You might have heard lots of successful stories about kids growing up in families in which the parents speak more than one language, those kids mastering 2 languages effortlessly like second nature. To some extend that might even feel like cheating. Well, I can assure you one thing - you won't see that in this story.
I was born and raised in China, same as my parents; we are Chinese Korean - descendants of Korean emigrants who now live in China. There're about 2 million of us, mostly spread in northeast China. We're referred to as Chaoxian-zu (朝鮮族) in Chinese.
I was taught Chinese and Korean. I don't have any memories before 4 years old, but according to sound tapes from my early age, I was able to recite Chinese poetry and sing Korean songs. But my dad said I mix the two languages a lot, like attaching a negative prefix from Chinese to a Korean adjective, as if I thought I was speaking one language. Those days were easy. Little errors were not a problem, and my parents were happily celebrating my growth. That is one of the perks of being a baby.
My dad is the evangelist in the family who treats the Korean heritage seriously. The family tree of my dad traces up to hundreds of years, and he is so proud of it. Among the many fantasies he has for me, the least he expected was that I would not speak Korean.
Sadly, things didn't go well for him.
My mom always talked to me and my dad in Chinese. And I was surrounded by friends of Han Chinese (汉族, the largest ethnic group, statically 92% of Chinese are Han). I didn't feel any different. We played together, I had no problem speaking Chinese to them. That language already climbed up and became dominant inside of me.
My dad was more than angry, I guess I could call that furious, about me only speaking Chinese at home. I remember a scene vividly: I was crying at the dining table while my dad yelling at me, "No food for you if you don't speak Korean! Say it, say you want to eat, in Korean!" He realized that if he didn't do anything, I might end up in the other side he didn't want me to be.
For this, my dad had blamed my mom a lot. He said she was a bad example, of not speaking Korean at home and that was why I followed her path. Mothers have a significant impact to their children, and she should understand that. Thus, my parents fought a lot. I wondered why my dad married my mom in the first place.
I couldn't understand why suddenly I was not allowed to speak Chinese, when that was ok before. Although I could understand Korean without a problem, it was never the language I wanted to speak, as the only audience was my dad. Maybe that would be hard for a 4 year old boy to understand the importance of Korean heritage.
My resentment kept growing. More and more such encounters followed up, and it brought these questions to me: Why I wasn't just a normal Chinese, like the boy next door? Why I was born as a Chinese Korean? Why I was not allowed to speak the language I knew the most? Why must I suffer like this? When would all of this come to an end, if there is one?
I hated it. I hated it with all my passion. I even cursed my ancestor, more than once.
I desperately needed a way to channel that hatred.
Take one step back, it wasn't just me who struggled with this identity crises. How to avoid children from being swallowed by this "Han Chinese vortex" had been a major issue for my dad's generation. You know, we have our own languages, names and traditions, but we are clearly in the process of being "localized."
Chinese Korean who lived in the countryside fared slightly better than those in the city. In the city, Chinese Korean were spread among the dominant Han people and were outnumbered, whereas in the countryside, they tended to live together, similar to a tribe. That provided the strength to hold up the tradition, hence Korean was their day-to-day language. That was a significant difference.
My mom is from the city. That explains everything: her education, friends, work, social life and home language are all in Chinese. My dad is from the countryside, he has fought his way to the city (back in the day that was quite an achievement in China), and still kept the strong tradition, but that didn't unfold well for our family.
After I attended a Chinese Korean elementary school, where both Korean and Chinese were taught, in that specific order, I found more fellow classmates who shared the same pain. We city boys disliked the Korean lesson, we even made fun by calling it "The Demon," because the lesson name 어문 ("uh moon" - National language) in Korean, shares similar pronunciation 恶魔 (è mó - Demon) in Chinese. That was quite bizarre; where we could read and write in Korean, but never used it voluntarily to anyone or in any context, except in exams.
Visiting relatives in countryside was more than mundane but a painful experience. A simple greeting in Chinese like "Hello Aunt!" was considered inappropriate, disrespect and rude.
My dad was ashamed of my behavior. I became silent.
Then in junior high school, I realized that I didn't even know how to exchange greetings in Korean properly. Teachers didn't teach me these manners, and I couldn't recall if my dad had taught me how, or he if did I had shut the door to my brain subconsciously. I felt humiliated to ask, and indeed humiliated by him when I did ask. I could only bear the lectures from my dad every time. I wasn't proud of myself either. But I've got to tell you this, a twisted feeling emerged; there was a sense of victory whenever I saw my dad fired up. In my mind, I thought "You just say whatever you want, I won't get hurt by you anymore."
