I maintain my sanity in the playplace, which is mobbed with children and parents—at least a hundred swarming an area the size of a large living room, my son among them—by attempting to convince various Korean children that I am Korean. I once read that this was possible online, and so now whenever a Korean child asks me if I’m a Korean, or where I’m from (“Which country person are you?”), I respond by telling them that I’m a Korean. Few of them ever seem to believe me—they usually laugh, freak out, and run away—but about a year ago one notable child attempted to quiz me on my knowledge of the Korean language (if one speaks Korean well, one is almost certainly a Korean) by asking what me what a mouse was. “Cheega moya?” “What is the mouse?” He asked, and at the time I didn’t know, so I looked to my wife, who was standing nearby, and she shouted, in English: “Animal! Animal! Say it’s an animal!” But I’d forgotten the Korean word for animal (dongmool), and I failed the test.
What is a Korean? I’ve been asking various Koreans this question, and the answer seems to hinge upon race and language. If both of one’s parents are Koreans, and if one speaks Korean fairly well, then one is a Korean; Koreans here on the half-peninsula notoriously consider their overseas brethren, born and raised in America or Australia or elsewhere with only a distant knowledge of their homeland’s language, history, and culture, to be not quite Koreans, while also not quite foreigners. The question of what constitutes American citizenship is also not so easy to answer, but it likewise seems to hinge mostly upon language: most Americans I think would have a difficult time considering you an American if you couldn’t speak English. I would like to add that a belief in freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the right to a better life through hard work, are also necessary components of American citizenship, but there have been plenty of fascists in American history—at this very moment numerous online forums are trolled and patrolled by conservative American commentators who believe that people should be jailed, executed, or exiled, for espousing liberal beliefs—and few people would deny that they are Americans.
Another thing I’ve noticed about this question of citizenship is that, obviously, children younger than about five years seem to have no idea that I’m any different from a normal Korean. Maybe they notice my larger-than-normal nose and my larger-than-normal green eyes and my unusually pale facial features and my strange hair color and my scraggly beard which no Korean man my age would ever wear, but if they do, they don’t seem to find it worthy of comment. I lived in New York City as a child and was constantly surrounded by other races and cultures; several of my teachers were black, and I knew they were black, just as I knew that white teachers were white, or female teachers were female, but the difference wasn’t really a central preoccupation of mine (I believe my principal concerns were matchbox cars and baseball). The mystery is that once these Korean children reach the age of six (or thereabouts), some of them realize that I’m not one of them, and that realization is so strong that it’s difficult for them to avoid expressing it in some way—either by pointing me out to their parents, by gasping at me and staring, or by coming up and asking me where I’m from. In contrast, I think that few American children—even children raised in the middle of nowhere—ever behave this way.
Like I said, this is a mystery, but my guess is that there are two culprits. One is the television. People here watch a lot of it, and whenever a foreign person comes on the screen, the viewers need to be reminded in some way (either with bold letters or with bolder voiceovers) that that person is a foreigner. Americans also watch a lot of TV, but if a foreign person is displayed on the screen, the viewers aren’t usually explicitly told that that person is a foreigner, so far as I remember (foreigner is itself a strange word that English-speaking people don’t usually employ outside of the airport; Koreans use it constantly to reference anyone who is not Korean). I suspect that if Korean children weren’t regularly exposed to thousands and thousands of hours of television, they wouldn’t feel the same overwhelming urge to react to my presence in the same way their televisions react to the presence of foreigners. The second culprit is simple nationalism.
Why do Korean TVs act like this? Why does the tiresome idea of nationalism or citizenship still even exist in the 21st century? Why must I get my passport stamped if I decide to take the ferry over to Japan, but not if I drive to Pohang? Beats me. But in a place like South Korea, where you really feel the force of nationalism a lot more than on your native soil, the concept seems that much more useless, arbitrary, and ridiculous.