Binary Soul

by Guest Contributor John Jihoon Chang

I often feel as though I’m two men living one life. Many of my peers and contemporaries from an immigrant background have learned how to blend their twin heritages, their cultures passed down from their parents and their cultures locally acquired and somehow become a coherent whole. In my case, an Asian American or more specifically, a Corean American. I won’t say this is true for everyone or even most people, but many have navigated this tricky path or perhaps have chosen one culture to adhere closely to in neglect or abandonment of the other.

Growing up, I was one who had never nurtured the Corean in me, rather concentrating on the present reality that I faced as a young person growing up with almost entirely white American peers. There was little value in my Coreanness, especially as it served to distance me from the only society I’d known. It was an inescapable part of my identity, as my genes had mapped my Asian roots upon my face, but it provided little to no advantages in my daily life, rather often distancing me as a “stranger”, though the life I’d known was, outside of food, language and minor household traditions, largely the same as my peers. Nevertheless, the appearance of difference combined with the few elements that my household practiced always seemed to divide, even as each white American household, I found, had different sets of cuisine, traditions and even occasionally the use of language.

As such, I was an all-American type, as it proved the path of least resistance. My sister naively would label me as “whitewashed” or a “banana”, claiming my abandonment of my Corean heritage while she, all the same adopted the similarly American “AZN” identity, one of the Asian American subcultures defined by heavy adoption of urban mainstream American media tied together with that of a mainstream Asian media as well.
Such a moment left me defensive at the time, but to some extent, she was correct.

Back to that later.

After high school, I’d move on to college and discover my Asian American identity. I found myself socializing a lot more with other Asian Americans, built upon the shared experiences of being differentiated from mainstream white America and often (but not always) upon the shared upbringing by immigrant parents. It’s certainly a comfortable place, where those around you don’t expect you to be different and share the same racial angst as you. And it also created a space for a new part of me to grow: the Corean me.

As I came to more fully embrace the Corean in me, I found myself insatiably curious about my heritage, the differences that used to exclude me. I was drawn to the stories of my parents and the history that they had grown up with. Being authoritarians, they weren’t very forthcoming with stories of their own lives prior to their roles as parents and failing to have good relations with them, I turned to the artifacts of their culture; its history, its media and its present state. I found that it all came easily to me, the identity. It was never anything I struggled with, but rather, absorbed it as though it was always a part of me.

And that’s where my sister’s words came in. But, rather than suppressing or abandoning the Corean me, I had just simply ignored it. But it was always a part of me as my parents ingrained the culture deep into me by their own practice of it, even as I myself was rarely a participant. As my typical 20-something identity crisis occurred, this hungry soul within me gobbled up all which it had been deprived and continues to do so to this day.

At the same time, a new thing occurred. You see, my father lives in Corea and to see him, I often have to travel there to visit. The new thing that occurred to me was that I became comfortable there, although initially, I approached the place as any other non-Corean American, the more I drank from the wellspring of my heredity, I found myself more and more understanding of it, to the point of seeming innate. Now, when I walk the streets of Seoul or the gardens of my father’s home province, I feel a strange sense of belonging that I’d perhaps never felt in the United States, a country that accepted me by my birthright, but continues to struggle with me as a true constituent.

But the one thing that failed to happen, is for these two components of myself to synthesize into a whole. As such, I constantly feel like I’m trading my body between two different selves. These days, an American me primarily walks in my shoes. Though some do occasionally question my grasp of English before speaking with me, my tongue speaks the language with ease. I stand in its norms and while I still grapple to be accepted as a member, different from the mainstream as I might be, I’m at ease here, as this nation is the one I’d known the most of my life.

But the other part of me lives all the same. In fact, the Corean me is a very different me. My mindset is different when he comes out. The things that amuse and interest him are different. He’s more respectful, less sly. And I can’t seem to reconcile the two mes. Each feels more comfortable in their respective homes; I’ve become a man whose heart’s been divided by the sea.

I don’t feel whole in Corea. When I’m there, the Corean me lives and breathes and the American me lies dormant. Here, in America, the Corean me is a perpetual foreigner, misunderstood and unaccepted, unable to communicate with society. And so, the whole of me becomes a binary soul, either one or the other, divided but with a solitary presence.

I’m not certain what it will take to incorporate me. I often long for someone else who understands these two separate strands in me. For, while I am Asian American by definition, I’m not entirely comfortable with the moniker, for as much as one of me feels American, another feels Corean. I feel ownership of both, but being incapable of being both simultaneously.

Anyone else out there feel me? That in-betweenness, that binary soul that divides the presence from the present?

A mode-switch that turns you from one person to another, but never the twain meet?

Finding others unable to relate to you completely, since no one understands the other part of you?

I can’t be the only one who dreams in two languages, of two countries, with two hearts, two minds and two souls.

Identity is something that’s always shifting; we grow, we change, and if we look closely enough, we’ll always find something new about ourselves as well as parts of ourselves that have molted away. Have you incorporated? Do you live a binary life? What are your stories?