinese right?” When I grew tired of explaining what and where Korea was, I would tell people I was Chinese. To them, it didn’t matter much anyway. I resented being different. It didn’t help that my parents had me use my Korean name in school instead of my English name. I was too young to realize that the fact that I was born and raised in Toronto made me just as Canadian as any of them.

In high school, things changed. I met other Koreans. We gravitated toward each other. And rather than rejecting our culture, we embraced it. We formed an exclusive group of Koreans and spent time basking in our culture – eating Korean food, drinking soju, and spending late nights at karaoke bars. It was liberating, finally being able to feel like I truly belonged.

When graduation came along, we almost all went off to study science, engineering, or business to pursue “successful” careers. I went to University hoping to one day become a doctor, buy a condo in downtown Toronto, and marry an accountant or lawyer. Oh, and he had to be Korean. That wasn’t even a question. Bringing home someone from any other background was as big of an insult to my family as me telling them I was quitting university.

It didn’t take me long to realize that a doctor was not what I wanted to be. The decision to stop pursuing medical school wasn’t an easy one – it was more than just about what I wanted. It was about what would make my parents proud and what would make the sacrifices they made for me worthwhile.

I’ve had one serious boyfriend, and he wasn’t Korean. And although he was what most parents would consider a ‘good guy’ – he was attractive, intelligent, and kind – my parents refused to meet him. While we were dating, I would periodically get phone calls from my mom, who would go on about how my grandparents back in Korea would have a heart attack if I ever married a white man. “How would he communicate with our family?” she’d ask. “Does he even eat Korean food?”

Most of the time, I’d just brush off those comments. Other times though, they’d really get to me. The level of my family’s pervasion into every aspect of my life was infuriating. At the same time, I’d feel a profound sense of guilt anytime my parents were unhappy about a life decision I made. In many ways, I felt – and still feel – a sense of responsibility for their happiness. I want to call this “immigrant child guilt,” though not all immigrant families share this struggle. Yet I’ve found so many Asian-Canadian immigrant children grow up watching our parents work long hours at hard jobs with the constant reminder that their suffering is worth it, because it’ll one day lead to our success. As much as the Korean convenience store or laundromat owner is a stereotype, for many of my friends, this was a reality.

On the outside, you’d almost never see the struggles. Preserving appearances is a big part of Korean culture. Even during times of financial strife, to an outsider, my family appeared to be doing fine. My parents would buy me nice clothes, new electronics, and anything else I needed in order to help me be like my more privileged peers. They pulled together all the money they could to pay for my education and for me to have the full university experience. And they let me go to college away from home. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to work. I had to focus on my studies. My parents would support me while I studied so I could become the doctor or lawyer I was meant to be. In their eyes, their reward would be seeing my success.

My mom worked seven days a week. She woke up at five in the morning, made lunch for my dad, sister, and I, while often neglecting to take her own as she scrambled out the door to her job at the hospital. She came back home at 6 p.m., made dinner, did the laundry, and cleaned the house. She worked a second job on the weekends. My dad also worked every day, but at a desk job that I knew he hated. Our family knew he was too highly educated and intelligent for the position he had, but language barriers gave him very few options in Canada. I watched him stumble through the doors drunk in the middle of the night on the weekends. When I was younger, I resented that. Now, I understand that he was in pain.

My mom told me a story once. A few years into my parents’ marriage when my mom got pregnant, she decided she wanted to move back to Canada, where she had grown up and where she believed I’d have a better chance at success, or their idea of success. My dad wasn’t ready to leave at the time – he was working at a good job, and he had never lived outside of Korea. They decided on a temporary long distance marriage. This is a relatively common occurrence in immigrant families; mothers and children come to North America for a ‘better life’ while fathers remain in the home country in order to make money to support their family. My dad was there for my birth, but had to return to Korea to work. He took my picture along with him. According to my mom, he slept with my picture every night until he reached a point where he couldn’t be apart from his family anymore. He left his job, his extended family, and his home to come live with us in Canada.

I love that story because it’s a reminder of how much my dad loves me. But at the same time, it acts as a huge burden on my life, because it’s a reminder of the sacrifice my parents made to ensure I had all the opportunities I needed. “You know I work really hard at two jobs because I want the best for my children, right? All I want is to see my children successful and happily married,” my mom constantly reminds me. I know it comes from a place of love, but it draws me further into the cage that surrounds my life; the legacy of my parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifices and their hopes and dreams for my future.