I guess I had already given up on myself. "I'm just a failure to you, alright then." That was the narrative.
My dad considered transferring me to a countryside school, where the students were less "Han-ized." Even though the education level was less vigorous, he still considered that possibility. About ten years later, when I already started my career as a software engineer in Japan, one day my dad suddenly called me and dropped a bomb out of nowhere: "Forget about your career, go to Korea for 2 years to master the language. How dare you throw away what our ancestors started centuries ago?! And end in your generation?! Such a shame! You're the disgrace to our family!"
I knew my dad had good intention, but every time he pushed me, he only pushed me away.
How does my dad picture himself back then? What is his identity? His physical form is trapped in China, but spiritually he always wants to be in our ancestors' home - Korea? Or has this Chinese-Korean forged into distinctive ethnicity that is neither full Chinese nor full Korea? I mean, who are we? These questions still pop up constantly inside.
Watching football was one of the few things I recall as "bonding time" for us. I loved to yell with him at every shoot, analyze the situation, celebrate victory and exchange opinions over the long-running league. Once, we woke up in the middle night to watch the 1999 UEFA Champions league final match. Bayern Munich led 1-0 the entire game but Manchester United never gave up; they scored 2 goals in the last injury time and became the champion of that year. That was my sweetest memory with him, we went absolutely crazy. In the end, he didn't forget to remind me that "never give up" spirit as a life lesson, but he had no way to hide that big smile from his face, as if we were in the same age, as if we were, friends.
The bonding through football was great, but when it came to Korea vs. China, it was totally different story. My dad rooted for Korea for sure. You know football casters tend to be super biased toward their national team - like Apple attacking Android at their conference and vice versa. I hated both. I hated the Chinese casters over-glorifying the team, and I hated Korean casters making fun of the Chinese players. I simply expected a great game out of the 2 teams, but my dad's zealous support of Korea made me extremely uncomfortable.
That wasn't the first time I saw my dad fighting against - I guess I could say - China (the country) and Chinese (the people). Growing with the same Chinese Korean friends from elementary to high school, I had no chance of experiencing discrimination from the Han people. But I did know swear words from each side to describe the other. My dad worked at a government organization, had countless encounters of being "showed the door" from some meetings because he is Chinese Korean. "Nothing personal," the head of the bureau kindly added. There were definitely some significant conflicts between the two groups, not that harmony I learned from school.
But my dad didn't blindly love Korea the country, or the Korean people either. There is a Korean town in Shenyang (my hometown) called Xita (西塔), where once my dad was invited as a translator to a conference for Korean businessmen. I remember that day he came home, his voice and body was shaking with insult and rage. "Those bastards think they're superior, they treat us like shit!"
It turned out that after a whole day of business meetings, the Korean businessmen wanted "night life entertainment," and they wanted my dad to take them to those places. "Sorry, I didn't sign up for this" my dad rejected. And that triggered their hidden contempt towards the Chinese, including us Chinese Korean, to the max. Those businessmen were only rich-in-money, some had lovers or even illegitimate children in China, and all night clubbing was the norm for them.
I've never sensed any desire from my dad that he wants to move back to Korea, even after his trip to our ancestors' hometown in Korea. I guess what lies in his core belief is the admiration and worship to the heritage and family tree itself, it doesn't necessarily tie to a place or a nation.
As for me, despite all of the hatred I held toward Korean, I was super proud of my name, the name my grandpa gave me, not that long before he passed away. I inherit this typical Korean family name 朴 (박, Park), and my grandpa looked through various dictionaries and finally picked up my first name 起煥. I love it from every possible way: the pronunciation in Chinese and Korean, the Chinese character, the meaning behind it, the balanced hieroglyph. The first syllable is kind of soft and subtle but the power is carried forward, and the next syllable gives it a delightful burst. It is perfect to me, and is perfect for me. I confess I'm a narcissist on this.
Then my journey of seeking my identity had its Chapter 2 after I went to college.
I started a part time job in the biggest Warcraft 3 game news website in China, I was responsible for finding and translating news from Korean websites to Chinese. I was super committed to it - I love the game myself and also love to be able to spread the information to more people with my own words. It fulfilled my desire of gaming and writing/journalism, Korean language itself was a mere tool for me.
