© Copyright 2015 by Nancy Massand
My young friend’s face was pained as she related the incident, even though several months had passed. Newly arrived in New York from Korea, she had been walking alone at night in a commercial area, returning home from a tutoring session. Four young men accosted her on a corner, stroking her long hair and putting their arms around her shoulders. Their speech was too fast for her to comprehend, but she understood from their tones that she was in danger. She walked faster and twisted out of their grasp, fighting back tears. To her relief, a police car pulled to a stop beside them and an officer rolled down the window on the passenger side to question them. The young men interjected too quickly for her to respond, changing their demeanor to one of courteous respect. She caught the words “friend” and “playing” but was not able to understand much more of their conversation. Too unsure of her English to contradict them, she stood mute, pleading with her eyes. Her desperation went unnoticed in the dark, and her heart sank as the cruiser pulled away from the curb. The men walked with her for another block, laughing and talking, while she kept her head down and drew her coat more tightly around her tiny frame as if it could protect her from assault. Finally they left her, amid jeers and offensive language, to continue home alone. She was fifteen years old.
At the time she told me the story, she had been living in my home for two months. It had been a difficult time of adjustment. On her first weekend she attended a church youth group with our youngest daughter, who was only a year older than she. An hour after I dropped them off Sheila phoned to say that Youngsun wanted me to take her home, that she was sitting in a corner and crying. When I arrived, she was too distraught to speak. We sat in the car in the parking lot while she sobbed in my arms, impervious to my attempts at consolation. She kept insisting that she could not explain her tears, and I refused to drive her anywhere until she tried. All my questions were answered in the negative: Did someone call you bad names? Did anyone touch you? Did they laugh at you? “No. No one say bad. No one touch. They laugh, but not to me. Not to me at all.” She revealed her sorrow, haltingly at first, and then in torrents. Her sentences may not have been grammatical, but her pain was articulate and cut to the heart. No one, no one was like her. They looked at her as if she didn’t belong. They didn’t talk to her, except to say hi and then turn quickly to chatter with their friends in fast urban slang that she could not follow. I interrupted her, pointing out that the high school students in the youth group represented seven or eight different nationalities, that there were many kids who were not “American,” whatever that means, and that they just needed time to get to know her. She insisted that she was the only Asian. I pointed out that one of the boys was Chinese. He was born here, though, she maintained, so he is not different. She talked for an hour, and I began to understand the obstacle with which she wrestled. It was a barrier not of race but of language and culture. These kids were totally at ease with peers whose faces “looked” different, but they were on their guard with people whose dress indicated that they were not “from around here” and not inclined to take the time to sort out the hesitant speech of a new immigrant. Youngsun had arrived in a pretty skirt and high-heeled boots, in marked contrast to their baggy jeans and sneakers. She thought carefully before formulating replies to their initial overtures, afraid of making a mistake. They mistook her silence for aloofness and left her alone.
She then told me another story that was probably the real reason for her tears that night. When she had been in high school in Seoul, a new girl entered her class in the middle of the year. She looked Korean, but she didn’t speak the language well because she had grown up in America. Youngsun, like all the other girls in the class, laughed at her accent behind her back and didn’t include her in their social plans, thinking that she probably wouldn’t be interested because she was too American. Now, sitting in a dark parking lot with an American woman, her only confidant, she began to understand what she had done. Her own feelings of rejection were worsened by remorse for the time she herself had shunned a stranger.
If I were writing a fictional story, that night would have been a turning point. Youngsun would have made heroic efforts to conform to this alien culture, and her new friends would have welcomed her enthusiastically. She would have united the Koreans and Americans in our school, proving by her example that we all can get along. It didn’t happen quite that way.
Youngsun had resided with her parents for the first semester, as her father was a visiting professor at Columbia University. Fifteen years old and in tenth grade, she enrolled in our special ESL Academy for a year of intensive English instruction. The majority of students in the class were Korean. She excelled in reading and composition and was invited to join my regular eighth grade literature class to supplement her ESL work. Although she was attentive and respectful, she socialized only with another Korean ESL student in the class.
When her father’s semester at Columbia ended, he encouraged her to stay for the entire year in order to learn more English. We offered our spare bedroom; our families met and approved each other, and she moved in after Christmas break. I didn’t realize until much later how unusual it was for a Korean family to allow a child to board with Americans, or how her decision affected her relationships with her Korean friends. The boy she wrote notes to in my class actually cried when she told him she was moving in with us. Not one of her Korean friends, even her close girlfriends, ever visited her in our home, although we repeatedly told her they were welcome. Their close-knit society had given them a reputation of standoffishness among the “Others,” our ethnically diverse student body. They did not play sports or join clubs; they did not attend school dances. They spoke only to each other in the halls, and only in Korean.
