In an effort to read more Asian literature, I've started by exploring books by Korean authors in order to learn more about Korean history and culture. (Photo by Joyce Kim)
La Cañada High School

Column: Exploring my Korean identity — A follow-up to Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko’

Though my parents were born and raised in Korea, having immigrated to the states when they were in their late 20s, I’ve spent my whole life in my small, predominantly white community of La Cañada.

And growing up, I was never too keenly aware of my identity as a Korean girl, besides the fact that I rarely spoke English within my household, that I’d be the one answering emails from the time I could write and that sometimes I wouldn’t be able to explain what my favorite food or TV show or song was to my other friends. But in my eight-year-old eyes, everyone else was still just like me, and there seemed to be no such thing as “color,” “language” or “culture” to separate me from any of my friends.

Somewhere down the line, I started realizing that I was different from my white friends. Whether it was the way I looked, my diction, the food I ate, the life I lead at home, my hobbies and pastimes or even my relationship with my family, I recognized the subtle differences that would, every once in a while, lead to a sense of estrangement.

As I started perceiving these subtleties, I grew more sensitive to the reactions of others, whether it was a girl making a face at my Korean food, a group of boys howling with laughter as they stretched their eyes to slits or the way my relatives would always have to repeat themselves, as if replaying their stumbling “r’s” and bowed “v’s” and tilted syllables would suddenly rid their accents to the bewildered faces of polite white people. 

This new sense of awareness was a startling introduction to my racial identity. Born and raised in America my entire life, having never stepped a foot in Korea nor having any real interest in any aspects of Korean culture, I was taken aback by all these differences between me and a world that once seemed so familiar to me. I didn’t feel “Korean,” but at the same time, I was being told that I wasn’t really “American” either. 

But rather than confronting or embracing this difference, I began to reject it and allow myself to be whitewashed by the culture I longed to belong in, denying aspects of my culture and even belittling it for the sake of fitting in.

I remember demanding my mom to stop packing me things like rice, guk (“soup”), and banchan (Korean side dishes) for lunch, because it would mean spending lunchtime discreetly trying to cover my food or wolf it down as fast as I could to avoid being seen, and instead opted for bland sandwiches and pasta.

I intentionally sought out to befriend non-Asians, as if mingling with them would allow me to blend in, maybe even prove to everyone else that I was just as competent as other people, an idea that, in hindsight, is so completely messed up in dozens of levels.

I grew to despise my Asian identity, which I felt only removed me from the group, burdened me with unrealistic expectations, discredited all my achievements and made me a figure of mockery — essentially, stripped me of my humanity to stuff me into another mold, viewed completely inferior to white people. 

At the same time, being from a place like La Cañada and never really having any interest in “Korean” things, I would alternatively get this sense of estrangement whenever I was surrounded by a Korean community. My family used to go to church in Koreatown and it was one of the only times that I would be in a room full of people who looked like me and spoke like me. When I recognized this, I felt more comforted — after all, this identity crisis was a shared experience between anyone of a different race. 

But within my friends at church, I soon came to realize that they reflected a completely different picture, one of a group of Koreans that wholeheartedly embraced the Korean culture. I think these groups of Koreans are labeled “FOBs,” or “Fresh-off-the-boat,” a term meant to derogate those who like they’ve just stepped out of Asia and still aren’t familiar with American culture.

Living at the heart of the L.A. Korean hub, which in time has transformed itself to almost replicate the streets of Korea, this group that I supposedly belonged to seemed much more foreign to me. I felt awkward listening to their conversations in Korean, cringing away at their casual touchiness. I rarely understood any of their references and conversation topics, nor could I recognize any of their favorite restaurants, dramas or songs.

At the core of our identities, my Korean friends and I were probably more similar than any other community — yet again, these subtleties and little, almost insignificant details seemed to form another barrier around me. And if I’m being honest, I began to group them into my inferiority, as if they were the manifestations of my otherness and being associated with them embarrassed me.