Back in the day, there were no TwitchTV, no YouTube or any other live streaming things yet. Normally a big grand final match happened in Korea - the most advanced country in eSports - the world knew the result afterwards. One day my boss asked me if I could find a way to do it in real time. I found the editor's email form the Korean website, composed an email to him and introduced myself and the possibility of collaboration.
I was sure that my Korean business email writing was terrible, that thing I had never learned from anyone. And I wasn't sure if the editor in Korea would get my idea, or if he would like to take the request. There came the reply, so touching and full of excitements! He called me 교포 (Korean diaspora), and was fascinated by the idea 우리 (meaning "we" but stronger bonding) not just found each other but also were working on the same thing! He shared an internal account with me to watch the final match online. I was the only one who could watch it realtime outside Korea in the world.
Then the final game started. I wasn't translating. I was watching it and writing as fast as possible to "live streaming" the game, through plain text. Our website barely held up - entire Warcraft 3 fans in China were watching me. It was like the whole nations' football fans were listening to the radio for World Cup final match, only slower and the radio was the words written by me.
I was thrilled.
That first contact to the editor was the first time in my life, that I wanted to use Korean to start a real conversation with someone. Until then I was only obliged to speak Korean to my relatives, my teachers, in my school exams. That moment, when I truly connected with someone far away on the internet with the language I had been taught for 20 years, that was fantastic! It was like my built-in Korean genes had slept for the entire time finally got awakened, it was a deep and ancient feeling, I could tell the warmth flowing in my blood, every heart beat only pumped more excitements. That was such a profound pleasure, it showed me where my roots was, gently, softly and powerfully. It was absolutely beautiful.
It struck me permanently that I was hating the wrong thing. It was not the Korean language, in fact, I love it with my every single bone and gene!
I hated the way it was forced upon me, brutally. I hated it was presented as if it was some kind of sins if I didn't speak in Korean, I hated when I asked for helps but only got humiliated. I wish I could have got a better "sales pitch" - that demonstrates how beautiful the language is, with some patient for the little kid to catch up.
Now I'm living in Japan, I could imagine that kind of desire to pass down your heritage to your children, the language, the tradition, especially when you're the minority and in another totally different environment. If one day I will have kids, I hope whatever I'm carrying on will eventually enrich their lives rather than make it more complex.
(Children inevitably find their ways to blame their parents. That is absolutely true. But the intention of this post is not to redirect all my flaws, my inabilities to my dad. The purpose is to represent you the story, my story of how a Chinese Korean lived in China, the struggle, the doubts and somewhat the self realization.)
He was 2 years older than me, the boy who lived next door, in this small suburb Laodaokou of Shenyang. Ever since I had memory, we were already playing together.
Among all the activities, arcade games were our favorites. You could find Street Fighter in every arcade. Back in the days in my hometown, arcade was a place that took some balls to get in. Everything was offline, the player you fought against was the guy stood next to you. If you won the game, you were literally costing the money of him, you could only wish the guy had a good temper, which those street fighters normally didn't acquire.
Arcade was a hunter-prey place, where spoiled domestic boy like me had a great chance to get myself hunted, like a lamb to the slaughter. It was dark and dirty and smoky, perfect set up for such violence scene. Some even made it a job, robbing money from little kids.
Age and height were the dominant factor in this stage of fighting. One day, I got knocked down unconditionally, the guy was taller than me, my coin and money were taken. I cried and ran back to my neighbor, I told my friend what happened. "Let's revenge!", he took me back, punched the guy who hit me minutes before, and got all my money back and also, all belongings of that guy too, as little punishment.
Knowing I was short and powerless and labeled by the local hunters, I never went there without my friend. He would normally just watch me play single player mode, and when someone put a coin and challenged me, he would make sure there was no any suspicious move from the guy. If the guy dared to pick up a fight, he would give the guy a slap and normally that'd be enough. I had never seen any guys fought back after a slap. It was like the most effective move, you didn't need to master a course of kung fu at all.
Later I got my first gaming console. I surely invited him a lot to my house and we played together. By the time his infamous street reputation - smoking, fighting, robbing, stealing - had spread among the parents of the suburb, my dad officially forbid me to hang out with him.
Of course I didn't listen to that order right? We came up with some secret code, whenever he shout that outside, I would prepare myself and go to his house to play. I even put the gaming console there for the ease of "transportation". To me, it mattered more about how he act in front of me, I never saw him using any violence when it was not needed.
