My Roots as My Resource
Lately I’ve been thinking about the where and the why of my life. Where am I from, and why should it matter? Do my roots carry with them the cumbersome weight of obligation, or are they simply a set of arbitrary conditions bestowed upon me by chance?
As a writer, I’ve experienced my fair share of writer’s block. My poetic impediment, however, mainly stems not from a lack of ideas but from a lack of confidence in what I write. When writing characters or dialogue, I always pause and think to myself: is this contrived? As a Korean raised in Hong Kong, mired in the fumes of Asian culture, is it right for me to write about, say, Westerners born and raised? Do I have an obligation to write the realities of my natal land, to throw aside the thin veil of ‘Westernness’ and to adopt the more culturally relevant? By the time I finish asking myself question after question, I am too fatigued — and, frankly, disillusioned — to continue further. I save the half-done file, shove it in a folder and forget about its fledgling existence.
My current reading of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker sparked this thread of thought, and I’m glad it has; it’s an issue I should be thinking about and forging a conclusion for. So to quit the stalling and begin the reflecting, here goes…
Does one have an obligation to their native land, tongue or culture?
The circumstances of birth are completely arbitrary. We have no say, no choice, in whose arms we are borne into, which language first enters our newly-formed ears. In this instance, one does not have an absolute obligation to their ‘firsts’, if you will, because there lacks the element of mutual agreement. My mother tongue chose me; I simply succumbed. In any relationship that lacks mutuality, one’s obligation to the other is forced and thus, not much of an obligation at all.
Yet things grow in complexity as time goes on. The Korean culture, tradition and etiquette have been the platforms on which I have absorbed the entirety of the world. Still today, despite having grown up in an environment considered ‘international’, I believe my penchant for self-containment in the face of adversity stems in large part from my Korean background, in which the individual is encouraged to keep the boundaries of their internal world very much their own. Towering self-expectation is a stereotypically ‘Asian’ quality that is lambasted by many, including myself, yet it pervades a large part of my psyche. Through this lens I view and interpret the world that feeds my poetry, my late-night thoughts. And with this lens — in all its quietude, its insistence — I have seen beauties that have affected me for the better. In this instance, it is fair to say that my Korean heritage has very much formed who I am as a writer, who I identify with and who I end up being at, as Dorothy Parker puts it, the ‘vertiginous’ hour ‘between the new day and the old’. The parts of me I appreciate the most.
Why do I write through the lens of a Western author, penning my settings in the archetypical European or American context and my characters, my dialogue as such? Because I’m used to it. The books I read, the movies I watch, are almost always centered around this Caucasian worldview. As I learn words, literary contexts and magic from these sources, I gear myself to emulate the context and regurgitate it in versions of my own. It is a sheer force of habit.
This is when I feel the first pangs of guilt. The guilt stems from the belief that I am betraying my roots to write about another’s, thus burying my own in into obsoleteness. The belief that I have taken my values for granted all along, only to ditch it in the hour when it needs me the most. Maybe there’s an element of betrayal to the world, too; the notion that the world needs more diversity, and I am the depriver.
There is no right or wrong in this circumstance. It’s simply a matter of what feels good to me. What impression is left when I pen the words of a story unfolding in my head, whether I’ve made the world a slightly better place to be in, at least for the night. Maybe this is the true metric I should’ve listened to all along: the wayward wants of my heart. If I have an urge to write in a Westernized context, so be it. If I have an urge to write about Korea, Hong Kong, Asia, so be it. But I must still remember the importance of that first language, the first culture of love. It is comforting to know that a well-written piece, with a context that hits home, can satisfy the heart more than any other piece will. Finally I’ll be erased of guilt, truly resplendent in literary satisfaction. (Note to self: the next project sits on the horizon — a story about yourself, where you are, when you are and how.)
At the end of it all, two observations: one, I am guilty of discursive thought and writing style but I justify it in this instance as it reflects my floating mind. Two, if culture means this much to me in the first place, it would not hurt to discover it more than I have before. Maybe I’ll find something new, exotic, fresh. My roots can be my resource; and although I carry no fixed obligation at heart, I have many things to be thankful for.