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My Thanksgiving: A Korean-American on Gaining and Losing Traditions

In the first installment of "My Thanksgiving", Peter K. talks about balancing American and Korean traditions over the years.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s most popularly recognized as an occasion to eat too much, watch television, fight with your in-laws, and occasionally give thanks, but the reality is much more diverse. In “My Thanksgiving,” we’re talking to a handful of Americans across the country — and world — to get a broader sense of the holiday. For some of our interviewees, they have no traditions at all. But the day — steeped in American mythos, an origin story that comes with great complications — is at least passively observed by even the most agnostic of patriots. In this installment, Peter K. talks about moving to the United States from South Korea at age seven and how their strict adherence to American traditions has faded over time.

We moved from Korea when I was 7-ish. We jumped right in. My parents had seen some families in America not assimilate very well. My dad was all about having a very strong Korean side as well as a very well-exposed American side. He intentionally moved us to the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. I was the only Asian kid for miles around, as opposed to going to a K-Town in Bergen County. I think, whether we did it “right” or not is up to debate, but they definitely bought a turkey and tried to do the thing.

Your otherness becomes a lot more real, I think, during the holidays. When we were younger, we observed the American traditions and customs. And then throughout the years, the novelty wore off and we started doing what we like to do. My sister will cook and bake because she does like doing that. We’ll probably hang around the house, we might throw the parade on. My mom gets the free range to grill me on my life and my sister on her life and catch up. We’ll go out to lunch and then we’ll have a quiet dinner at home. Sometimes we’ll go out for dinner, too, because we don’t really care about the turkey thing. But it’s nice because everyone else is home so we have the restaurant to ourselves, usually.

Your otherness becomes a lot more real, I think, during the holidays.

Holiday celebrations, in general, were a lot more vibrant when we were kids because our parents just wanted to give that to us, in terms of keeping our Korean culture very vibrant in our lives, but also to learn the American culture as well. We celebrated both very separately but very distinctly.

Back then, we would dress up in traditional Korean clothing and play board games, and hand-make rice cakes. We would eat a lot of Korean food that is more traditional to that time. And then we would have a separate Thanksgiving meal, where these four immigrants try to figure out how to baste a turkey and, what the hell is stuffing? That was fun in its own sense.

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Now, we care less about the symbolics of it as opposed to just making a point of actually seeing each other for the holidays.

This year, I’m going home to Jersey, [where we moved from Pennsylvania]. I think my sister’s coming down from Boston, which is where she works right now. I don’t think my dad will be back home from Korea for Thanksgiving, but he’ll be back for Christmas. He’s an art professor and he’s working for his alma mater.  We’ll do a video conference where he’s with some of our extended family and we’ll probably pass the phone around.

Then we would have a separate Thanksgiving meal, where these four immigrants try to figure out how to baste a turkey and, what the hell is stuffing? That was fun in its own sense.

We also always go see a random garbage movie. I don’t know why that started. It’s become a tradition. We’ll see a totally not-Thanksgiving movie, like some random Tom Cruise, worst-sequel-ever, action movie.

I’m excited to get out of the city and to catch up with my mom again. I work in finance. I’m excited to get away from that and reconnect with my mom, get perspective, and get some rest. I also think this is a year where I’ve done a lot of emotional growing up. Through college, I was so me-me-me, I don’t really care about going back home, why do my parents ask so many questions? I’m excited to go back and ask my mom questions, ask my dad how he’s doing, and ask about his life.