Oh we even talked about girls! Uh... yeh I was still maybe around 7, maybe too early for such thing but I remember I started to notice myself wanting to stare at one girl specially at school, and I didn't know what to do about it, I thought there was something wrong with me. Once I heard he was talking to another guy who was similar to his age about girls, so I chimed in and shared my little secret, awkwardly. They burst into laughter, "That is totally normal! Good job yo!", he assured me that I was fine, I was not a weirdo.
One summer vacation of elementary school, I got the assignment of writing composition with the title of "My Best Friend", I chose to write about him instantly. Until that moment, I had worshiped him, idolized him, honored him. He was like my brother, my protector, my mentor, my best playmate, my go-to for everything. Maybe deep inside, we all eagerly longed for such brotherhood stuff in early age.
After I showed him what I wrote, he gave me a short but satisfied smile, and turned it back to me immediately. "Well done", I thought he was flattered.
Meanwhile my dad was still doing his education on me, saying he would affect me in a bad way, it was dangerous to hang out with him. He couldn't afford any snacks, books or games. He was simply using me to get what he wanted. No one would play with him except me, that didn't make me look good.
None of them kicked in my head.
1 or 2 years later, we went to a totally different district of the city, it had been a while since we played in the fields. We went to an arcade for Street Fighter, like old days.
"Hey hey, you, yeh you, you got any money?". Suddenly a local hunter came close to me, he was so small, a total head shorter than me. I admired his bravery, and moved my gaze toward my friend, I was already kind of used to such situation, I was confident to even protect myself.
"We are just here to play games, could you leave us alone?", My friend showed his courtesy.
"F**k you, you wanna die today hah?!"
The boy raised his right hand as if we would hit us. He definitely got the motion, but my friend already slapped him 3 times in a heartbeat, pushed him to the corner and gave him quite a "good lesson". It seemed the little boy only learned how to do the posturing but was never once into the real fight. Maybe it was his first hunt. It was like a successful commercial - always intruded in the middle, but you watched it through and it even make you laugh a bit.
A few minutes later two bigger figures approached us. They were the "brothers" to the little boy, I saw the image of myself inside him, it was the exact same version of me seeking protection from my friend. They weren't that tall, but the way they walked showed experience, they were definitely older than us, and more dangerous. "Let's go for a walk", one of them spoke in a very demanding and commanding tone.
So we followed them to the middle of nowhere. I did my calculation. It was a simple 2 vs 2 situation. They seemed strong, but if I managed to pin down one of them, then my friend would join me after he knocks down the other, I was certain he was capable of doing so, together we might claim the victory. I simulated lots of possibilities in my head, running away was none of them. They had been grining from the beginning, they were confident. I hadn't realized that it was me doing all the "negotiations", and I hadn't heard a word or even noticed any signals from my friend.
One of them suddenly slapped my friend, there was no any sign of upcoming violence, it left my friend with no time to prepare, if he was going to. He immediately burst out crying, like an infant, looked so vulnerable and innocent. I couldn't tell who were more surprised among 3 of us.
"Wow wow stop, stop, where was that tough guy who slapped my friend hah? Man-up! Come on!" I never imagined my friend would collapse with a single slap. Soon enough, I understood the situation, there was no chance for us at all to get out of this without "penalty". Fighting at this age was always one-sided, there were rarely back-and-forth fights, the result was decided from the encounter.
I surrendered, gave in all of my money, and made sure they didn't hit my friend anymore. It was my turn to protect him, if it was not too late. I tapped his back and tried to calm him down, we took bus home afterwards.
It seemed they had taken more than just pieces of metal coins from me, part of my admiration, belief and fantasy toward my friend was taken too. Or quite the contrary, perhaps they brought me back to the reality: I was simply blinded to see him straight. He was mere 2 years older than me, he couldn't save me every time like a hero, a non-exist figure I wanted him to be. Maybe it was my overconfidence that led us there. if I didn't follow those guys so quickly, if I included the submission of him in the calculation, if I could notice his pale face earlier, if we decided to run on our bare feet, we may still got a chance...
Everything had changed permanently. That was almost my last memory of him. Give-and-take, master-and-servant, old-brother-and-younger-brother, whatever the relationship was, it was gone. Perhaps I could take care of myself and needed no more his protection, perhaps he was shame of what happened, we didn't hang out much after that, none I could recall.
Was I being used? When that single thought along with other sayings from my dad kicked in, I felt nothing but disgusting. I hated myself to even doubt the motivation of our friendship, yet I couldn't eliminate that thin possibility that some part of my dad might be right. I felt I was manipulated, brain-washed, even though at the time I didn't know about these words, that self-hatred feeling was there and never went anywhere else. Nevertheless, when I showed him my writing, his smile was sincere, that was enough.
