Living Within Two Cultures

And Dealing With Lose-Lose Situations

Last week we talked about the differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. For me, understanding these two concepts helped me understand a lot of things about myself. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I realize now that I grew up essentially living within two cultures.

As a second generation Korean American, I was the first in my family to be born in the U.S. My mom, dad, and brother were all born in South Korea.

At home, my family was culturally Korean. I grew up with collectivistic values such as honoring my parents, placing others above myself, and making the family a priority. But everywhere else, I was living in an individualistic society. This included school, tennis camp on weekday nights, playing with kids in my neighborhood, to even watching T.V. As a result, these two two value systems would occasionally come into conflict with one another. Here are two stories that illustrate how this internal conflict affected me and how I processed through them.

Sadies Hawkins Dance

When I was a Junior in High School, there was a dance called “Sadies Hawkins” where it was tradition for the girls to ask the guys out. Now there was a girl named Sam who was a Senior. We met at an after school tutoring clinic where we spent 5 days a week preparing for the S.A.T.’s.

When Sadies Hawkins came around that year, she ended up asking me to go to the dance with her and I was stunned. Never would I have imagined that she would ask me. Especially because she was a Senior, was popular, and was on the basketball team.

I told her I wanted to but had to first check with my parents. You see that year I was doing terribly academically. I had gotten 4 C’s in the first semester and my parents were furious. So when I asked them if I could go to this dance, my parents said, “No” because they wanted me to spend more time studying.

I was crushed and conflicted. There was a part of me that wanted to go. But there was another part of me that wanted to respect my parent’s decision. My mind started scheming about different ways I could sneak out that night and maybe trick my parents. But in the end, my collectivistic values won and I decided to tell Sam that I couldn’t go.

To this day I still regret it. Haha. But to be honest, I think I would have regretted it either way. Why? Because my choices were:

  • Go to the Sadies Hawkins dance, regret breaking my parent’s trust, and feel guilt and shame.

  • Don’t go and regret the fun night I would’ve had with Sam.

This was a lose-lose situation. No matter what decision I made, I felt like I was going to regret my decision. Unfortunately, this was something I faced throughout a majority of my life. In fact, it was rare for me to feel completely at peace whenever I made difficult decisions because it would always conflict with one of the two cultural values.

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Leaving Home

In my early-20’s, I stayed with my parents as I was going to grad school for seminary. It helped me save money on rent and let me be physically close to my parents. However, when I got into CSUF to pursue a career in Marriage and Family Therapy I decided to move out.

In the last newsletter, we talked about how it was culturally common for children in collectivistic families to live with their parents. In fact, it’s expected. So this was a really hard decision to make because I knew this would be a painful experience. Not because they were demanding obedience, but because I knew they would perceive it as a rejection of their love, which I wasn’t doing, and I didn’t want to hurt them. I just simply had reached a point in my life where I realized I couldn’t be happy living with them.

And it’s not because they’re terrible parents or terrible human beings. They were loving and patient for the most part and I love them to death. But I felt like I just couldn’t grow as a person and I couldn’t explore my independence as an adult. Whenever I created boundaries or asserted myself at home, it always ended up in fights or misunderstandings. I hated that this was happening. It was slowly destroying our relationship…but I refused to let that continue.

I decided to move out because something had to change. Although it would be painful in the beginning, I believed it would help us in the long run. Thankfully after a lot of hard work, I’m confident in saying that it has.

Now it wasn’t the smoothest process. It took a while for our relationship to adjust to a new dynamic. I made a lot of mistakes and so did they. But I believe we are in a lot healthier place now than where we were before.

It was during is time that I finally recognized that my core values were more individualistic than collectivistic. This gave me peace of mind because I began to finally accept myself. I started to not feel guilty about my decisions. Rather than constantly fluctuating between the two value systems and being in seemingly lose-lose situations, I become more comfortable and confident in myself.

Now I still hold onto collectivistic values. I just recognize that what motivates the core of my decisions are individualistic in nature. And that’s okay. But how I navigated this realization within the context of a collectivistic-oriented family is another story for another week.

Discussion Questions

  • Can you think of any times in your life where you’ve felt conflicted by two value systems?

  • Which culture do you identify with the most? Is it mixed and split of 60/40?