I feel guilty about wanting to do things that will truly make me happy. I don’t need a six-figure salary or a big house in the suburbs. I want to be a freelance journalist and live in different parts of the world. I don’t know if I want to get married or have children. Lately, it’s been easier to make decisions for myself because I live far from home. But the guilt lingers. If I don’t have a stable job or live near home, who will take care of my parents? Can I really keep them out of the equation of my life when I’ve been the primary variable in all of theirs?

This sense of guilt seeps into almost every part of me – even my sex life. My parents still think I’m a virgin despite the fact that I first had sex when I was 19. I can still remember one of the first thoughts I had after my first sexual encounter. “Oh God, what will my parents think?” Even now, whether it is a one-night stand or a significant other, I can almost see my parents hanging their heads in shame at the knowledge that I’ve sacrificed my ‘purity.’ “Don’t sleep over at boys’ places,” my mother would say. “People talk. If they find out, no one will want to marry you.” Sure, maybe that’s true. But would I want to marry a person who’d judge me in the first place?

Korea has long been a patriarchal society, though things are rapidly changing. Traditionally, men were the heads of the households and women were expected to do housework and care for the family. Men were the primary breadwinners, giving them the authority to make most of the household decisions. Even though massive leaps and burgeoning opportunities are available today – the current president of Korea is a woman – gender equality is still far from being a reality. In 2013, the Economist reported that South Korea has held the lowest “glass-ceiling index,” meaning it has the least number of women in senior jobs as compared to other wealthy countries. Because things have changed only very recently, sexism was a part of the culture of my grandparents’ and even parents’ generation, and is prevalent even in mine.

My family is still extremely traditional, particularly on my father’s side. It was strange, growing up with my parents encouraging me to pursue higher education and get a high-status job while watching my mother’s tacit compliance to all of my father’s demands. Was that my future? Would I get a good job just to come home to a husband who saw himself as my superior?

“You’re a girl. You’ve had enough education. Come to Korea and we’ll find you a nice husband,” my grandparents in Korea tell me. Because of the language barrier, I can’t tell them that that’s a completely inappropriate thing to say. I can’t talk to them about feminism and explain that things aren’t the way they were when they were younger. All I can do is grimace and mumble something incomprehensible back to them over the phone. I don’t know if it’s something they will ever understand. I wish they could.

Moving to Montreal changed everything. It was the first time I was able to really separate myself from my Korean identity and just be myself. To be quite honest, I purposely distanced myself from other Koreans. I wanted to be released from the expectations to achieve a very specific type of success and the pressure to preserve appearances. I wanted to explore my passions, interests, and sexuality without the feeling of being constantly watched and judged. Being part of Korean communities for so long meant nothing was ever private. Anytime I decided to change my career path or started dating someone new, the whole community would know about it within a week. They would talk. They judge my experiences.

Before moving here, I think I was afraid to reach beyond the Korean community. Perhaps it was a result of the alienation I felt being the sole Korean in my class when I was in grade school, and the feeling of camaraderie I felt when I first made a group of Korean friends. I didn’t know if I would be able to fit in outside of the Korean community. But I took the leap. And what I found were people who were able to see beyond my Korean exterior and understand that I was a unique person inside. People who were accepting of the decisions I made regardless of how crazy they might be.

The night before the morning on the subway platform, I had my first sexual experience with a woman. We came from the bar and spent a passionate night together. Though it may sound strange, I felt proud of myself, because the person who I was just over a year ago would have never even considered that such a thing would happen. But then, as always, this feeling became flattened as the guilt began to seep in.

Until I entered university, I used my Korean name: Mee-chong. It’s strange saying it now, because along with stripping that name from myself, I’ve stripped away the person who had that name. Now I use my English name: Diana. It’s finally become who I am. It’s a name I feel is full of interesting experiences, hope, and the exciting future I wish to have. Mee-chong is another person. She’s shy, conservative, and afraid. She is a past self, but a part of her still remains. She judges my actions and reminds me what a disgrace I am to my family when I do something that doesn’t fit the mould of who I’m expected to be. “Get a stable job, get married, and have children,” she says, “It’ll make your parents so happy. Your dreams are too selfish.” No, I tell her. I only have one life. I want to experience things. I want to explore the world. I want to be happy without feeling guilt. I want to be me.

I wanted to throw Mee-chong off that subway platform that morning. I hated her constant reminders of the dishonour I was bringing to my family. I wanted to finally be free of her for good. But I couldn’t. She’s still there. And I’m afraid she’ll always be.