Rooting for Gold, and Waving Taegukki and Old Glory

The Olympics are fun. We see great sportsmanship and whiny losers. We see patriotism is not unique to America, and apparently neither is the practice of covering your face/balding head/body in your country’s/team’s colors with face paint. We test the kids on their limited knowledge of national flags. We dream, even for a moment, that our kids will be inspired to try something new but not something as crazy as the skeleton. And we pick our favorites and cheer for, root for, celebrate with or shake our heads in defeat for our team.

But in some families like my extended family, it’s complicated and fun because of who we are – Americans, Korean-Americans, Koreans. My parents and I had an interesting and momentarily tense conversation over Apolo Ohno, and we probably sounded a bit like a version of the Korean and American press. And then we settled down to a barbecue feast for dinner. My dad said grace in Korean (which my husband and children cannot understand, but I told the kids their grandfather asked God to remind the kids to obey their parents) and then we passed around the baked beans, brisket and ribs, and then turned on the television to watch more speed skating.

What has been so interesting to me has been my older son’s reaction to the Olympics. During one of the speed skating events, he was quick to notice that there was a Korean skater competing against an American skater. His reaction? “Hey, look! There’s a Korean and an American! Cool! Who do we root for?”

I swear I  have never whispered in his ears, “You are Korean first.” (I remember hearing those well-intentioned words and walking away deeply confused and conflicted because wasn’t I both Korean and American equally, at the same time?)

We’ve explained to him and our other two children they are Americans whose cultural and ethnic roots are originally from Korea. We’ve explained in different ways as each of them mature and experience life what the term Asian-American or Korean-American can mean and why I identify myself that way. We’ve explained to them why we bow to our elders on New Year’s Day and the significance of the rice cake soup, and they simply lord over their non-culturally Korean friends that they get gifts for Christmas and cash for New Year’s.

It bothered me a bit that he would feel like he had to choose, but then I had to stop. It’s a wonderful and amazing thing that he proudly and delightfully identifies with both even though none of our children have stepped foot in South Korea and could one day become the President of the United States.

His pride in his Korean ethnic and cultural roots are not a result of being rejected by Americans (which was the case for me), and his pride in his birthright as an American isn’t born out of a jingoistic arrogance about America’s superiority (which I have often been on the receiving end). My journey, thankfully, is not his, and I am learning so much from his.

He asked this morning how the Americans and Koreans finished after last night’s events.

Corban, we all did well.


  1. Melody Hanson February 21, 2010

    Thank you for sharing your world (and world view) with us. It’s a beautiful thing when we see the next generation not take on all of the baggage of our past, but move on toward something refreshing and new. I am sorry for the pain you have experienced though, only quickly referenced here. It must make those moments even more powerful when you see the contrasting sweet changes in your kids’ lives.

    • t-hype February 22, 2010

      Just tell your son he wins either way! 🙂

      I never formalized the thought as a kid so I don’t have distinct memories of siding, but I remember being particularly transfixed by Surya Bonaly when she was still in the Olympics because there hadn’t been a black figure skater since Debi Thomas… I don’t remember my parents making mention either way but I suppose the fact that the WINTER Olympics were on TV in a black household says enough. lol.

      The journeys of each successive generation are indeed fascinating…

      • Kathy Khang March 1, 2010

        I laughed at your comment about a black household watching the winter olympics! Yes, the journeys are fascinating and say so much about where we’ve been and perhaps as much about where we hope to be.

        We only watched because of speed skating, but it looks like after this year there is one more sport to add to the Korean list?


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