25 years after my immigration to America and not allowing myself to look back but only look forward, I did fear that I had lost connection with Korean culture after having thoroughly Americanized myself. The extent of my connection I maintained with Korean culture was speaking Korean with my immediate family in America and cooking Korean dishes for friends at my dinner parties.
Would I feel like a foreigner in South Korea? Would I be treated like a foreigner by other Koreans? Or would South Korea have changed so much by now that I won't recognize it anymore?
But upon my return to South Korea, I was surprised myself how at ease, seamless and comfortable I felt in South Korea. I had not lost my connection with Korean culture no matter how much time had passed and how ‘Americanized’ I had become. My heritage, as it turned out, stayed in me like an indelible temperament that could never be diluted or lost.
South Korea, in the mean time, had become much more modernized and Westernized than when I left it in 1993, at the height of its rapid modernization and development. But despite its modernization and development that completely transformed its exterior environment, its culture, as I remembered it, had remained very much intact, like an indelible temperament that could never be diluted or lost.
And it was the recognition of this temperament — in myself and in Korean culture — that I still felt connection with South Korea, as if no time had past. Culture, I realized, was more than physical forms of what people ate and what traditions people celebrated, but something more metaphysical — its temperament and soul that existed in the air. This was also what allowed me to connect with other cultures beyond their cuisines and traditions, and what I could sense and absorb in my travels to different places.
I was a monocultural individual, a person of one culture, who became a multicultural individual, a person of multiple cultures. But this didn’t mean that my heritage was diluted, lost or morphed into something else, as I feared it would have been, as I embraced and internalized influences and exposures from other cultures. I hadn’t become a ‘hybrid’ or a ‘melting pot’ of cultures to the point that my heritage was diluted or lost. My heritage had remained in me, like an indelible temperament that could not be diluted, lost or morphed into something else.
I wondered if the idea of a monocultural individual becoming a multicultural individual — an individual whose exposures and experiences of different cultures were comfortably collected in oneself to make up who one is — can be applied to the idea of a monocultural nation becoming a multicultural nation — the accumulation of cultural influences over the course of its history that make up its cultural identity which are left open-ended and ever evolving.
Just as a monocultural individual doesn’t become multicultural at the expense of losing its past, a monocultural nation doesn’t become multicultural by losing ‘the essential features’ of its culture or identity. The strong framework of inherited culture doesn’t exist as a frozen layer of history to be preserved, but keeps evolving and takes on layers of ‘influences’ and ‘flavors’ from different cultures without losing the essence and core of its inherited culture. If a monocultural nation viewed itself as accumulating layers of influences from different cultures, with its inherited culture at its base and core — like the indelible temperament that could never be diluted or lost, it could absorb and take in influences of other cultures, without fear of losing its culture and identity of the nation.