When you’re preparing for the arrival of your first baby, there are countless things you can imagine and prepare for, like what they’ll need to wear and the appropriate playthings for different developmental milestones. These are concrete tasks and prescribed visions of “what to expect.” But one thing that is really hard to envision is how your racial and cultural identity will be passed on to your child. There’s no manual for that.
For me, becoming a mother was when I had to give shape to my own racial and cultural identity. When something just lives inside of you, it is an amorphous thing. But when I birthed a child, and that child looked to me for guidance on who she is and where she came from, I understood that I was responsible for shaping and giving meaning to her Koreanness.
As a new parent, I first navigated this organically. I generally “felt” my way through the early days, weeks and months, figuring out how I would raise an Asian-American child who would feel proud of who she is. Looking back, and also looking ahead, I see my approach as having three main pillars. Here are three ways I’m teaching my kids to be proud of their identity.
The most accessible way of integrating Korean culture into our family life is to incorporate Korean celebrations in all forms. For each of our kids, we celebrated their 100th day of life (Baek-il), and we threw a Dol party for their first birthday, with family and friends—both traditional Korean celebrations that involve food and rituals.
The American holiday calendar is already overflowing, so it’s often impractical to try to stuff in additional holidays. But I thought back to my own childhood and remembered how we always celebrated New Year’s Day together with dduk guk—a warm broth with rice cakes and shredded beef. It’s always been important to my family to share this first meal of the year together. Because January 1st is also an American federal holiday when there is generally no school or work, it’s easy to carve out that time every year and celebrate together.
There is no question that language is an essential element of accessing one’s heritage. I have learned, however, that teaching a second or third language to your children can be fraught with trade-offs and opportunity cost. I naively assumed that if I speak Korean and French fluently, my kids would be able to, as well. In reality, when we live in an English-speaking world, surrounded by an English-speaking community, and when English is the primary shared language in our family, it is not so simple.
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Initially when I had just one kid, I spoke to her one-on-one in Korean. And because I am her primary caregiver, she did absorb a lot of Korean in her early months and years. But over time, my solo time with her dwindled, and so did our Korean. I have often researched and considered Korean language school for our four kids, but they don’t feel quite right for our family. They would take up precious weekend time that I protect fiercely for our family, not to mention my sanity.
My guiding principle for educating our kids with Korean language and culture is to make it fun and exploratory—not obligatory. To spark curiosity, we have Korean games and fun sound books in the house. And, we watch Korean children’s programming on YouTube. And whenever I see their minds open up with questions and desire to learn more about something, I try to be there to expand, elaborate and educate.
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We also plan to take them on extended visits to Korea so they can have an immersive experience where they can absorb the rich, nuanced culture that they are a part of. There is no better educational experience than living it in real life and seeing it in the flesh. But more importantly, that firsthand experience at the source is what will fuel curiosity and motivation to learn about their heritage for years to come.
Lastly, we have to acknowledge that our children are individuals in their own right. Their racial and cultural identity belongs to them, not us. We can plant the seeds and we can provide some tools, but at the end of the day, they have their own lives to experience in their own skin. As my children grow older and more independent, and as they interact with the outside world on their own, I have less control over how they will experience their Asianness.
I find that racial and cultural identity is emotional. It’s one thing to know that you’re Korean; it’s another thing to feel Korean. And that feeling can be empowering sometimes, and confusing in others. My job is then to help them navigate these feelings as they come into their own.
If all else fails, the most essential thing I hope for my kids is that they grow up knowing that their Koreanness is unquestionably theirs. It doesn’t belong to anyone else, and they don’t owe it to anyone else—not even me. In that essential truth, I hope they will carry it proudly and protect it. Because that’s exactly the lesson they gave me when I became their Umma.