As Youngsun became more comfortable with us and began to develop a close friendship with Sheila, she shared some of the rejection she was facing from her own community. They criticized her openly for having an American friend and reacted with hostility when they heard her speaking English, accusing her of showing off. Yet even though she felt shunned by her former close friends, she was insecure about developing new relationships. Sheila usually included her in her social plans, but Youngsun was reticent with other Americans. Quietly she confided to me that they talked too fast and became annoyed when she asked them to repeat, and that they talked of things in which she had no interest or experience. That first night at the youth group came back to haunt her again and again, reminding her that she was different. Now, though, people on both sides of the culture barrier were alienating her: the Koreans for what they perceived as a traitorous rejection and the Americans for her inability to communicate fluently. She envied the American born Koreans who chatted effortlessly with both groups. They joined clubs and went to dances with the Americans, and they also went out to lunch with the Koreans. If they could cross barriers and be accepted, why couldn’t she? The twist of fate that gave them access to both cultures precluded her acceptance in either one.
The turning point came in May, as the school year was drawing to a close. Youngsun finally consented to go to a school dance, ending a self-imposed ban caused by fear of ridicule from her Korean friends. They had gradually pulled away from her during the course of the year. She had been out for pizza a few times with the eighth grade students in my class and was beginning to feel comfortable with them. An easy camaraderie began to develop; she called them Baby because they were several years younger, and they called her Aki, which means Baby in Korean. Other Korean words began to punctuate their speech as well, like Babo, loosely translated Stupid, and they took great delight in teaching her American slang. “Get out of my face, man!” was her favorite, and she used it whenever the situation warranted it. Of course they neglected to inform her that one doesn’t say it to one’s teachers, but we applauded her attempts while setting her straight on propriety. And rather than be offended, she joined her friends in laughing at the joke. They were her own friends, not Sheila’s, and this bolstered her confidence. Even so, she approached a state of panic on the day of the dance as the hours crept by. Sheila was on student council and had to get there early to set up, so Youngsun would have to walk in alone. She changed her outfit three times. Although I gently reminded her that the kids would be dressed in jeans and t-shirts, she opted for a skirt and sweater. Her conversation was peppered with what-ifs: What if no one asks me to dance? What if no one talks to me? At seven-thirty she was nearly hyperventilating in her nervousness, but we stalled for another twenty minutes so that she could arrive fashionably late.
She needn’t have worried. When I walked her to the door a screaming group of eighth grade girls descended on her and dragged her to the dance floor, where she remained for the rest of the night. I don’t think she sat down once. When she and Sheila arrived home later that night and we inquired about the dance, she shrugged and said, “It was OK. No big deal. It was just like a party, nothing at all.”
For the next month my eighth grade students marched up and down the stairs in our house to Youngsun’s room several times a week, and when the phone rang it was often for her. Jeans and t-shirts replaced the demure, feminine outfits she had formerly favored, and I thought her transition was complete. As final exams approached, she prepared to go home for the summer and had many tearful goodbyes with her new friends. Although we had told her she could stay with us as long as she wanted to study in the States, after much deliberation she chose to complete her education in Seoul and live with her parents. As she explained it to me, she still could not express herself in English the way she would like, and it was too frustrating to have such complex thoughts and be forced to communicate them with the vocabulary of a child. In addition, she missed her parents terribly. Two carloads of friends came to the airport to see her off, and she boarded the plane laden with flowers and gifts, dissolved in tears.
Thanks to email, she was in touch with us and with her friends almost daily. Again she faced a transition, this time because her experience had changed her so much that she no longer fit in with her Korean classmates as she once did. She is the foreigner once more, not quite the American born, but the one who has succeeded in crossing the barrier and embracing the Other. Her peers responded to her with suspicion and jealousy at first, unwilling to accept her liberal views. It was some time before she felt comfortable again in her native land.
Youngsun’s story is not an isolated one. Individuals who cross culture barriers would call her experience typical, as their former countrymen eye them with distrust and their new associates act wary of intimacy. It is a wariness born of bias in some; of fear in others; of apathy in the rest. If a person is not in our group, why should we care? And if a person violates our code by making overtures to another group, why should we maintain associations? It is a rare person who can nurture equally strong ties with both native and adopted cultures, moving freely between the two groups with ease. If family ties are very strong and the parents are fearful of their children becoming contaminated by American values, they do not allow them to socialize with their American peers. This results in two possible scenarios: either the children remain obedient to their parents and perpetuate their isolation from the mainstream culture for another generation, or they rebel and challenge their parents’ authority, causing trauma in the home.
