Global Policy Forum

A Cultural Connection: Parents' Homelands Seek Lasting Link With Thoroughly American Teenagers


By Phuong Ly

Washington Post
July 30, 2004

For the teenagers who trooped through the leafy courtyard of the centuries-old palace in South Korea one recent July day, the Korean government had high hopes.

The 80 or so youngsters of Korean descent, born and raised overseas, would learn how to bow properly. They would respect their elders, cherish the culture and understand the long, glorious history of their parents' homeland. They would love Korea.


A couple of guys announced they were tired. Several popped gum. Most kept talking loudly, even as a teacher walked down the crooked lines of sweaty teenagers, telling everyone to hush.

"She should have said it in English," said Lisa Choe, 16, of Clarksville, giggling. "Half the kids don't speak Korean."

But to the South Korean government, these teenagers -- no matter how little of the language they speak or how much they indulge in that particularly American trait of whining -- are still Korean. As waves of immigrants make the United States their home, Korea and other countries are hosting programs to make sure their American-born offspring still connect with the old country. "Our goal is not necessarily to have them come back to Korea" permanently, said Moon Yang-soo, who helped coordinate the Overseas Korean Student Summer School for that government's Ministry of Education. "We want to help them find their own identity, get a positive picture of their parents' culture and educate them about their mother country."

Taiwan has what is possibly the longest summer program, with six weeks of language lessons and field trips for as many as 1,000 Chinese American college students who visit annually. In recent years, Mexico has provided an all-expenses-paid week-long tour of the country for about 20 Mexican American middle and high school students. Israel has long sponsored trips for young Jewish adults to build loyalty to the Jewish state.

Although coordinators emphasize the chief goals of cultural understanding and fostering goodwill, the programs are often tinged with politics.

In Mexico, the visitors meet with top officials including President Vicente Fox, who has said he considers Mexican Americans to be part of the country. His foreign minister has said he hopes Mexican Americans become as strong social and political advocates for Mexico as Jewish Americans have become for Israel.

Under the "birthright israel" program, Israel plans to bring in 100,000 young Jewish adults within five years "to strengthen the sense of solidarity between Israeli youth and Jewish communities throughout the world," according to the program's Web site. The site, in addition to alumni updates, includes news and opinions on Middle Eastern politics.

At the Korean camp, the first order of business is learning the South Korean national anthem. In Taiwan, Chinese American students sit through lectures on Taiwan-China tensions, which -- not surprisingly -- favor the Taiwanese side. "They are the descendants of Taiwanese; they should be able to understand the background of the situation," said Michael Chen, a spokesman for Taiwan's representative office in Washington. "Whether they do something about it depends on their own will or their own path." Chen noted that the U.S. government has its own cultural exchange programs that bring foreign students to American universities. He said Taiwan is a U.S. ally and, in the long run, the Taiwanese camp ultimately benefits U.S. interests. But then again, Chen said, "the government understands that kids are not that interested in politics."

Most participants come with their own agendas. Pat Tien of Arlington, for instance, just wanted a summer away from his parents. Tien, who attended the Taiwanese camp in 1994, says he slept through his morning Chinese classes. He dismissed the lectures as "brainwashing propaganda." He was more interested in exploring the nightclubs with new camp friends -- who included his future wife. Everybody called the program by its notorious nickname: Love Boat. "I'm sure the Taiwanese government had plans for political change when they started this program," Tien said with a laugh. "Little did they know it's for college kids to hook up, party and drink."

Now, though, Tien says he's embarrassed when friends joke that he and his wife, Connie, are a Love Boat success story. Ten years after the camp, he said, he's realized that maybe the Taiwanese government did accomplish a few of its lofty goals. "I'm American, and growing up with 99 percent of my friends being white, going to Taiwan was in a sense a way for me to reconnect with my culture," said Tien, 30, who works in the personnel office for Arlington County schools. "It's so cool that we're Chinese, too. We get to try so many different things. It's a whole other world out there."

About a quarter of this summer's Korean program participants were from Maryland. The two dozen Maryland students, mostly from Howard County, came to Korea to perform in classical music concerts, but chaperones included the cultural camp.

Hee Suk Shin's goal for her two daughters was more parental than political. Shin and her husband left their friends and families behind in South Korea nearly 20 years ago, started anew in Ellicott City and worked long hours operating a gas station to build a comfortable suburban life for their daughters. One lesson, she says, taught them to appreciate what they have: Olivia, 14, and Elizabeth, 18, each have their own rooms -- something usually impossible in a small, crowded country like South Korea. "I want them to know that their mom and dad grew up at this place," said Shin, who accompanied her daughters on their first trip to South Korea. "They live in America. We gave them everything if they want it. But children there, they want more all the time."

So did the trip help?

"Oh yeah," said Olivia, nodding with enthusiasm even though her mother wasn't within earshot. "When she was younger, my mom had to share a room with four sisters. Things are a lot smaller here -- the cars, the houses."

Other teens agreed. Several girls complained about the Asian-style squat toilets. Then there were the monsoon rains and the air pollution. And the visit to a high school: Everybody wears uniforms, and girls are not allowed to dye their hair or wear makeup. "You feel strange," said Dorothy Kim, 13, of Ellicott City. "They're Korean, but they're different."

As visitors invited by the government, the teenagers also had some top-notch tourist experiences. They participated in a tea ceremony at a museum. One evening was spent at a popular Korean musical. They also took a weekend trip to a Korea's old imperial capital.

But for 13-year-old Kenny Kim of Ellicott City, what really stood out were the tall office buildings, shopping malls and traffic jams. Teenage boys sported buzz cuts and baggy shorts -- as he did -- and there were crowds of them at Pizza Hut.

"It's just like America," he said. "I don't feel so homesick."

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