March 18, 2004

Interview #8

Hi, today I am very excited about the guest here with me. I don't know him personally, but he works with my friend Michelle, (who, as you'll recall, is interviewed a couple of posts down) and is also a graphic artist. His name is Dennis. So, let's get cracking and jump right into it.

KC: Dennis, for our viewing audience, could you please provide a little background on your ethnicity?

DS: I was born in Seoul, Korea in 1969. My 2nd Generation Irish and 1/8 Polish father (born in a small farm outside of Litchfield, KY), was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War at the age of 21. Luckily for him, he was stationed in Korea. My father met my mother, at the age of 27, and in one of those boom-boom clubs the soldiers would go to after hours. They got some boom-boom on them and started dating.

Six months later, they decided to get married and ran into a host of trouble because of restrictions the military sets on dating between foreign nationals and U.S. Soldiers during war time. They somehow got through all the red tape, and married overseas. I came along, and by my second birthday, we moved to Ft. Bragg South Carolina and finally moved to Kentucky by my 6th birthday.

I've been living around red-necks ever since. I guess that makes me: 1/2 Korean, 1/4 Irish, 1/8 Polish and 1/8 Redneck.

KC: I have to say that the similarities between our backgrounds are uncanny. I was also born in 1969; although, only conceived in Seoul, Korea. I actually popped out in Fort Gordon, GA. My father (who is half Irish and half Czechoslovakian) was stationed in Korea and met my mother through mutual friends. They also decided to get married after just a couple of months, but because my mother was converting to Catholicism to marry my father, they didn't have a church wedding until a few months after their "official wedding" at the embassy. Apparently, the two of them went to get their paperwork and they called my father into the office while my mother waited in the hall. My father says the guy behind the desk signed a piece of paper, handed it to him and said, "Congratulations, you're married." Have you ever heard a more romantic story? Yeah, gotta love the US government. Now, how would you describe your experiences growing up half-Korean in America?

DS: It's really comforting (and a bit disturbing) to know that other people have had similar experiences in the past.

Growing up half-Korean... well, it wasn't a pleasurable experience early on: I went to public schools; was very shy throughout grade school, was 1 of only 3 Asian kids in a fairly redneck high school going through some segregation wars; was short for my age until late high school; and my last name was Smiley (for those of you who grew up in the 80's, you know why that name was a popular [ha] name).

Anyway, because of this combination, I really recessed into my studies and sports. I don't know if I was really that introverted, I just felt more comfortable alone ? and more in-charge (throughout my grade school years).

Interestingly enough, my sister had a lot of the same experiences but it had an opposite effect on her. She became super-extroverted and became a wild child. I look back now and wish she did not hang around the "wrong" kinds of kids, just because they accepted her for who she was. At 28, she is still making up for many of her mistakes during the middle/high school years.

This is what I think happened to me: I became overly sensitive to other people's feelings, but became de-sensitized to being different. In fact, when I was in the Army (2 years active, 4 years reserves), my fellow soldier's called me "mother" because I always took care of everyone and watched out for them (when someone was in trouble, I would always be called). Because I started to care less for my insecurities, I started to excel in anything that posed itself as a challenge. That is what I would focus on and that is the way I am even to this day. It's why I am in the creative field, I'm sure (It's always different and there are many challenges).

P.S. ? I often make super non-politically correct statements (some Asian statement even offend white people), because I really believe all cultures have some area of hilarity ? and it is ridiculous to think any one culture should have to be tippy-toed around, as to not "offend" anyone. So, if I have offended anyone, get over it. Don't take yourself so seriously ? it builds character.