My family moved shortly after the incident, and I've never met him after that. There was no Facebook, no smart phone, no email, not even a phone or pager in the house. The place we lived now is in the middle of some modern highway, no single piece of information I could collect.
His name is 张亮 (Zhang Liang).
I would love to meet him again if possible, and say thank you in person. Thank you for those years, it was you that made me feel safe in the street. Thank you for your company, and hey, I wrote about you again.
There was one bridge frequently appeared in my dream, uninvited. Whenever I tried to cross it, I always dropped off it and got myself killed. Sometimes the bridge was cut off in two, people on the other side were cheering me up, and I jumped following the run-up, and I fell and died. Sometimes I walked on the bridge and next step my foot sensed nothing but gravity, and I fell and died.
I was surprised how creative my subconscious was. There were so many ways to get myself killed with the bridge. It was like living inside the movie Final Destination, full of surprise to kill you. It was a constant nightmare.
The bridge was real, you can't Google it, but local people called it the Sky Bridge.
The Sky Bridge (天桥, pronounced as "Tian qiao" in Chinese), located in Laodaokou (老道口), Shenyang, Northeast China, was one road that we must pass everyday to work, school and basically anywhere to the city. I spent my early life there, from 2 to 9. For a kid magically everything scaled bigger than it was supposed to be, the Sky Bridge was like it really meant to connect to the sky, so giant that it was the symbol of my whole childhood.
The bridge, opened in 1912, consisted of a 5 meters wide main road and two 2 meters wide sidewalks, overall about 200 meters long. Below the bridge were a dozen railways, connecting the city to Beijing and other parts of China.
My mom used to put me onto the backseat of her bicycle and rode across the bridge to drop off me to school. "I couldn't ride my bicycle on the bridge at first, I was so scared", my mom recalled, "I could only hold the handle of the bridge, and pushed myself forward one step at a time." I forgot how tall it was, but I guess it was high enough to make an adult shake his/her legs. And apparently I was too small to fear the height, I wish I could possess that ability till today.
My mom overcame that fear soon. "Everybody was no problem, and they looked at me as if I was an alien. I knew I need to get used to it." When life pushes you to the edge, you acquire whatever ability to survive.
By the year I went to elementary school, the bridge was already too old like an ancient tree, I started to notice the twisted scars. The wood covered in the surface started to fall apart, more and more holes were revealed that you could literally see trains traveling beneath your feet - least thing you would expect from peeking through a hole. When a car drove through, the entire bridge vibrated. I can't stop thinking that why the thought never occurred to me at that time - if I fall from the bridge, I'm not just gonna die because of the height, I could also be hit by a fast running train, die twice in a single try, not as fun as "buy one get one free" Domino Pizza.
One day after school, several of my friends and I were heading my home to play console games. They were supposed to be "tough guys" in the school, at least that was how they wanted to be pictured. One or two of them already started to show some of the "bully" traits, but anyway, we were good friends. So we arrived at the bridge, only to notice there were no one following me after I took several steps on it. "Do... do you cross this bridge everyday?", one friend asked in his shaking voice, another was kneeling down and nearly bursting into tears, mumbling "I can't do this... I can't do this..."
That was a shocking moment to me. You know, I had been walking across the bridge for 4 years then, if not counting the year I was still in a baby car. No matter how old or how broken that bridge was, I was so used to it, so were my family and other local people. It was just one thing on our way to lives. To others, however, that was a utterly shattered bridge that no one would take it as bravery to walk across it.
A few years later, my family had moved to another place, I decided to revisit the Sky Bridge in a summer vacation of junior high school or high school I forgot, and guess what? I couldn't even move a single step onto the bridge, as if that one step would take my life eternally. By the time the sidewalks were shutdown completely because of the unfixable damage, and no cars were allowed on the bridge either. Trains running below filled in the sights of increased scar-holes, as if they were part of the textures of it, and yet people were still there, still walking across it, some were even selling a range of merchandise, completely at ease. In the end, I took another route like my "tough" friends did, who I mocked as "pussy" back in the day. It was that experience triggered my nightmare of falling down the bridge, and had haunted me my entire 20s.
Time passed. I had already left the city for more than 10 years, one day I went back to my hometown and wanted to give it another try, or just to confirm if my horrified experience was real or a mere fantasy. Yet I couldn't find a single piece of metal or wood, the Sky Bridge was completely gone, and people started to refer to it as the "Old Bridge".