“When I was pregnant with you, I prayed for a white baby.” My mom will never understand how much that sentence haunted me growing up. She meant it as an outpouring of devotion. I wanted you to be the absolute best you could be. It’s interesting that a Korean woman would care at all about who’s racial profile her baby would have. For the record though, it is so not so far off. It’s a direct result of colonization and the western culture plague with its hands all up in South Korea. Yet, even though I was made in Korea, that statement would just be foreshadowing my life’s story. From the moment I pushed through that birth canal, my identity would forever be at the mercy of everyone in my life, except for me. It seems so strange that the things we choose to identify as need justification to the outside world. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned it is THEIR need for justification, not mine.
When I was five, my first-grade teacher asked my mother how we had such a good relationship… me, being the step-daughter and all… This would be the first-time racism registered in my brain. From my earliest memory until that point my life we lived on Air Force bases, where mixed kids were everywhere, and in Korea, where I was surrounded by my family. This issue of us not looking alike had never registered for me before. I saw my mom let out a nervous giggle behind her hand, a gesture I would know all too well by the time I was in middle school.
I could not imagine pouring so much love into your child, enduring the pains of labor for that child, and then have that love stripped to every title other than biological parent.
As a “rebellious” teenager I would use society’s need for justification against them. Sometimes my stories would be so outlandish, I could not keep my face from smirking. I would laugh on the inside. How ignorant could people be? Their reactions to the tale of the mail-order bride, or how my dad saved my mom from the North Koreans or found her floating in the ocean trying to escape herself. The nanny. It was my immature defense mechanism. When everyone asks you to justify your identity, it becomes tiring to tell the same story over and over. You’re not telling your story by choice, you’re telling it simply because someone has demanded you to. Eventually it started falling out of my mouth like a warning:
This is probably also why I prefer to hang out at home.
There is always the chance someone will treat me differently if they find out I am a person of color. To those that can even tell I’m something, I am usually “gorgeous”, “beautiful”, or “exotic”. My worth is measured by how much I fall into the Hapa stereotype of being prettier than monoracial people, looking younger or some other bullshit that contorted my body image, self-esteem and self-worth. The stereotypes of subservient Asian women were placed on me before I was old enough to understand what that meant, by males in my life. What they were really saying is that I was safe. I looked white enough to be seen but still exotic enough for their Asian stereotypes and fantasies. The best of both worlds. Yay, me! sarcasm This just meant my day around them was spent hopping from box to box depending on the identity that suited them at the time. Need someone good at math or to fix your computer? Asian box. Want to tell a racist joke but don’t want me to be offended? White box. Sometimes I’ll be perfectly content in my own box, but somebody will come by and try to put me in a different box:
One time, in college, in the early 00’s, I was at this Asian frat party, hanging out with some new friends I made. There were other mixed people to talk too, at this Asian frat party. I had no identity issues, I was just me, in my Korean and white box, a very rare occurrence. I didn’t have to justify myself to ANYONE it was amazing! In comes some skinny little white dude. Baseball cap on backwards.. friend of a friend.. you get the picture.. scans the room, and he comes up to me and goes, “Hey! What are you doing here?” Not like, hey we know each other, what are you doing here? But a very obvious “one of these things is not like the other,” all while trying to be slick, fly, smooth, whatever… I, visibly annoyed, yell out “I’M KOREAN!” very awkwardly because this whole thing is awkward. “PROVE IT!” he smirks back, still trying to be pretty fly for a white guy. “You want me to do a DNA test right now?”… and that is how I usually become the ”weird” one. Somehow he felt his fully white presence was totally understandable, at a mostly Asian frat party, yet mine half white self needed an answer. The confusion in my voice was more taken aback by this man’s entitlement to my story and why i existed in that space. MY SPACE.
Events like these is why I let myself become lost in video games instead of entertaining social engagements, especially around new people or areas where I would have to socialize a lot.
Lately, Korean culture is like a stamp of cool, and participating in it doesn’t differentiate me anymore from my white friends. In fact admitting I listen to kpop makes me sound more white and immediately gets me bombarded with questions. Although it is better than constantly being ask, “What are you?” and awkwardly answering, “a person,” because we both know that’s not what you meant.