KC: Well, I wasn't really introverted. My father stayed in the Army until I was a sophomore in college, so we (I have a younger sister and younger brother) moved a lot. When I was in the primary grades (K-3), we lived in Augusta, Ga. because my father was stationed at Ft. Gordon and I remember getting a lot of shit from a good number of people in Georgia. To this day, it's really, really hard for me hear a southern accent and not immediately have negative feelings. I'm obviously able to get over it because it's a stupid reaction, but it's an instinctive thing now. At any rate, I can remember being mad because I'd get called names and they wouldn't even be right. This one girl would call me Chinese girl or Japanese girl, and my mom said I'd come home from school and yell that people were stupid because they didn't know I was Korean. But since we moved around a lot, I never felt the compulsion to really try and fit in because I knew we were going to be gone in a couple of years. As far as being politically uncorrect, go for it. I think people are way to concerned about how PC they are and it has a stifling effect because people are too scared to say anything. In general, I think everybody needs to chill out and not take any of it too seriously.

I find the statement about your sister interesting because I've read some articles where a lot of Asian-American men feel they're getting the short end of the stick because mainstream American culture seems more accepting of images of Asian women and embraces them more readily, and that the men still have to struggle to be considered attractive and "viable" potential partners. What do you think about that?

DS: Not touting my own horn, but I've never really been in a position of feeling that unattractive (I'm high yellow you know). However, because of the insecurities that I felt for feeling different, I think it did cause me to become an over-achiever at a pretty young age. In fact, I choose to challenge and put myself in situations of extreme discomfort at times, just to get the feeling of accomplishment achieving my goal.

I don't look to put others down or am so competitive that I lose sight of why I do things, I just think that I always have to prove to myself that I am as good as anyone else or sometimes even better. The weird thing is, when I accomplish something, it becomes less of a challenge the second time. So, I usually look toward the next challenge.

An example is: Last year my wife and I thought about building a house. We found a lot in a nice neighborhood and started to talk to builders. After talking to several General Contractors, I started noticing that none were that detail-oriented. I was a little uneasy with not knowing where we were on a budget until toward the completion of a house, so I started to gather information and references on top-notch contractors in the area which we were going to live. After 5 months of planning (in the midst of contractors and friends objections because of the pitfalls and my lack of experience in the field of construction), I had a hole dug and started to contract out our house.

We are moving in this weekend, as a mater of fact. I look back now at all of the trials and worries I went through (I kept my wife out of most of it, until the painting stage), and realized that I thoroughly enjoyed the process of learning and embarking on an unknown challenge. I guess all I needed was a few people to say "'re not going to be able to do this..."

Anyway, I feel rising above all of my insecurities and living through all of the ridicule in childhood helped me develop as an achiever and a person that truly enjoys watching and helping others succeed.

KC: It's refreshing to hear that despite having been teased as a child, you didn't use your race as an excuse to not keep trying in life. I've had a similar perspective in my life. I never thought or felt that being half-Asian limited me in any way, despite the fact that there were people who were never going to let me forget that I didn't look like them. But, I think that's the way that it should be. I feel absolutely no sympathy for "minorities" who whine that they haven't been able to accomplish what they want because someone is keeping them down. It's all a lot of self-pitying crap, as far as I'm concerned. Now, I'm going to veer off from the race questions a bit and ask what do you think is the primary source of conflict between men and women?

DS: I think it's sex. Not simply a physical activity thing, it can be that as well, but I don't believe it is a subject. It believe that we are "wired" a little different at birth.

I'm a very creative person, so I'm very open-minded, but when I'm asked a question that is (to me) that ambiguous, I usually fall back to scientific studies and develop theories from a mix of written information and my own observations.

I think that because of instinct, as an incredibly adaptable species our opposites (sometimes the same sex ñ though I believe one partner takes on the opposite role) are sought after for balance (for survival).

Anyway, men are more technical-task oriented and women are more cognitiveñabstract thinkers. Obviously, there are exceptions to this theory, but I think that in many cases, the origin of most conflicts between men and women is the simple fact of how we are "programmed" at birth.

A woman sits on a sofa in her living room tackling a crossword puzzle. Her spouse comes into the room and sits on the sofa next to her he sits deeply with his head back and eyes closed.

A few minutes pass by and she says, "Honey, what's on your mind?"

Her spouse glances sideways at her and says, "Nothin'."

