My Korean identity: Romin Lee Johnson
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 Romin Lee Johnson, who came to Korea to explore his shared Korean heritage with his wife and children. — Ed.
Groove Korea: Did you grow up with Korean people, culture, language? How did they play a role in your development as a person or your desire to explore your Korean identity?
Romin Lee Johnson: Yes, I grew up (in a Korean household). My mother was Korean and obviously I was exposed to Korean from a very young age. My grandmother would often take care of me and sing Korean songs to me, so in some ways Korean was actually almost a first language until I entered primary school, because I would sing Korean songs with my mom and grandmother.
Once I hit primary school my Korean was all but lost on some level.
Being exposed to the Korean language in the house gave me an understanding of the heritage.
I also have vague recollections of going to school with Korean food and a packed lunch and getting funny looks from friends, so I was always a little bit — I was always aware of being different, but my father is American so it was never something that was clear-cut.
But I do recall when I was young some kids obviously didn’t know if I was part Korean or American or what; so I guess a lot of the time it was assumed that I was Chinese or something like that. It was something I was very aware of from a young age.
How and when did you come to an understanding of your Korean identity? How has that developed over the years?
I think it was definitely a long process. Like I said, I knew I was different when I was going to school; eating Korean food at home; listening to my mother in Korean. My siblings and I would often hear my mother speaking in Korean around the house, but we would always respond in English. I think to this day that has impacted me. My ability to understand Korean is definitely a lot more advanced than my ability to speak or write, because it was something that I was exposed to more verbally around the house.
As I got older, in my teenage years, it became less clear. When I started to come to terms with my own identity, sometimes I would identify more with my Korean side and sometimes I would identify more with my father’s side, my Caucasian side. But I don’t think I was ever ashamed that I was part Korean. As I got older, it was something that I was able to wear more and more as a badge of honor.
I visited Korea with my uncle when I was 8 or 9 years old and I’d been back to Korea for a visit at least every couple years since then and we’ve lived in Korea now for two years. It’s definitely a part of me that I am proud of; I am proud of a culture.
Can you talk about growing up as a Korean-American in a predominantly Caucasian society?
I guess I touched upon this a little bit. Nowadays, with K-pop and things like “Gangnam Style,” Korea placing so well in the Olympics, it being the 13th- or 14th-largest economy, I think people are more aware of Korea as a force to be reckoned with than when I was young.
You know, I had kind of smaller eyes, I’ve got black hair and brown eyes, so a lot of peers in elementary and middle school would just assume that I was Chinese. It became something that I guess I got used to.
When you lived in America as a minority, did you feel a separation from the majority? How did you deal with it?
I think I felt more of a separation when I was first confronted with my Asian appearance when I was young, but it became something I got used to as time went on. By the time I hit my teenage years, I remember more or less fully embracing it.
I do remember being in third or fourth grade and being at the back of a bus on the way to school and some bully was making fun of me because I looked Asian. But what can you do about that sort of thing? Of course it got under my skin. But as you get older, that kind of thing becomes less and less an issue and less and less pronounced.
Did growing up as a visible minority drive a desire for personal exploration? Did you ever feel a need to become part of the majority? How did that affect how you behaved and the choices you made?
I don’t think growing up as a visible minority had as much of an effect on my need for personal exploration as having a father who was always supportive of being able to turn inwards and look at myself.
I don’t think looking Asian really made me want to look inside as much as it made me want to learn more about my mother’s culture and the history of her country.
My wife and I are both half-Korean and we have been living here in Korea for almost two years now. It was something that we also value — coming from two different worlds — and it’s something that we wanted to explore, to expose our two boys to at a young age, so they could also understand and appreciate it.
How would you compare that to your experience living in Korea?
It’s interesting being half-Korean — or half-Asian for that matter — because in growing up in America, at a young age people assumed I was Chinese, but as I got more into my teenage years, people would often ask if I was part Italian, Middle Eastern; I’ve been called many different things. So being in America I look like “the other,” but being in Korea, I also look like “the other.”
