I used to hate being Korean. I grew up envying the blond-haired, blue-eyed, skinny white girls on TV and the movies. It was hard not to hate my small eyes and flat features when all I ever saw in the media were portrayals of white beauty. Even my parents wanted me to get a nose job and shave down my cheekbones because that’s what they thought was beautiful ― not our faces, but theirs.
I was ashamed of how we looked to everyone else: uncivilized, loud, smelly with garlic breath, and dumb with our broken English and awkward accents. I hated how enmeshed and closed off my family was and how it seemed like nothing outside of us was allowed in and we weren’t allowed out.
I used to hate being around other Asians ― in part because like most Korean Americans, I grew up in the church and thought that all Koreans were judgmental Christians, but also because I refused to accept that I was anything like them.
I hated how Asians traveled together in flocks and how abrasive their languages seemed compared to the calm consistency of English. I used to make fun of other Asians, believing I was nothing 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 the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy.” I became my own worst enemy from the moment I arrived at LAX at only 3 years old, beginning what now feels like a lifetime of assimilating to whiteness and desperately trying to be seen and accepted.
For a large part of my youth and young adulthood, I spent my time in America fawning out of survival. Fawning is one of the trauma responses, similar to flight, fight or freeze. Fawning is when you people-please to diffuse conflict in order to reestablish a sense of safety.
I fawned by aiming to please white people and viewing myself the way they saw me. I fawned by laughing off racist jokes, microaggressions, fetishizations, and the repeated belittling of my cultural background and how I look.
I learned early on that this is what I would have to do to make it through alive. I laughed off countless “open your eyes” jokes and I 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 I smelled weird, so I became accustomed to spraying myself from head to toe in perfume to mask the smell of Korea whenever I left my house.
I distanced myself from other Asians, thinking I had found the solution to all of my problems by aligning myself with white people, clinging to my proximity to whiteness. Instead of just quietly minimizing myself and my racial trauma, I simultaneously perpetuated and mocked Asian stereotypes and rejected the parts of myself that didn’t fit the white mold. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat them, might as well join them.
I fawned into the model minority myth, designed to pit people of color against each other to uphold white supremacy. I fawned and tried to survive the only way I knew how, by blending in ― only that was never actually possible.
It wasn’t until I got older and I was able to explore my culture outside of my family of origin that I could appreciate these parts of myself that I desperately tried to keep hidden.
A few years after college, I felt called back to the motherland. 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 in my family of origin and forever othered in America, but in Korea, I was home. For the first time, I saw myself as a Korean would.
Life in Seoul was like heaven to me because I was surrounded by faces that looked like mine. The language that sounded so harsh in America, in Korea felt like an old song I knew all the words to. I felt connected and a sense of belonging that I had never felt in the States. I didn’t have to hate myself anymore.
In Korea, I learned about our painful history and just how much colonialism is rooted in racism. I learned about how long we’ve been carrying and passing down this trauma from generation to generation, until it reached me and my family ― the first to make it to the land of opportunity and freedom and have a go at the American dream.
But the thing about the American dream is that it’s actually only for white people. I learned that during the housing crash of 2008 when banks targeted immigrant families, offering them a chance at this elusive dream only to take it all away. My parents lost everything and had to start their lives over again.
In 1992, during the LA riots, police were deployed in affluent, white neighborhoods while Black and Korean neighborhoods were left to burn. Many Korean business owners watched their livelihoods disappear right before their eyes. Now, in 2021, I see video after video of Asian Americans, mostly seniors and women, getting attacked on the street on a daily basis. More than ever, I hear it loudly and clearly: We are not seen as equals. No matter how hard we strive, we will never be white enough.
When I came back to the States, I felt like I hit the reset button on life. I got to immigrate again with a fresh set of eyes and an actual connection to my culture that felt authentic, instead of what I knew from church and the 2-mile radius that is Korea-Town. This time, instead of complete assimilation, my goal became to acculturate without compromising my sense of self.
The first thing I did was get myself a Korean American therapist who understood what it was like growing up biculturally in America in order to process my racial trauma and identity issues.
That’s when I realized that I wasn’t alone and that there were words to describe those of us who consist of more than one part and grew up exposed to the special trauma of acculturating without any guidance or support. Thanks to therapy, I understood that it was possible to exist as 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 these cultures mix together and erode the characteristics that make each unique in order to become a bland pot of the dominant culture. Now I see America as more of a fusion of flavors, where immigrants and people of color can preserve our customs while also adapting to life in America.
These days I’m proud of my bilingual skills. I love flexing my Korean in Korea-Town and being able to provide psychotherapy in my native tongue. 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’m no longer ashamed of myself and where I come from. Although I may not be able to change other people and situations, I can nurture myself and how I see 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 respond that I’m 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 view myself from my own lens instead of filtering myself to appeal to white people because I want to show the world that this is what America truly looks like.