I’m Korean-American, what they call an isei in Korean or nisei in Japanese: a second-generation Korean-American who has never visited South Korea. However, I love Korean food, and I am fluent in Korean. Korean culture has always been important to me, but when I was a sophomore in high school, I also started to become interested in Japanese culture.
In other words, I started watching anime after a friend’s recommendation. From what I’ve heard from my friends at college, people who like anime get bullied by jocks at school. However, at our school, such a thing never happened because the ones watching anime were those jocks. Thus, watching anime didn’t cause much of a problem at school, but things were more complicated at home.
It’d be too strong to call it hate, but my mother disliked anime. She didn’t forbid me from watching it, but she made it clear that she preferred me not to watch it. I ended up watching anime on my own when she wasn’t watching. Eventually, I became interested in manga and visual novels as well. At the time, there weren’t many works that had English translations, so I started studying Japanese, so I could read those titles. This would end up influencing my life greatly. At some point, my Japanese reading ability became better than my Korean reading ability. One time, I half-jokingly told my mom that despite the fact that I had been speaking Korean since I was a child, my Japanese was better. She laughed, but it must’ve been a little sad for my mom, who had read Korean picture books that she had brought back with her from South Korea to me when I was a child.
My mom was against me studying Japanese from the start. She told me that no matter how much I studied it, there was no way that I’d be able to speak it better than a native Japanese person, and that besides, the language had no practical use in America. Every time I would try and tell her something about Japan, she’d respond by badmouthing the country. She’d often bring up radiation contamination and how she even avoided going outside in the rain, so she wouldn’t be hit with “radioactive water” from the Sea of Japan. She’d also constantly try to talk up Korea to me. For example, one time I was telling her about the history behind hiragana and katakana, two writing systems that are used in Japan, and my mother told me, “Actually, they stole those writing systems from Korea” and gave some ridiculous reason for her claim.
In response to what I perceived as my mother’s irrational nationalism, I ended up disliking Korea. My mother was an American citizen, but she would still call Korea “our country.” I didn’t understand my mother and made no attempt to understand her either. I didn’t know this at the time, but there was a specific reason that my mother disliked Japan. Does it show a lack of historical knowledge for a Korean-American to like Japanese media? I had Korean blood in me, but at the time, I was ignorant when it came to the history between Korea and Japan: I knew nothing. What I found out later on was that my great-grandfather had participated in independence movements during the colonial era and had been captured and tortured by the military police, dying later from the injuries. My mother had inherited this historical trauma.
My major required me to study a course concerning a country other than Japan. So, I ended up taking a course about modern Korea. (Originally, I had attempted to take a Korean language course, but as it wasn’t geared towards heritage speakers, I dropped it.) I found the course surprisingly enlightening, and I found myself interested in Korea for the first time since I was a child. Through the course, I learned a lot about the Korean psychology and the historical backdrop behind it. I also think that I was able to understand my mother a lot better. Also, during college, I became friends with someone who was a South Korean citizen. Through my relationship with him, I got back into the habit of watching Korean dramas. Now that I’m living away from home, I often call my mother for help with Korean recipes whenever I cook. As of late, I’ve been listening to Korean music as well. Of course, it’s not K-pop that I listen to, but the songs that my mother used to play around the house when I was younger. Whenever I have time, I ask my mother for song recommendations.
When my mother was a child, she enjoyed watching anime. I don’t know whether she didn’t realize it was Japanese or if she didn’t care about such things as a child, but she loved “Rose of Versailles.” I told my mother about how I had watched “Rose of Versailles,” and she told me about how she liked the show when she was growing up. That may have been the only time I was able to talk to my mother about anime. Even today, my mother still has her guard up whenever I bring up Japan, but her son loves Japan and is working as a Japanese translator. She has started to accept it. Just the other day, she told me how when the pandemic ends, she wants to visit South Korea with me someday and make a stop by Japan along the way.
About David Song
David is a Korean-American who is interested in Japanese culture. He got interested in Japan without knowing the history between the two countries, and this caused friction between David and his mother.
Edited by Emiru Okada
Cover by Ayumi White
Illustration by David Song