Korean appropriation is all over Instagram and Facebook. White women spouting kpop merch, cardboard cutouts of group members, korean snacks they bought at Hmart, and posting their recipe for Kimchi Slaw (whatever the f*ck that is). When I told my sister about this post I was writing, she told me about her driver’s ed experience. Whenever it was your turn to drive, you could pick the music. When it was her turn to drive, she would pick Kpop to listen to. DBSK (or TVXQ) specifically. She told me how the other driver’s ed students would make comments, and roll their eyes at each other, as if there was some unwritten “english only” rule. Now those same radio stations they listened to are playing BTS, a popular Kpop group.
I go out to eat. Order a Reuben, and it comes with Kimchi Slaw… What the fuck is Kimchi Slaw… seriously… That Fresh Off the Boat episode. The first one. Eddie brings his normal home food to school for lunch, like everyone else in America, and is forced to retreat from the “cool” table because his home food is Chinese. Now, put whatever you think about Hollywood aside, that is a real thing that happens to kids. School lunch was a nightmare. My mom refused to pack Korean food in my lunch, for risk of bullying. I remember the days when Korean food was a hidden secret we kept at home, only telling certain people what our true eating habits were. Out in the yonder we were to assimilate, food and all, and yet here we are in 2019, and oh, how times have changed. Well, kind of.
Like seriously though, can someone explain Kimchi slaw to me, because I am genuinely confused.
Looking white clearly didn’t save me from the injustices of an identity crisis. In fact, not only did I get all the bullshit mixed race kids get on the white side, I was too white to fit in with the Asian kids. I always felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb in any spaces with people, which made Korean church and activities pretty awkward. Throw in a FOX News household, an ADHD brain, some undiagnosed immunological disorder and you have a recipe for being the weird kid. Always. Anywhere. In any space.
I’ve always felt like such an imposter in spaces of color. My white face stands out, and honestly it sucks. I’m not trying to pass as anything, that’s just how my face looks. My identity needs justification in those spaces, as well. While I experience racism in a different way, my story sometimes goes unheard, on both sides. Then there is the other side now, where people want to be my friend because I’m Asian. This is also not a good thing. I experienced my first “wannabe Asian” in college. It was terrifying, and enough topic to write a whole separate post on.
Do I have white privilege? Absolutely! I benefit from a systemic racist society because most people will assume I’m white, based on my name, face, and skin color. However being a white passing person of color comes with a specific set of experiences, that I feel is left out of the conversation. In my work I’ve been researching Autistic people’s stories and their experiences. I find myself relating to the plight of the “High Functioning Autistic”. Functioning labels tell us someone’s ability to appear normal, not necessarily how they function in day to day life. Often times Autistic people who live successful lives will be dismissed as “High Functioning”, and not “severe” enough to need services, or additional help. Similarly, being a white passing person of color, means people may be dismissive of my experiences with racism and colorism, because my identity is based on their perspective of whiteness.
Now, Hollywood is casting roles for people like me, like Aloha, or roles that could be used to represent either Asian or mixed, like Ghost in the Shell. They aren’t going to the Kristin Kreuk’s, Chloe Bennet’s of the world, or anyone that resembles me. They are going to Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson. They are voiced by Angelina Jolie (who I absolutely woman crush on, don’t get it twisted, but that was space in Kung Fu Panda for someone else). Crazy Rich Asians felt like a homecoming reunion of the joy I had watching the “Joy Luck Club” and just plain seeing Asian faces on a TV. Yet, even here, there was criticism of Henry Golding, a very Asian looking person of English and Malaysian decent, as not being Asian enough to play the lead male role. That a partly white face didn’t belong there, funny enough…
It shows me the world isn’t quite ready yet. It’s not really listening. Looking back on the irony of it all, I believe this journey is why I feel so much empathy for my son’s community, and others with invisible identities. Our outside appearance, or ability to blend in, determines how much people justify our existence, or even accept it at all. People abuse and take advantage of systems put in place to help us, and it hurts the real people that deal with limited spoons every day.