The woman says in a puzzled voice, "You have to have something on your mind."

The spouse replies (and folks, he really means it), "No, I've got nothing on my mind... just resting".

KC: Hmmm, interesting. So let me ask you, do men consider sex a "technical task" and that it's not wrapped up in something more than just the physical and mechanical process of engaging in intercourse?

DS: That's kind of a hard question to answer quickly. I think a lot of men have some complexity in their thinking when it comes to the subject of sex, but I would also add that in my opinion (whether most educated men would admit to this or not) most men would put on their list of importance first ó the "technical task". Sex (the full scope of the meaning something more), would come in second.

The best way to describe it, for me, is that if we use it in the context of the solar system (the full definition of sex being the solar system), most men would say the whole solar system is the physical activity of engaging in intercourse instead of saying the sun is the physical activity and is just part of a bigger picture.

I really believe, that at the center of the pursuit for the opposite sex, men (just like males in any animal species) initially pursue sex for the physical contact/act itself ó not for anything greater. Relationships that happen to develop from this contact is most times tertiary.

But, I do not want to rationalize. I think the question depends on the masculinity, the femininity, the background, and the culture of the man in question. Personally speaking, I think the definition is greater ó or maybe I have just convinced myself that it is. To be absolutely, totally honest, when I read your question, images of attractive women engaging in the physical act itself (okay there was one ugly one) immediately streamed through my mind.

KC: OK, so tell me truthfully, do men consider having to deal with the emotional side of a relationship just the trade-off for having access to regular sex? And why did you imagine one ugly woman? Was it to keep the fantasy more realistic?

DS: I think that men consciously or unconsciously, at first, think of the emotional side as a trade off (or maybe as an obstacle). At that point, they might realize something more in a relationship (a longing or maybe a connection with the person) or sensing more, they might start developing a way to get out of the situation with as little complications as possible.

The men that say they have always looked for a relationship and something more before sex crosses their minds, are either not telling the whole truth, or have been so ingrained with that idea in their upbringing that they honestly think they believe what they are saying.

The ugly woman keeps it more realistic, but (beauty is only skin deep) she might bring more to the table than the more attractive ones might not. Also, maybe subconsciously it's comfortable to have someone to fall back to that doesn't make me conscious of my insecurities.

KC: I find this fascinating....So, why do men marry? What do they get out of marriage?

DS: Men marry because there is some sort of connection above and beyond the initial sexual attraction. This can come at any time in a relationship (after the initial attraction) and, in my observations, can be attributed to several things: The woman can have physical or behavioral characteristics of the man's mother (or his mother figure in childhood) and he just feels "at home" with her; The woman may fit all the criteria for the man's image of the "perfect" woman and he may not want to "share her" with anyone else; he may have a low self-esteem (or may be unattractive) and upon a long search for someone to have relations with, falls "in love" with the first person he sleeps with (feeling that this only comes along once in a life-time); and finally he may find a person in which there is much in common and he just feels "right" with ó wanting to sustain that feeling forever.

KC: So do men really "love" women, or are they just fulfilling some other territorial compulsion left over from when we still lived in caves? Even in the case of men who marry the first girl they have sex with, the instinctual drive could be to form a "tribe" because, historically speaking, it's easier to survive within a group than on one's own.

DS: I believe love has a different meaning to any given man. We definitely are brought into the world with that instinctual "tribe" mentality, so I would say that many men fit the criteria of the caveman. However with the power and the complications of the human brain, I think there are many men, as well, that believe that they truly "love".

For example, I truly love my wife. But is it love in the conscious sense of what most of us believe ñ defined? Or is it a combination of what I've been taught from childhood with a subconscious underlying instinctual drive? I don't really know the correct answer, but I lean more toward the latter.

KC: What do you think love is for women, then?

DS: I donít think that love is only for women. But referencing the the original question of the source of conflicts, I think men and women's idea of what love is, (besides a connection to someone) is different. Sex (the physical act) shares a larger part in the man's idea of love.