Alternatively, more than a few times, my Korean friends have been surprised to find that I’m fluent in Korean because I “looked super American,” whether that’s due to my darker complexion or overall awkward, out-of-place attitude. No matter where I was, I struggled to identify with the people around me, both due to internal and external differences.

The better part of my prior years consisted of my futile attempts to somehow detach myself from this Korean girl, which I guess I thought would allow me to overcome this bizarre hybrid of being neither really “Korean” nor really “American” enough to fit in anywhere. Rather than taking pride in my unique identity, I forgoed it to succumb to this perpetual sense of inferiority.

To be honest, I still don’t know where this severe sense of inferiority even came from.

My parents were always supportive and empowering, and most of my friends were kind and empathetic. It seemed like a creation of my mind, some warped monster crawling out from within me to seize all my insecurities and merge them into one, poisoning my sense of self-worth and my pride in my identity.

But as I read “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee and spent time reflecting on why it had left such a profound effect on me, I started realizing that maybe the human figures in my life weren’t the only ones who played a role in shaping my thoughts. 

Recently, with quarantine leaving me with more time on my hands, I’ve been reading almost constantly, and one of the books I read is “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee — a beautiful tale of a Korean immigrant family in Japan. I’ve always been an avid reader, absorbing characters and books at any given time. Captivated by stories of magic and friendship when I was younger, to more complex, sometimes disturbing, morally gray dilemmas now, I’ve cultivated a passion for reading and writing.

Yet, as I sat down with the book “Pachinko,” I felt eerie, like I was watching two worlds, between which I’d never known a relation, suddenly collide. Four hours later, still absorbed into the storyline, a realization began to dawn on me that this was one of the first times, if not the first time, that I was seeing Korean characters encapsulating Korean tendencies, cultural nuances and speaking the Korean language, all the while maintaining the same capacities for development and characterization as any other character I’d known.

Not only did this book humanize the Koreans and Japanese on either side of history, but it also humanized the Asian identity as a whole, nudging me to see that Koreans were every bit as validated, as worthy, as incredible and just utterly human as, really, everyone else. 

And thus came the epiphany that I had rarely seen someone of my culture, who spoke my language and looked like me, reflected anywhere within literature.

In the “Harry Potter” books, one of the most beloved series of all time, the only East-Asian character is a manifestation of Asian stereotypes, who is portrayed as less competent and serves as a foil character to further compare to and empower the others.

Never in my life have I read a book by an Asian author in school, hardly even anyone of a different ethnicity than Caucasian.

Though predominantly in books, but also movies, celebrity figures, musical artists or any example of success and normality, the face of society seemed to take on that of a white person. And over time, the constant implications and microaggressions grew to a silent sense of marginalization, which I and thousands of other Asian-Americans now face.

Especially with the ongoing Black Lives Matters movement, which demands justice against racism but also uplifts black identity, I’ve been reflecting more on my own experiences and conceptions of race. By no means have I faced the same hardships as other minority groups, but the general attitude towards Asians still remains that of a demeaning, prejudiced one.

Last year, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” became the first foreign film to win “Best Picture” at the Grammys, but that still wasn’t enough for it to escape race-implied criticism, even from our own president. Recent Kpop group BTS’s breakthrough in American media and culture is still plagued by suspicious discrepancies with less successful white artists.

Though we’re taking baby steps to include more Asian representation in American culture, there is still a long way to go.

Arguably, we live in one of the most progressive societies today, but the need for change still remains. And while media is important, true change begins at the roots of education, more specifically literature because literature essentially serves as a reflection of society.

Schools need to incorporate Asian literature, with Asian characters and written by Asian authors into their curriculum; in turn, we, as a society, need to promote such. And not just Asian, but every other ethnic minority group that faces discrimination, marginalization and racism.

True acceptance isn’t just fighting for minority rights, but immersing oneself into the complexities of each culture with genuine interest and open-mindedness. Only when we begin to purge our prejudices and truly understand the beauty of different cultures and people, can we grow into a future of greater inclusivity and diversity.