Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Culture Camp?

Genetically, one third of the people who live in our house are German-Irish-Swedish. We speak none of those languages and celebrate no cultural traditions unique to those heritages. None of us has been curious enough to travel to any of those countries or to attend a German, Irish or Swedish culture camp. We're rather boring in that regard: culturally homogenized Americans.

A few of you know me well enough to protest: But what about all that research you've done on Swedish Baptists in America? Truth is: I'm not even Swedish. My husband is. But eighteen years ago some wonderful elderly women looked around the table at a meeting of our church's Historical Committee. All eyes came to rest on me as the only one in the room likely to be around for the church's 150th anniversary (in 2021). And they passed me the "First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis Historian" hat. Literally: a lovely dark blue crushed velvet affair with an attached veil originally worn in the 19th century by Mrs. Dr. Frank Peterson.

I am not Swedish. Would it have been easier? Without question, yes. I have no internalized identity as being in a long line believers so faithful they were exiled from Sweden for reading the Bible. (They were common people; the State Church had decreed that the Bible was the sole province of clergy.) My grandmother could not tell me stories of how her parents wrestled with the question of whether their children could genuinely worship God in English. (As far as they knew, the angels in heaven spoke Swedish because that was God's language.) Nor could my grandmother tell me what it was like to be in so small a minority of the population in Minneapolis that in the early days they had to invite the Norwegian and Danish Baptists to have sufficient numbers to form a congregation. ("They understood each other. Mostly. Good enough.")

But as a non-Swede writing Swedish Baptist history, I was fortunate to be surrounded by Swedish Baptists who remembered. It was their story.

Being associated with Swedes did not reinvent my own cultural identity;  "generic American" was already formed by the time I met them, when I was in my twenties. But knowing them and spending time with them helped me do a much better job accomplishing my assigned task: creating a documentary. I could not have done that job with integrity by simply visiting the American Swedish Institute, reading a few books, and learning to make Swedish Meatballs.

I find myself in a similar position as the non-Korean adoptive mom of Korean children. If it was solely up to my husband and me, all my children, adopted and not, would grow up with the same generic American cultural identity. That's the one I grew up with and it is what comes naturally to me. Sure: I love to cook and I'm sure I'd experiment with a few Korean recipes. I love to read and I'm sure we'd read books about Korea. We'd go to the Festival of Nations and linger a little longer at the Korean booths than the others. When our girls were in their teens, we'd probably take a group homeland tour to Korea. But led by my own strengths and my husband's, our kids would grow up as Americans with a special interest in Korea. Period.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with being American. I don't have an inferiority complex about being American nor do I believe it to be a superior culture. It is just what it is: good and bad mixed together. Although it is not my central identity, as far as ethnic heritage goes, American is who I am.

But it is not who my girls are. Mercy, Hope and Joy may talk like Americans and dress like Americans and be educated as Americans. But they have to go no farther than our curb for a dog-walking stranger to remind them that they do not appear American. Even if such comments, socially speaking, are rude and unwelcome, it is true: my girls are Korean, too.

Not Korean-American. That is a subculture unique to families where at least one parent, often both, self-identify as ethnically Korean, but live in America. Korean children adopted into Korean-American homes are often raised in that subculture.

My girls are un-hyphenated. They were born in Korea, which means being descended from people who are fiercely proud of their unique culture going back thousands of years on the same patch of the globe. Through no fault of their own, my girls were sent away. And through no choice of their own they were adopted into an American, not a Korean-American, family.

That makes me, their American mom of Korean kids, a lot like me, the German-Irish American designated to create a documentary about Swedish Baptists: in need of the real thing, Korean and Korean-American friends. Not to mention the other significant dynamic I cannot approach from personal experience: being adopted.

So I welcome the opportunity for my girls to attend Korean culture camp. And I appreciate it in a way I did not when they were little. Culture Camp isn't about learning how to tie a hanbok bow or dance the fan dance. It isn't about learning to read and print in Hangul or any of the other tangible markers of Korean culture. (As a non-Korean, for years, these superficial, visible aspects of culture were "culture" to me.)

Rather, Korean culture camp is about people. People who share my girls' heritage and impart it first hand. Korean people with whom we're now on first-name terms when we run into each other at the grocery store. People who have opened doors to the Korean and Korean-American cultural resources in our community that were otherwise invisible to us.

People like us: other American parents of adopted Korean kids who commiserate in our shared obtuseness and do our best to overcome it together.

People like my girls: adopted Koreans growing up in America who "get it" without even trying. Who often live within driving distance. Who year after year, get to be better and better friends before the 'tween and teen years hit and it really matters to have a friend who understands.

Where for one week of the year, American people are in the minority and Korean people are the majority.

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