KC: What's been the hardest thing you and your wife have had to overcome in your relationship?

DS: The hardest thing we've had to overcome has been the loss of my father two years ago from a massive heart attack at the age of 50, and 6 months later the loss of my wife's father from a freak car accident. It really was taxing on the relationship.

KC: In what way? Taxing to the point that it could have meant the break-up in your marriage, or taxing in that you both needed a level of support that the other wasn't prepared to offer given your individual griefs?

DS: It's a bit complicated. I'm the oldest son (I have only a younger sister), so when my father died it was a shock to the family. Because my mother is Korean and her support group was members of her Korean church, I became the main facilitator and support person for my mother. With all the things that needed to put to rest (setting social security, funeral arrangements, investments), I really did not have time to grieve.

By the time things were pretty much in order, my wife's father is in a car accident and we have to travel to Illinois to attend the funeral and take care of family stuff there (my wife is the oldest sister of four). My wife and her father never really had a great relationship. Her father left her mom when she was 4 years old, and my wife has kind of held that against him. However, about a year before his passing, I convinced my wife to put the past behind her and try to strike up a relationship with her father and his new life. She gave in and forgave him as well and something in herself. I am so happy she did that before the accident.

Anyway, after my father-in-law's funeral, we take it upon ourselves to be the support group for my wife's mother and family. By the time both of our families lives are moving toward a balance, we are both grieving our losses. This puts both of us in a dark, depression stage. We tried to be so supportive of each other, but there was distance, emotionally and of course, physically. After about a year of this, and many talks of the subject, we started on a course of finding out what good came of the deaths. The more we looked, the more we discovered silver linings in our families and our lives.

I look back now and so much good has come out of the two deaths. We care more about people rather than life as a big picture. Corny as it sounds, we started to actually "stop and smell the roses." I honestly don't think I would have jumped into contracting our new home (with no knowledge of building) if the deaths did not happen. We also have a longing appreciation of each and every friend, family and child that we know. It's sounds clichÈ, I know, but it has changed our lives to the point that we came back to the crossroads in life and have taken the path that we at one time did not

KC: Yeah, it's amazing the sorts of challenges life throws at you. My husband and I had a really rough period after our daughter was born. We had just moved to Indiana two months earlier so I could attend graduate school, and we didn't have any family around to fall on, and trying to get on track with new jobs and school and baby was really, really hard. I have a tendency to turn inward and just focus on getting done what needs to be done and not worrying about what's going on beyond that. Needless to say, it put a lot of strain on our marriage and we were both miserable and angry at each other for a really healthy chunk of time. At any rate, we kind of forced ourselves to talk about the situation and try to examine what was going on and what the causes of it were, and over time we were able to get rid of a lot of the harmful emotions and habits. Any marriage is a compromise and looking back on it, you definitely feel pride in knowing you tackled it together and were able to come through the fire intact. So what do you think it is about so many marriages today that make people not willing to do the hard work required of staying together?

DS: Methinks that has several answers. Some people do not have the aptitude for the level of empathy and compassion to make a marriage last. Some are too lazy to make the effort to work at the relationship. Some have too much pride to admit when they are wrong or to let their spouse win some, lose some.

Finally, some come from backgrounds where there hasn't been a role model (or models) to give them the tools for making a marriage and family work. That is why kids of divorced parents statistically have higher divorce rates (when reaching the appropriate age to marry), than children of happily married couples.

KC: Well, it's no secret that over the past few decades the divorce rate in America has sky-rocketed. Do you think couples split more easily today because there's no longer the social stigma attached to divorce that there once was, or do you think there's been a fundamental break-down in the perceived sanctity of marriage in our country, or do you think it's something altogether different?

DS: I think both of those apply. People are getting so used to hearing about divorce, it's almost like saying "were buying a house". It's commonplace to hear younger couples talk about their second marriage. Also, there is a breakdown in the sanctity of marriage. I talk to young people all the time about marriage and to them it is a "thing" you do. If it doesn't work out, there is a way "out".

