My Korean identity: Michael Hurt
Every year thousands of Ethnic Koreans from around the world come to Korea to explore their roots. Their experiences with Korean culture and heritage vary — some speak Korean, some don’t — but most report that a big reason they are here is to try to fill in some missing information. Following is an interview with Michael Hurt. — Ed.
Groove Korea: What role did the understanding of your Korean heritage play in your upbringing?
Michael Hurt: None really. Only in terms of her being a mom, but otherwise, it wasn’t like I had some insight into the culture necessarily. I had a Korean mom, I still do, but the thing is, much of her influence is just from her personality.
She had a little bit of the Park Chung Hee era study-study-study mentality, so if there’s any influence, it’s that I hate math because my mom bought these extra-curricular math books and she was going to teach us math when we were in early elementary school. She was trying to get me ahead of the other kids, but I ended up hating math. That became a point of friction — the “home study,” she called it. In a way that is very Korean, but something that backfired.
There are things that come from Korean culture I guess, but it’s hard to identify which ones are Korea versus which ones are just my mom, especially since some took and some didn’t take, too. Language didn’t take, math didn’t take, but my Korean relatives tell me I got my love of books from my mom, even though she didn’t read much.
Would you label yourself as a Korean, Korean-American, American, or do you detest labels?
American, or black, if I was pushed. When I was in high school, if I was going through any identity crisis, it was about being part black, because if you have one drop of black blood it means you’re black, according to custom and law in the United States. And you know, if you weren’t “black enough” in the ‘80s then you got shit for it.
There’s this great book called “Losing the Race” by a black linguist at (University of California) Berkeley and he got in a lot of crap for it. He was talking about how black identity politics was hurting black people. His whole thing was right: Studying was antithetical to being a “real” black person. So speaking “proper” English was speaking “white.” You’re always thinking about that in high school and trying to figure out who you are. So when I was lifeguarding at the pool — it was mostly black kids, and a lot of them didn’t have anywhere to go — they asked me “Why do you talk so white?” and I said, “I don’t talk white, I talk properly.”
(In high school) I tended to gravitate more towards defining myself in the black direction. Korean didn’t fit into that at all.
How important is it for overseas Koreans to understand their Korean heritage to understand themselves?
See, that’s a very American question. To understand their Korean heritage — this is a very American, loaded idea; there is this idea of a true heritage or true culture that somehow is linked to your genes.
A lot of Korean-Americans get mad at a taxi driver because he (the taxi driver) doesn’t understand that they were raised in American and don’t speak Korean. “Why don’t you speak Korean?” the taxi driver will ask — like somehow Koreans in Korea are just supposed to “get it.”
But Americans don’t “get it” in a very similar way. The whole idea of linking culture to your blood — (is the same logic as) you have to come to Korea to find out who you are or to properly understand yourself — your true self. To me, that’s not necessary.
Can you talk about growing up as a Korean-American in a predominantly Caucasian society?
I would say I grew up in a very black-white society in Dayton, Ohio. I didn’t know this at the time, but I grew up in the middle of desegregation, which is why I went to six elementary schools in my first six years of school. To me it seemed you switched schools every year. It seemed natural. I didn’t know it was unnatural. It was because they were trying to mix Dayton public schools up.
I guess the only time when my Asian part came up (at that age) is when So-young Park, a Korean-American girl, came into my sphere in the fourth grade. Her friends became friends with my mom, obviously because all Korean people have to know each other. So me and So-young started hanging out. I still remember one time, the first Asian moment I ever had, was when some kids were asking why So-young was sitting cross-legged, “Why does she sit so weird,” they asked. I rebutted, “That’s her culture, leave her alone.” And we joined the same orchestra and became friends.
Did growing up as a visible minority drive a desire for personal exploration?
Sure. I guess that definitely was the case. But it was more “am I black or am I something else?” I started getting irritated with the black community not letting anything else in there. You couldn’t be black and (Asian) — you could just be black.
When I went to Brown, they had the (Third World Transition Program) just for minority students. TWTP had workshops about identity and everything — this is in the early ‘90s. So when I went into that program, I (felt) awakened as a minority, but then I was like, “wait a minute, why are all the black students going over there for their workshops, the Asian-Americans going over here, native-Americans over there?” I asked, “Why do I have to go to one group?” So me and another person started the Brown Organization of Multiracial and Biracial Students — or BOMBS.
So really in college, being not easily compatible with any particular group is what drove me to make my own place. So I made that place on campus, but also in my own head.
Did you ever feel a need to become part of the majority? How did that affect how you behaved and the choices you made?
Yes, if you define the majority as black majority. Then I didn’t question the idea that I had to fit in somewhere. So in high school I was busy trying very hard to be “black enough.” And in college I think I was busy trying to make another space.
Why didn’t you feel you had be “Asian enough” or “Korean enough”?
See this is so linked to American senses of identity, right? There was no Asian-American identity (at the time). Asian-Americans at the time were busy just saying “I’m American, too; I speak English!” That’s what being Asian was at the time. “I’m not a foreigner.” That’s as far as Asian-American identity got.
To what degree was exploring Korean heritage part of why you moved to Korea?
I was just curious about Korea. Being multi-racial and whatever, and actually making more of a space for the Asian part … I was trying to figure out what “Korea” was and the program I got sent over on was very good. The Fulbright ETA Program was good because it gave you cultural and linguistic orientation. It was hardcore. It was all about diving into Korean culture. They send me into a homestay, which was awesome. I’m very glad I never came to Korea to work at a hagwon or anything like that, because I think I would have just left Korea hating it. I was just curious about the notion of Korea itself — in relation to me identity-wise.
But after a year I realized I was asking the wrong question. I learned that I am not like these people. The thing I learned was, I am American as fuck.
I kind of realized that I didn’t learn anything (particularly deep about) Korean culture, it was just a place that was very, very different from anything that I knew. (Being in Korea) did explain some aspects of my mom’s thinking in terms of her having come from the hardcore Korea, in terms of the work ethic and my mom being very hardcore and just seeing habits, ways of doing things here. Knowing that my mom grew up here, I had some “awe” moments.
I learned about my mom, and by extension, myself through my mom, what made my mom tick.
Was what you expected to find in Korea and how you thought you’d feel different from what you actually experienced here?
Yes. I came here expecting this place to be so inscrutable and difficult to understand that I didn’t think I’d be able to learn much of the language.
But at the end of my first year, when I was speaking every day Korean, my touchstone was the Fulbright office. At the beginning they sent us out — mostly to the countryside — and we really didn’t know what was going on. By the time we came back at the end of the year, I still remember talking with the secretary in Korean; I was surprised. I had no inkling that I could come this far — to integrate into Korean society. I had a Korean girlfriend at the time. I didn’t see any of that happening when I first came here. I didn’t think it was even possible. I guess the level of understanding that I had come to was not something I thought was even possible when I first came here.
Ultimately, did being in Korea fill in any blanks?
What I realized was that I had been asking the relevant questions to fill in that space that I defined for Korea, and that I had sort of been barking up the wrong tree.
I think that a lot of Korean-heritage people sort of exoticize and fetishize their notion of what that “culture” is in the same way that we often accuse white folks of doing, which is building that thing up to something large and exotic, which it really isn’t once you come and experience this place for yourself.
I realized that there was no “ancient Chinese secret” to be discovered, and I make that joke because I think some people really think in terms of there being some magical connection to an unchangeable essence about “who they are.” I realize that I learned a lot about the place called Korea and the concept that I defined in my head, but I haven’t really answered any essential burning questions about myself, specifically from the experience.