My Race, Coast to Coast: Part 1

I designed this series because I thought it’d be interesting to glimpse stories from around the globe. But I found myself feeling almost apologetic writing my own; I didn’t consider my tale really worth telling. Then I warmed to the rich potential this project held out as a forum for safe, honest talk about our biases and personal struggles.

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I prefer Asian-American or Korean-American. I grew into the American part with time so in looking back on my childhood, I speak of myself as a Korean kid but it bugs me to have to check “Asian” on forms. Tip-toeing on politically correct ground, we don’t call black people Africans in the States but acknowledge their American status. I don’t know why Asian-Americans are not accorded the same respect. Actually, I do know. We are not vocal about it.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in California. My family joined the biggest tide of emigration that brought South Koreans to America in the 70s. After the formative years in New York City, I went to Pennsylvania for college. I ended up nesting there until the move across the country 13 years ago. Given the diversity in major American cities I didn’t notice significant cultural differences between them, at least ethnically.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My childhood in NYC was your unoriginal melting pot. From neighborhood to school and city, we had white, Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and of course many Koreans. Out of my motley neighborhood, I entered the most homogenous class at P.S. 89 when I started my school career in first grade; only as an adult did I realize how unusual the roomful of Korean kids was, under the tutelage of the only Korean teacher in all of NYC at the time. (I won’t get into whether she would’ve insisted on the -American.) Mrs. Cho was Korean and Americaniz, one fully immersed in her culture but comfortable and proficient with the mores of this country. Because I was still clinging to my native language at seven, Mrs. Cho sent me out for a season of English as a Second Language services.

I was at ease with fellow Korean immigrants but as you’d expect, there was plenty of race consciousness on everyone’s part. I didn’t escape being called chink in elementary and walking home one time, was slurred with a kick for good measure. This, by two white girls I saw all the time whose parents, I now remember, were European immigrants. It was older black or Hispanic kids who wrested your bike from you and made off with it on our street – not older Asian kids. The Mexicans didn’t blare mariachi with the Chinese. Life was what it was. It would’ve been weird for the neighborhood to go all white. I wouldn’t call what we lived with tension so much as it was subtle racial abrasion. But for the most part there was peace. We had subcommunities in high school too, though there were the kids who mingled. The magnet school I went to was over 50% Asian-American, the majority being Korean. So I obviously didn’t have much occasion to feel left out the first two decades of my life.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

Straight out of college, I ended up one of three Korean-American teachers in a Philadelphia school. But the diversity of the city represented in staff and students kept me from thinking twice about myself as a minority. On a field trip one day with my class, I was struck seeing a line of golden-haired children from another school. It was the first time I really noticed I was Asian – and this, in my early 20s. It vaguely crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be as comfortable teaching that class.

Two years later I transfered to a neighboring district where I felt the keen finger of self-consciousness as never before. White upper-middle class suburb, old money. In the meetings that prefaced the start of school, I found myself one of two Korean-American teachers among the 100 in the entire district. My African-American principal was a colored minority. Ten percent of the students in my school were Asian and as few black. In other words, I felt very Asian surrounded by staff, parents, and students. The Korean kids lit up and greeted me when I passed by even if they were not on my roll. As the Gifted and Talented Education instructor, I was a status symbol and my principal said it was important that those children see themselves in me. Despite the politeness of many teachers, I did feel awkwardly different among them. When a group of us went out to try some Korean food, I saw for the first time the profound, basic relationship of food to culture. Those who passed nervously on the invitation gave away their indifference to the Korean culture, and to me.

Others were outright mean (on things not having to do with food), even conspired to get me, with things eventually coming to a dramatic head. Though it’s hard to say, the malice didn’t seem fueled by racism as it was by the position I held. Suffice it to say I was a walking omen of more paperwork for the classroom teachers. Anyone who stepped into my position was doomed because, servicing the high achievers in the whole school, I worked with everyone and no one. As a specialist, I had no colleagues by grade to team with. The cultural distinction felt sharper for the rejection.

