I’m sometimes asked why I identify as Korean American. There’s a lot of mixed race people in the world and it may puzzle some as to why we choose our minority heritage. I think the answer lies with our personal experience. Whether we choose it or not, we will have a minority experience and it will frame the entirety of our life:
* I watched as my mom struggled to learn English from a book till late into the night, listening and practicing pronunciation with recordings to try to remove her accent that often caused her to be treated differently. One day she told me I just can’t do anymore. This is as far as I can go.
* I inherited violence that originated from the poverty caused by the Japanese occupation of Korea for decades and the Korean War.
* I shopped in Korean grocery stores and spent lots of time in Korea Town.
* I did not have any historical asian role models because public school had failed me and that brought feelings of inferiority to white people.
* I cried as kids continually made slant eyes at me throughout grade school or passed me notes that said nip on them with slant eye stick figures.
* I grew up with relatives that trickled in from Korea one by one that brought different ways of speaking and being in the world. As a kid trying to fit in, I shied away from them because of their connection to the things kids made fun of me for.
* I grew up on kimchi, egg rolls, japchae, rice dumpling soup, ramen, an assortment of banchan, bibimbap, gimbap, jjajangmyeon, bulgogi, tteokguk on the korean new year, sundubu-jjigae, pajeon, and hobakjuk porridge.
* I never saw people that looked like me in movies or on tv except Connie Chung and Long Duck Dong. Not seeing others who looked like me or my family made me feel lower class.
* I lost the Korean language because my mother wanted me to just “fit in” to a single American definition because of her own internalized racism about her poor immigrant language.
* I walked through alleyways where nip and gook were written on walls from heightened tension after the Vietnam War and I knew I was the gook.
* I sat on Korean furniture and learned the significance of little Korean objects, like the rabbits on the moon.
* I lost out in adopting asian heroes like Bruce Lee because boys would do karate chop moves at me for years and say words like ching chong and laugh. I thought Bruce Lee was someone to be made fun of. I’ve recently reclaimed him.
* I witnessed my mom being robbed by a white man and the white people around her watched and didn’t help due to anti-immigration sentiment at the time.
* I cried in school because the teacher asked us to stand up and say what we had for lunch and I said ramen and kimchi and the teacher and the entire class laughed. I became embarrassed of my food.
* I had a brief affair with a white rock star who seduced me because he fetishized half asian girls. That is all he saw or cared to see in me.
* I majored in African American literature and history in college because I didn’t want to look at my own pain and my own peoples’ history. I was distanced from it because of ingrained feelings that came from unconscious racist comments.
* I fiddled with tape in the mirror so my eyes would be more like the women I saw in magazines.
* I watched as my mom graduated with her GED and later from cosmetology school but was afraid to take her application in because white salons didn’t hire people like her. She remained a factory worker until her death.
* My home was always filled with foods none of my friends had ever heard of and smelled unlike traditional American foods.
* My mom sang me the SanToki song and now I sing it to Hollis.
I internalized racism because of much of the above and for a brief time was embarrassed to be Korean because the world in the 70s and 80s repeatedly showed me there was something wrong or inferior with that identification. This is what happens when you live in a homogeneous society dominated by one group of people.
Racism is sometimes about the omissions. The omissions schools make, the omissions your friends make, the omissions your workplace makes. And it’s also about the joking and the ridicule that you spend years of your life chipping away at to return to who you should have been. I will always be in the process of doing that.
I am Korean American.