My 5-year old tossed that question at me from the sofa, where he and his father were having their usual Saturday night hockey time last season. These are the kind of questions that make me pause as a Korean mom living in Canada. Having little memory of living there until he was one and a half, and a 2 month visit when he was three, my son has little first-hand knowledge about Korea and his Korean heritage. My daughter, born here, has less. So even casual questions like this make me feel I’m a miniature Korean ambassador here in my house.
In this case, my first reaction is minor stress at the question’s ‘they’. One day, I think, he’ll ask things like this with ‘we’ and I will do handstands of joy. I consider next how to answer. The truth is that it’s a minor-level sport played mostly at the university level to which the vast majority of Koreans are happily indifferent. That I considered my Canadian husband’s interest in hockey as an eccentricity until we arrived in Canada and I realized it actually was a marker of Canadian male normality. These are too complex for him now, so I hit on a stratagem: redirection.
“Yes, but soccer is much more popular”. His eyes light up with interest – this is a boy who scored three goals in his indoor soccer league just that morning – and I breath a sigh of relief. Ambassador M. once again represents Korea proudly!
Raising very young Korean children in Canada is full of these kinds of moments. In a very real sense, I am Korea to them, because unlike children who came to Canada after they were 9 or so, my children’s memories are almost wholly of Canada. I was very confident about imparting Korean culture, language and knowledge to them at first, thinking my children and I were all Korean so …. this’ll be a piece of cake! It’s easy to think like this because when they are very young you and your house are most of their environment. The Canadian environment was just a backdrop we cruised through.
As they got older it dawned on me this is not going to be easy. My son’s attention was captured by preschool and then school classes, English-language kids TV shows, the neighborhood kids. Language was key – with all these happening in English, he started to clearly prefer speaking English to me. He startled me with questions about Seoul or Korea that I had just assumed he knew. About this time I realized that Canada was not just a backdrop, but all around him. And so I became ambassador M, as I am determined to give him the Korean part of his heritage that is also rightfully his, and which were he living in Korea would influence and shape him naturally. Here, it’s up to me.
As I said, it is hard, but definitely do-able. Teaching him spoken and written Korean language has been very enjoyable together, and his evident pride in mastering Hangul writing was surpassed only by my own for him. Recently, Psy’s hit song ‘Gangnam Style’ has fascinated him, but unlike his classmates he knows some of the words and (to my surprise) actually says he remembers some of the Seoul landmarks in the video. As he horsey-dances for the 1000th time through the living room, I can laugh and think this is just the start. There is a whole Korean culture out there for him to connect to and feel a part of. With help from Ambassador Mom.