My sense of self remained unshaken. It never has been. I enjoyed deep friendships with teachers who shared my faith and also knew the kindness of those who didn’t – some black, some white. I’m not sure how I handled that sense of separation from the masses. I kept my head high, even managed to break through some walls and feel accepted by some cliques though I refrained from trying too hard. I also refused to stoop to the level of my enemies. Not one retort, confrontation, or curse escaped my lips though I can’t count the times I came hairline close. I had dirt on them, too. But this way, I had won. No one could accuse me of a bad word. And in time, they were served their due. I have never looked back on those few years with anything but a dull negativity. As trying as it was, I now feel it was good for me to have experienced the cold heat of exclusion. The real world isn’t a bubble and if you insist on staying in one, it’ll burst on you. I’d say it’s important for those who usually sit among the white majority to have to work through this sense of isolation at some point, too. Of course I don’t mean we should perpetuate hatefulness across racial lines. But some discomfort out of complacency challenges us to grow.

Continued in Part 2.

My Race: Coast to Coast, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Koreans care only about themselves. Americans aren’t ambitious. Californians aren’t bright. People go up in arms at generalizations, though these are not my claims in this post. Yes, exceptions defy stereotype. But people obviously make up groups of color and features called race. I talk about the cultures I have straddled and the differences within groups.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

With some exception, I did keep among Korean-Americans up through college. But if you were to ask me about Koreans, then or now, I would encourage you to ask a black American about village life in West Africa. Two different worlds. I have more in common with many of you than I do with Koreans, and know more African-American and European history than Asian.

An amphibian, I feel white around Koreans and then sometimes remember in white company there is a whole other world to me these folks don’t understand. After all, my bicultural generation grew up steeped in the traditions our parents imported. I at least have a lot of stories and images of white culture from TV, painted not only by the Brady Bunch but drama of all kind. But most people who are not Asian don’t have this familiarity with the Korean culture. I realize in the writing I’ve grown not only more American but more comfortably Korean over the years – though Korea remains a foreign land. I’m surprised it doesn’t have to be either/or when you’re bicultural.

My husband and I have not felt at home in churches that are predominantly white. After moving counties a few years ago, we half-joked in the search for a new church that we should try black Baptist. We probably would’ve jumped out of the pew to groove with the choir. We settled in a diverse church with an active Korean-American membership.

One other factor besides race came up in my time in the suburban district: class. Cross the border out of the idyllic suburb back into the city of Philadelphia and it was 80% black, not well to do. Stopping for gas one day, I remember thinking it was ghetto. A very interesting moment because I’d not only felt at home with black Americans all my life but had grown up poor by middle class standards. The offhand feeling that I didn’t belong in that neighborhood wasn’t snootiness. I had studied my way up the immigrant ladder into Ivy League classrooms. The principal I was working closely with encouraged me to dream big. Her grandfather had climbed out from slavery to a PhD. I now realize that it is not all black Americans but those who’ve succeeded in the upward mobility that I have been drawn to. Those who are educated. It was very odd meeting people here in California who didn’t aspire to the best colleges and advanced degrees; even the Korean parents who secure private tutoring for their kids make golf lessons almost as high a priority. I came to appreciate the health of balanced living. It spotlighted the intensity of the east coast and broadened my experience of people. In my own way I had lived in a bubble. The majority of my friends from childhood went to the top schools, built impressive résumés. But I’ve come to see beyond theory that there are many ways to be smart and successful. And happy. This lesson has saved me from being the parent I would’ve been in the east.

There are some things about my parents’ culture I’ve wanted to disassociate myself from. For one, I find the people complicated and by comparison, Americans more straightforward. Americans say no when we don’t want it and the eager, grateful yes is welcome. Among Koreans, you have to listen between the lines. Which is why the language is among the hardest for nonnatives to become fluent in. While the alphabet and grammar are innocently simple, the social cues and mores to speak under can become complex. In part, my cultural illiteracy keeps me from easy participation in this exchange. It’s also my lack of finesse in navigating unspoken customs. The rest, my temperament. You can take me at face value and I like to be able to do that with you in turn. Another habit I consider a cultural blemish is the self-consciousness of both natives and the acculturated. Koreans often have to save face, especially among one another. It’s subtle, but I have little patience for it. I find myself sinking into the casual comfort among Americans with relief, over against this tiring posture to maintain. Of course the Face has its positive side: propriety, mindfulness against disgracing yourself, the upholding of honor. Koreans reach high and Americans (are happy to) have less to prove. Koreans are also insular. In all fairness, this attribute could stem from the history of invasions we have endured. But the ethnocentrism gets to me. Even many Korean-Americans don’t know how to socialize, extend beyond themselves. Huddling is not socializing.

Any thoughts on the subtle shades of your own culture? And I’m curious, with so many of us throughout the world and in the major cities. What has been your experience with Koreans, native or bilingual?

Continued in Part 3.