On the other hand, if a child like Youngsun is fortunate enough to have parents who are not fearful of new ways, the newcomer faces fear on the other side. People instinctively band together with comrades of a common bond, viewing the Other tentatively with suspicion or even ridicule. The bond need not be race; it is the common denominator that is most important to a particular group. For some it may be religion; for others, professional associations. Even well-meaning liberals will refrain from making an overture to an outsider, assuming that the newcomer is a member of a pre-existing group and therefore not interested.
The culture schism is evident in the second generation as well. Many children of immigrants, though they speak their native language at home, have grown up immersed in the American medium—the media, the language, the cultural codes that define our groups. They are often embarrassed to talk about their cultural heritage at school, thinking that it will set them apart from their peers. At the high school where I teach, we once attempted a “Celebrate Diversity” day in which students were encouraged to wear the traditional dress of their native countries and bring in ethnic foods to share. The celebration was to culminate in a showcase of the arts. While some embraced the opportunity to display their heritage with pride, most demurred, claiming that the clothing was “too uncomfortable” and that the food would be too spicy for others to eat. Though many were involved in native cultural dance and music classes on Saturdays, they preferred to lip-sync or rap in the assembly. One second generation immigrant dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and brought in a box of White Castle hamburgers. “I’m American,” she explained. “This is my native dress, and hamburgers are my favorite food.”
As educators, we realized several decades ago that the melting pot theory was a myth. Diversity became the new buzzword, especially in our urban areas, and we incorporated ESL programs in our schools, programs that favored the largest minorities. By default, the minority in the ESL class was a minority indeed—a loner in a group that considered itself an outcast of the mainstream. Thus a new myth was conceived: that we were a country of many ghettoes and that everyone accepted everyone else, that we could teach each other tolerance and retain our native values while appreciating those of the Others. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, and it is just as erroneous as its former position in the melting pot years. Why? A newcomer like Youngsun may answer, “Americans don’t like me because I am different.” A second generation immigrant may feel that “I’m just like everyone else, so what’s the big deal?” They are both right, and there are no easy answers.
A few years ago, I was standing in line at the bank with only one teller on duty. The people on line grew impatient as an immigrant businessman peppered the teller with questions in broken English and took a long time to count out the bills in his deposit. “Why doesn’t he go back where he came from?” asked the man in front of me.
“And where are you from?” I rejoined.
“Born and bred right here in New York City!”
“And your father?”
“From Romania. Came with nothing in his pocket and built a business, raised a family.”
“Perhaps he should have stayed there,” I replied icily. The man’s face fell. “How does that make you feel? Maybe you feel like the man at the teller’s window who’s just trying to make a living like everyone else. Maybe you think that because I have your coloring I share your prejudice. But we have nothing, nothing in common.” I was ruthless, and to this day I am ashamed of some of the things I said to him. In many ways it put me on his level. It was a knee-jerk reaction, to dish out to him what he was dishing out to someone he perceived as the Other. Yet isn’t this what prompts members of minority groups to reject the mainstream culture before they themselves are rejected? When the Korean students in our school eschewed American society and withdrew to their own small enclave in disdain, it was a reaction to the difference they perceived in the way they were treated by students who were American born. In return, the Americans criticized them for their seclusion. “Why did they come here in the first place, if they don’t want to talk to us?” The missing and crucial phrase here is “on our own terms.” Why don’t they want to talk to us on our own terms? Each culture wishes to make and accept overtures, but only on its own terms. To adopt another idiom in an initial parley is too risky, too fraught with the possibility of error and ridicule. We insist on our own medium, all of us, and are often misunderstood or ignored as a result.
My young Korean friend finally met the Other on its own terms and was embraced, only to be rejected by her own people. Many of her peers insist on retaining their own terms to the extent that they rejected all appearances of assimilation, creating a subculture of businesses, nightclubs and schools that exclude the mainstream. The rhetoric about celebrating diversity is growing stale as newcomers either struggle bravely to be accepted as valid participants in the American culture or staunchly avoid any connection to it.
Diversity is our greatest asset and our most troubling social weakness. Over the years we have denied it, applauded it, encouraged it and degraded it. Schools and workplaces welcome it but do not provide the orientation or cultural knowledge necessary for its survival. It is time to define our terms, and to educate ourselves, all of us, as to how to communicate on those terms. And then, beyond communicating, we must learn to commune. It is only then that we will be able to claim we are a diverse people rather than a collection of diverse peoples. Is it possible? In my most buoyant and optimistic moods, I shout a triumphant YES. But in my darker moments, I must truthfully admit that I do not know.
by The Preservation Foundation.
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