I hated being Korean. I grew up envying white girls with blond hair, blue eyes and skinny eyes on TV and in the movies. It was hard not to hate my tiny eyes and flat features when all I saw in the media were depictions of white beauty. Even my parents wanted me to work my nose and shave my cheekbones because that’s what they thought was beautiful – not our faces, but theirs.
I was ashamed of the way we looked at everyone: uncivilized, loud, smelly with a garlic breath, and stupid with our broken and awkward English accents. I hated how tangled up and closed my family was and how it seemed like nothing outside of us was allowed in and we weren’t allowed out.
I hated being with other Asians – partly because, like most Korean Americans, I grew up in church and thought all Koreans were judging Christians, but also because I refused to accept that I was something like their.
I hated the way Asians traveled together in herds and how their tongues seemed abrasive compared to the calm consistency of English. I used to make fun of other Asians, believing that I wasn’t like them, and trying to convince myself that I was more American – or more white – than them.
Cathy Park Hong, author of “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” writes, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself as white people see you, which makes you your own worst enemy.” I became my own worst enemy from the moment I arrived at LAX at just 3 years old, starting what now feels like a life of assimilating whiteness and desperately trying to be seen and accepted.
For much of my youth and young adulthood, I spent my time in America no longer surviving. Fawning is one of the responses to trauma, similar to flight, fight, or freeze. Fawning is when you, the people, please dispel conflict in order to restore a sense of security.
I loved trying to please white people and looking at me the way they saw me. I loved laughing at the racist jokes, the micro-attacks, the fetishizations and the repeated depreciation of my cultural background and my appearance.
I learned early on that this is what I should do to survive alive. I laughed at countless ‘open your eyes’ jokes and begged my parents to buy me Lunchables so I wouldn’t have to bring smelly kimchi to school for lunch. A friend once told me that I smelled weird, so I got used to spraying myself head to toe in perfume to mask the Korean smell every time I left my house.
I distanced myself from other Asians, thinking I had found the solution to all my problems by aligning myself with whites, by clinging to my closeness to whiteness. Instead of quietly downplaying myself and downplaying my racial trauma, I simultaneously perpetuated and mocked Asian stereotypes and rejected the parts of myself that didn’t correspond to white mold. As they say, if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.
I immersed myself in the myth of the model minority, designed to pit people of color against one another in defense of white supremacy. I loved it and tried to survive the only way I knew how, blending in – only that was never possible.
It wasn’t until I got older and was able to explore my culture outside of my original family that I was able to appreciate those parts of myself that I was desperately trying to hide.
A few years after university, I felt called back to my homeland. My parents are both from large families, so I had tons of aunts, uncles, cousins and my grandmothers to welcome me with open arms. I was the black sheep of my original family and stayed in America forever, but in Korea I was home. For the first time, I saw myself as a Korean would.
Life in Seoul was like heaven for me because I was surrounded by faces that looked like mine. The language that sounded so harsh in America, Korea, sounded like an old song I knew all the words for. I felt connected and a sense of belonging that I had never felt in the United States. I didn’t have to hate myself anymore.
In Korea, I learned about our painful history and how deeply rooted colonialism is in racism. I have learned how long we have carried and passed on this trauma from generation to generation, until it reached my family and I – the first to come to the land of opportunity and freedom and to embark on the journey. American dream.
But the thing with the American dream is that it’s actually only for white people. I learned this during the housing crisis of 2008, when banks targeted immigrant families, offering them a chance to make that elusive dream come true and take it all away. My parents lost everything and had to start their lives over.
In 1992, during the Los Angeles riots, police were deployed to wealthy and white neighborhoods while black and Korean neighborhoods were set on fire. Many Korean business leaders have seen their livelihoods disappear before their eyes. Now, in 2021, I see video after video of Asian Americans, mostly older people and women, being attacked in the streets on a daily basis. More than ever, I hear it loud and clear: we are not considered as equals. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be white enough.
When I returned to the United States, it felt like I was pushing the reset life button. I was able to immigrate again with a fresh outlook and a real connection to my culture that felt authentic to me, instead of what I knew about the church and the 3 km radius that is Korea-Town. This time, instead of full assimilation, my goal became to acculturate myself without compromising my sense of myself.
The first thing I did was find myself a Korean American therapist who understood what it was like to grow up biculturally in America in order to deal with my racial trauma and identity issues.
It was then that I realized that I was not alone and that there were words to describe those of us who are made up of more than one part and who have grown up exposed to the particular trauma of l acculturation without any guidance or support. Through therapy, I realized that it was possible to exist both Korean and American.
Growing up, I learned in school that America is a “cultural melting pot”. But what happens in a melting pot is that all of these cultures blend together and erode the characteristics that make each unique to become a stale pot of the mainstream culture. Now I see America as a fusion of flavors, where immigrants and people of color can preserve our customs while adapting to life in America.
These days, I’m proud of my bilingual skills. I love to master my Korean in Korea-Town and be able to offer psychotherapy in my native language. I love making kimchi and every year I make jars of it that I give to non-Asian friends whose palates can now handle the heat.
I am no longer ashamed of myself and where I come from. Although I cannot change other people and situations, I can take care of myself and my perception of myself and the world around me.
Now when people ask me what was once a very dreaded question – “Where are you from?” which really means, “What are you?” – I proudly answer that I am Korean American because I want to normalize the fact that this country is made up of humans of all colors, shapes, sizes and ethnicities. I look at myself from my own lens instead of filtering myself to attract whites because I want to show the world that this is what America really looks like.
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