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☞ Issue 110
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Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (1)

Introduction; story of my Korean family

Melissa Hahn (2008/05/25 09:31)  

Every year that passes, I become more aware of how fortunate I am to have married into a Korean family. Sitting in front of my future husband in high school, I knew that something was special about the boy named Mike Hahn. His quiet confidence and maturity, grace and dignity, and deep kindness and intelligence set him apart from the rest of our class, but I somehow overlooked his Asian features. Seeming as American as any other student, I never suspected how different- in ways both subtle and profound- that his upbringing had been from mine.

It wasn’t for another year, when our paths crossed again while working at the local library that I learned of his heritage. Inviting me out for a dinner date, he hesitantly suggested Korean food. I spent the entire workday- when I should have been shelving books- furtively sitting in the stacks of cultural reference guides, reading about these new foods, kimchi, bulgogi, soju, and ones that I didn’t dare attempt to pronounce. I was intrigued, to say the least, for I could not even begin to imagine what “spicy, fermented, pickled cabbage” might taste like.

My husband Michael Hahn as a baby in Korea in 1981, with his Korean mother, Park Sung Hui, and his American father, Donald Hahn.

Shortly before he was to arrive at my house, he called to ask where we should go to eat. Taken aback, and very excited about this new cuisine, I insisted that we go to the Korean restaurant as planned. For several minutes, he attempted to talk me out of it and apologized in advance that I wouldn’t like it. I insisted that I would. He warned me that his mom told him not to take me there, because I wouldn’t like Korean food. I insisted that I would. We went. I enjoyed every minute, and every bite.

That night, I learned how to use chopsticks. I violated several Korean social graces by blowing my nose at the table when the kimchi got the better of me, and by almost sticking my chopsticks into my rice bowl before he stopped me. I tried my first bibimbop, and was introduced to an astonishing array of seasoned side dishes. I also met his parents. As we watched a movie in a small TV room, his mom knocked on the door with a tray of sliced fruit, snacks and drinks. I was especially touched by this gesture. Not only did my family rarely eat fruit, but we certainly would never have taken the extra step to peel and slice it and arrange it on the tray.

I thought that we’d had a delightful date, and that he had a similarly delightful family, but I would not realize until much later how quintessentially Korean our evening had been. Or, for that matter, how Korean my future husband was. It would surprise him as much as me.

Raised by a Korean mother and American father and attending junior high and high school in the United States, Mike had developed a self-image that was almost entirely American. A move to Minnesota for his university education would change this irrevocably. Encountering a foreign male culture defined by hunting and football at the same time that he was discovering his own identity as an adult, Mike began to feel increasingly aware of himself as an outsider in his own culture, as a person apart. At first, he reasoned that this was simply due to the difficulties of adult life; adjusting to a new climate and culture; the burdens of working full-time while attending university. But gradually, he understood that the frustration he experienced was not external but internal. He felt lost and displaced, and what seemed to comfort him was his missing piece. Korea.

He took up Tae Kwon Do again with vigor; took me on shopping expeditions to the small Korean markets in St. Paul, Minnesota’s Frogtown; bought Korean decorations at the Minnesota Festival of Nations; and purchased Korean language software. Our first attempt at bean sprout soup was a disaster, and our gimbop fell apart in a mess of rice, but accompanying him to the market to buy fresh ingredients made me a partner in his quest. Our wooden ducks- facing each other in our living room- are not just a promise to each other, but have also come to symbolize the fidelity to Korean culture in our family’s life.

Eight years later, I have come to see how my husband’s Korean-ness is not merely a part of his ancestry or heritage, but that it is the very blood pulsing through his veins. Watching All About Eve, I am struck by how much he resembles Jang Dong Gun in his mannerisms, facial expressions, and carriage- an observation that I have never had about an American actor. Watching him write in Korean script, his hand is more relaxed and natural; speaking in Korean, it seems as if his real, authentic voice is finally being heard.

But if his Korean self is the genuine one, it is trapped by his American upbringing. If he were to return to Korea today, he would seem American to himself and others in myriad ways unapparent to him now. His ideals, his education, his cultural knowledge are all from the US. Even his language cages him- for sadly, upon returning to the United States in elementary school, he lost his ability to speak Korean aside from a few special words. Feeling more peculiar in the country of his upbringing, can he ever return to the country of his birth? Or, being of both, will he be rejected by both? Amerasians of all national origins face this particular challenge, but for Koreans, the inner quarrel is especially lonely. A minority Asian group in the US, Koreans are poorly understood by Americans at large. And in nowhere but Korea does the American presence inspire such conflicting emotions.
For Mike, it is a lifelong quest to regain what he had lost, and to somehow create an equilibrium within himself. He can never deny his American half, for it is a legitimate piece of him, and to reject it would be to reject his own father and own family. But what of his Korean heart? His memories of eating fish on a stick in Busan, of Lotte World, of a childhood filled with both Korean and Japanese words fluttering around his home in Daegu? And as the only child in his family (including extended family) for this generation, he feels the additional burden of keeping the Korean tradition alive. For me, it is a desire to support my husband, but also to better understand who my children will be, so that I can facilitate their connection with that part of their souls.

The more that I observe his family, and the more that I tag along on my husband’s heart-felt pursuit, the more I see the beauty and frustration faced by Mike as a reflection of the tragedy and triumph of the Korean peninsula itself. Split into two persons and two worlds without ever asking for such a fate, can he become a new whole of the parts? Will he- surmounting his mother’s war-generation resistance to the peninsula; and unlocking the secrets of his grandmother’s complicated history with Japan- somehow forge a new mural of himself- as a microcosm of the history of his heart’s homeland these past hundred years? Divided unto himself, with mysteries and knowledge lost between generations, ready to unify but without direction; desiring a greater role of Korean folk-lore and shamanism in his personal life; the benefactor of his mother’s hard work and the technological wave; embracing the past and the future at once. Perhaps living outside of Korea, I wonder if, nonetheless, Mike IS Korea. Hopes and fears collide, but Korea continues its steady march on, and its pulse beats in the hearts of Koreans and their families- in America, in the North and South, and everywhere.
Author's career and profile

The author, Melissa Hahn

I was born in 1982 and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, I had a strong interest in learning about the many cultures of the world as a very young child. One of my prize possessions was my very first globe, and I would practice the names of these places as I fell asleep at night. In high school, I studied French, and through a special distinguished scholar program I designed an honors project which enabled elementary school children to participate in several festivals from around the world. I received a B.A. in Russian Area Studies from St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, and have completed graduate coursework at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland towards an M.A. in Central European Studies. I have also written numerous articles for the political website,, on topics covering Central Europe and Asia. I am currently involved in children's literature and photography projects, with the aim of writing meaningful books to engage children with the world around them in hopes of promoting peace and understanding. I have backpacked across Europe three times, covering twenty countries. I hope to visit Korea very soon!

  reference news
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes: Life Between Two Worlds (2) Melissa Hahn [07.13]

U.S.-DPRK Relation

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