This Is What It's Like To Not Have Any Friends Who Are Your Same Race

"Many Korean Americans have had the comfort of community to weather the assaults on our identity. But for me, it has been an incredibly lonely experience."
The author with her family.
The author with her family.
Courtesy of Carleo Images

As a Korean American, there are some ways I fit in just right with “my people.” By and large, American-born Koreans are handed the same starter kit: a name that’s impossible to pronounce, the familiar sting of the slant eyes gesture, the tired perception that we are at once sexual and submissive, and the, shall we say, complex relationship with our immigrant parents.

But many Korean Americans have had the comfort of community to weather the assaults on our identity. The heightened anti-Asian rhetoric and violence of the past two years has only cemented those bonds ― the salve of togetherness in our otherness. It’s been a frightening time to look like us, but much of the hand-wringing and crying has been a communal exercise with family and friends who have the shared context of treading this specific body of water. There is a fellowship to fall apart together. For most of us.

But for me ― a Korean American without any Korean friends ― it has been an incredibly lonely experience.

Growing up in Southern California, I often resisted the opportunity to make Korean friends when I was younger. My embrace of all things American was actually more of a chokehold, so intent was my desire to put some daylight between me and my culture. My casual rejection of the language, the food, and the customs earned me the derision of other Korean Americans who called me “white washed” ― which would have hurt if I didn’t acknowledge it was actually true. My painful family history also never positioned me to be particularly receptive to female friendships with other Koreans.

But I started to feel the gentle tug toward Korean kinship as I got older. The problem was that, at that point, I was “geographically undesirable” to foster those kinds of friendships for the first time. My top college choice was located in the middle of America, so I left California. But then I ended up building a life in the Midwest for two decades: I met my white husband, started a career and had children.

When it came to making friends, I certainly wasn’t unique in seeking friendships based in homophily, the sociological “birds of a feather flock together” notion that people naturally gravitate to people who are like themselves. I did just that by befriending people who were like me ― loyal, fluent in sarcasm and who think brunch is underrated ― except for race. Where I lived made it a statistical certainty that my friends would be white ― and they are. They are wonderful people whose friendships I cherish deeply.

For a long time, I was merely grateful, attuned to the truth that good friends are hard to come by. But the arc of my life experiences began to bend toward the realization that I desperately needed to be understood, supported and enriched by people who look like me.

For many Korean Americans, the death of our parents is the crucible of our Korean-ness. In spite of all the time I spent keeping my culture at arm’s length for so long, I didn’t realize how Korean I was until my dad died a few years ago. The circumstances of my dad’s illness and death were so ... Korean. And I understood, acutely and intimately, all of it: fumbling to translate the dense vocabulary of disease between my dad’s broken English and my equally fractured Korean; the push and pull of filial obligation so deeply imbued in our culture; and his decision to ultimately return to Korea to die ― something that shattered me as much as it also soldered my connection to my father’s country. But now, my country, too.

I appreciated the heartfelt condolences from my friends after my dad’s death, but they couldn’t know how the depth of my loss was inscribed in such a culturally specific way. In that way, my grief has had a kind of quiet tonality that aches for some connection with anyone in a similar key. There is no one I can talk with who has had the shared experience of losing not just a parent, but a Korean one ― because I promise you it hits differently.

And in much the same way my cultural reconciliation was set into motion after losing a parent, becoming a parent has amplified that even more.

In many ways, my non-Korean mom friends and I share a common language of parenthood that transcends race. From teething and tantrums to sports bras and soccer games, parenting is hard and heartening for everyone. And when it came to teaching my kids about friendships, I initially set up my tent in the camp of the colorblind where it doesn’t matter what your friends look like. But the one-two punch of the pandemic and our national racial reckoning has made us all sit up straight and shift in our seats.

“In many ways, my non-Korean mom friends and I share a common language of parenthood that transcends race. ... But the one-two punch of the pandemic and our national racial reckoning has made us all sit up straight and shift in our seats.”

As a Korean American and mother to my half-Korean children, my vantage point is much different. It’s a hard truth to see your parenting road diverge from those of your white friends when Asians are being blamed for a pandemic or being killed because of an equally virulent and insidious form of racism. I can’t dismiss racial difference and expect that my children and I will be treated the same way as long as we ask nicely or fit in just enough.

The desire to finally seek friendships of my own race isn’t to diminish my deep, lifelong relationships with my white friends. I don’t doubt their sincerity when they say, “I’m so sorry for what you’re feeling and I’m here to listen.” But how cathartic it has been to arrive at the promise and comfort of one day hearing, “I know exactly how you’re feeling and we’re going to get through this together.”

I’m no longer living in the Midwest. My family and I moved to the Northeast almost two years ago, encouraged by the prospect of being more geographically favorable: Koreans live on the coasts! They are in enclaves in Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.! Surely this would be the opening I’ve been looking for. But we moved during the pandemic, when social interactions and opportunities have been limited. Connection is hard when you’re masked and 6 feet apart. Connection with other adults is difficult even without a pandemic.

“You just have to put yourself out there and find other Koreans now that we’re here,” my husband encouraged me recently.

“How? Am I just supposed to stroll through the aisles at H Mart and pick up a Korean friend? Where are they and how do I not make it weird??” I responded.

So, it’s not going great so far.

But in the absence of these real-life connections, I’ve resorted to finding “my people” online. I follow Koreans on Instagram and Twitter, charmed by Karen Chee’s comedy and moved by R.O. Kwon’s writing. I watch Jen Chae’s makeup tutorials made expressly for those of us with monolids and try to duplicate chef Chris Cho’s delicious recipes like hotteok, Korean pancakes. It is the strangest of things ― of feeling like I’m playing catch-up and also feeling like I’ve belonged right here the whole time.

These virtual surrogates and strangers on social media have provided consolation after each horrifying headline in the Asian community. But it hasn’t all been cultural commiseration over inequities and tragedies. Underscoring the problematic “We don’t quite know what to do with you guys” ambivalence of this country, anti-Asian sentiment exists concurrently with the popularity of all things Korean: BTS, Squid Game,” countless K-dramas streaming in many non-Korean households, even our very own “Sesame Street” puppet. How meaningful it would be to share in this kind of mainstream acceptance with other Korean Americans who have the lived experience (through invariably painful recall) of recognizing just how remarkable this is.

With the world beginning to open back up again, I think we’re all emerging as wildly different people looking for connection in very specific ways. I don’t have a game plan yet on how to graduate from Korean “friends” on Twitter to meeting Korean friends in real life. I don’t know exactly where they are. But I hope I find them. I hope they’re acknowledging the awkward notion of trying to make friends at this age, this stage, and with these specifications. I hope they see me sincerely, as someone who is still finding and forgiving herself. And I hope they graciously accept all the things and all the time it took for some of us to finally get here.

Miun Gleeson is a writer and essayist with bylines in Motherwell, TODAY Parents, POPSUGAR, Capsule Stories and more. Follow her on Twitter at @mgleeson312.

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