Koreans know that I am not full-Korean and when I’m walking around with my half-Korean wife and our half-Korean children, we definitely get more than our fair share of attention. That’s something that is a double-edged sword, because it’s endearing, but it’s also annoying. It’s kind of a pseudo-celebrity status when we go out and strangers come up and take pictures of our children (laughs), because that’s just the reality. I think Korean society is curious because several half-Koreans have come into prominence in the media or as celebrities. So there is a curiosity there that is more pronounced than being half-Korean and living in America.
To what degree was exploring Korean heritage part of why you moved to Korea?
It was a huge part actually. Exploring our Korean heritage, our shared heritage, with my wife and our children was a huge part of our decision to come to Korea. It was something that my wife and I had talked about since before we were married. It was something we always felt the desire to do, to spend some time abroad, but specifically in Korea.
It was definitely a difficult transition for the first few months, but since we’ve settled in and our boys have settled in, I feel like Korea has taken good care of us. We definitely feel just as at home here as we did in the States.
What did you expect to find and how was it different from what you actually experienced here?
Like I said before, I had made my fair share of trips to Korea over the years, so I had a fairly good sense of what to expect here, so I can’t say there were any big surprises.
Culturally, I think my wife has had a more difficult time adapting to the culture on a more personal level, because she spends a lot of time with other mothers, all of whom are Korean and few of whom are married to Westerners. But she, I feel, has had more difficulties coming to terms with the realities of cultural differences and social expectations.
How long have you been here and what’s kept you here over the years?
My in-laws live down the street from us and that is something that has been really valuable — having our boys have their grandparents down the street, who can watch them several times a week. That’s been a huge help.
The difficult thing is not having a backyard that the boys can run around in. If there’s anything tugging us back Stateside, besides our friends and family, it’s not having our own space, our own backyard, our own land, that our boys can go running around in.
I think now that they’re getting older — they’re 4 and 2 — that’s something that is really important. I spent a lot of my childhood years living in rural Pennsylvania and Maine and having space to run around in and explore. Our boys are really adventurous; there is only so much energy that they can expend in a 34-pyeong (112 sq m) apartment.
Would you label yourself as a Korean, Korean-American, American, or would you prefer not to put a label on yourself?
That’s funny, because filling out any paperwork (in the States) that required you to put down your race or ethnicity, I would check “the other” category, then I would probably write in Korean-American or Asian American.
I think that I definitely wouldn’t label myself as a “Korean” and when I say “Korean-American” that’s close, but doesn’t really quite get there. When I think of a “Korean-American” I think of a full-blooded Korean who has grown up in America. And I don’t see myself as that, obviously.
I am American. I was born in New York City. But I feel like there are more and more bi-racial families now than there ever were. You see more and more of them. I think it’s a welcome sight.
How important is it for overseas Koreans to understand their Korean heritage to understand themselves? In other words, why does it matter?
I don’t think this is something that I could quantify. Obviously it was important enough for my wife and I — with our Korean heritage — to feel the desire to come spend at least several years immersed in both our mothers’ heritage.
We both absolutely love Korean food and there are aspects of Korean culture that we really love, and there are aspects of Korean culture that are really difficult for us to negotiate.
I think it’s definitely subjective.
I actually do a lot of work as a photographer and this past year I have been photographing a lot of international adoptions. So these are families that are coming from America to adopt a Korean child.
I think of most of the parents I meet and have hired me to document this part of their journey, they all understand the need to document this part of their story and this part of their heritage; most tell me that they want to come back to Korea and (want) their Korean-born children to be exposed to that part of their heritage, because it is important. It’s something that’s in their blood.
Certainly there are people who have Korean heritage who have been adopted or are born overseas that don’t feel the need to come back and explore this part of their heritage or identity, but I think it’s important to be open to that part of one’s self.