It's not just a marriage thing, I think the less-than-thirty generation (sounds familiar) is bombarded with contradictions in issues of morality that we and our parents hold true. Bill Clinton, for example, not only has given everyone the public impression that he cheats on his wife, but ask any teen if a blowjob is sex and a high group will tell you "no".

KC: So what needs to happen? What do we, as a society, need to do to make young people realize marriage is a lifelong process that takes a lot of hard work and commitment, and isn't one of those "crazy" little things you do like piercing your belly-button?

DS: I don't really know if it is a fix we can do in our generation but we could lay the groundwork for it on a big picture scale: media, government (local) messaging, in school maybe. The school thing is so tricky. You cannot have religion-related stuff taught, but moral issues are for everyone.

I think it is a slow fix because from my own experience and observation, many of my close friends and family have children that have skewed ideas of morality. But many of them have strong moral convictions and are outstanding parents.

KC: You know, this might sound weird or prejudiced in some way, but my whole life I've thought most pure Americans--people whose parents are both American--are a little lazier and unmotivated than people who have at least one parent from another country. Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone, but I think when someone has that kind of intimate outside exposure to something else, they tend to have a greater appreciation for the value of working for what you want and not expecting everything to just be handed to you. I think that plays into the morality thing because understanding you are accountable for your own actions and decisions goes hand-in-hand with morality. What are your thoughts on that?

DS: I absolutely believe that is true. I've seen it first hand with my family members that own businesses (Asian) and with the Mexicans (not Latin-Americans) working on my house. The amount of work that a person outputs is what they think is expected of themselves. But, the person that is accustomed to hard work, long-hours or less-than-perfect conditions has higher expectations of themselves. It's what they think of as normal.

That goes for a persons actions and decisions as well. However, it seems that each generation from the first in this country keeps their culture and teachings, but replace bits and pieces with the "American" way of thinking. I'm guessing about the fourth or fifth generation will show only small amounts of the original culture.

KC: Do you have full Korean relatives living in the states? Cousins and such?

DS: Yes. Almost all of my mother's family, except a brother, live in the states. More than half here in Kentucky.

KC: And are you and your sister the only mixed children in the family?

DS: Yes. And yes there is a perceptible distiction from the full relatives (in their actions and conversations).

KC: Do you and your sister speak Korean?

DS: We both speak very broken Korean.

KC: My brother, sister and I don't speak any Korean except for a few phrases and I've found I feel a real grieving for not being able to speak the language because I can't interact with some of my relatives. How do your Korean relatives treat you? Do they view you as Korean or American?

DS: They definitely treat us as Americans. I also would like to speak to my grandmother, who only speaks korean.

KC: How does that make you feel? My American cousins view us as Korean and our Korean cousins view us as American, so we're an "other" to everybody.

DS: It makes me want to excel and try harder at everything so that the family recognizes me for something they deem as respectful.

KC: Have you had friction in your relationship with your mother because she thinks your behavior is too American? That's definitely been an issue with my mom as I've grown up.

DS: No. I think that is more between women and their daughters. Mine was always looking good for the other family members because of my being the oldest son. My sister had much friction.

KC: Do your Korean aunts and uncles expect their kids to marry other Koreans?

DS: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, my mother was hurt and wouldn't talk to my wife (now) when we were dating, and even went out of her way to hurt my wife's feelings. All because she's white.

KC: But even your mom was upset? That's odd since she married a white man. My mother never worried about whether or not we ended up marrying white people, but I really think she was hoping my brother might marry a korean girl. His girlfriend is white, so that's probably not going to happen. How did your wife handle this treatment?

DS: At first my wife was hurt. After about a year of dating, she tried to avoid her as much as possible and felt uncomfortable around her when my mom came to visit. But, after the two deaths, they've become much closer. They aren't your typical "go out and shop" together mother and daughter-in-law, but we do take mom out to eat and spend more time with her.

KC: What do YOU think about your mother's reluctance to accept a non-Korean daughter-in-law?

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