I’m Korean and I’m Okay

JJ as Edie Sedgwick

Pretending to be Edie Sedgwick.

So I have a confession to make.

For most of my life, I refused to identify myself as Asian-American.

I know, right? In hindsight it seems silly, because, well, look at me. Or rather, look at who I wished I looked like. I’ve always wanted to be a gamine pixie sprite, with big eyes and short hair. Essentially, I wanted to be Edie Sedgwick. Or Audrey Hepburn. Or Natalie Portman. (I also wanted to be green-eyed and blonde, but that’s another story.)

I was never one to deny my ethnicity–in fact, I’m quite proud of it–but for a very long time, I struggled with how to describe myself. Because the word “Asian” comes with a lot of baggage and the term “Asian-American” even more so.

Why? Oh so many reasons. I’ve written before on the need for a cultural conscious shift because the way “people like me” (a loaded phrase in itself) are represented in fiction and media contributed a lot to my existential angst.

I’ll say this first about myself: I’m not by nature someone who’s particularly active in any causes. I’m a politician’s worst nightmare; I can’t be bothered to care because I’m generally so self-absorbed much of it goes over my head. This self-absorption is the reason why I’m not really part of a “community” and why I shy away from terms like “our people” and “us” as a concept. I can only speak for myself, although I will admit to being guilty of gross generalizations and throwing around the term “them” as a notion.

April and the Dragon Lady

April and the Dragon Lady by Lensey Namioka

So I get it when the media does it. I do. It’s easier to process people as groups, rather than individuals. But for years and years and years, I refused to have anything to do with “Asian-American” culture because of how we were portrayed. I think I was scarred by this book when I was a child. No, really.

APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY is a YA novel published some years ago about a young Chinese-American girl in an interracial relationship and the cultural/generational clashes that occur within her family (particularly between her and her grandmother, the eponymous “Dragon Lady”). It’s an old story, and a good one, but I hated this book with a passion.

A well-meaning librarian gave this book to me, thinking I would find something in common with April, the title character. The thing is, I didn’t. In many ways, I had a very typical all-American childhood: throwing baseballs in the backyard with my dad, riding bikes through suburban Pasadena streets with the neighborhood kids, barbeques and pool parties in the summer, pizza and girly sleepovers, etc. Sure I had a non-English speaking grandmother who lived with us, but I also had a white father. I’m as Asian as I am white, which meant we had both chopsticks and forks and knives in our cutlery drawer. (A cliché but apt description.)

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

THE WOMAN WARRIOR by Maxine Hong Kingston

Malinda Lo wrote a really interesting and thoughtful post about reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR that resonated with me. I already adore Malinda Lo for many, many reasons, but what stuck out for me was her admission that she never felt as though she fit in with the Asian-American community.

Her reasons are different from mine, but the feelings are similar. I never fit in with many Asian-Americans back home. I dutifully attended Korean school from first through third grade, but failed miserably at making friends. I had plenty of friends in school, but amongst “my own”, I was pretty much a loner. Why? I’m not sure. The things that interested them never interested me: Korean boybands (anyone remember H.O.T.? Anyone?), math clubs, Asian fashion, etc. They never quite said it, but I think their assumption was I was “too white”.

I quit Korean school after that and never went back. To this day, I sort of regret it because I have the reading comprehension of an 8 year old, despite being able to speak and understand the language. In fact, the day I quit Korean school was also the day I inadvertently began refusing to see myself as Asian-American. I mean, if I wasn’t Asian, at least I was American, right? I sucked at math, I played soccer (badly), did Girl Scouts–all part and parcel of the “normal” (middle-class) American experience, right?

Unraveling the Model Minority Stereotype


It wasn’t as though I abjured all things Korean. I watch Korean dramas. I need my fill of kimchi and doenjang chigae every so often. It’s just that most of the Asian-Americans I came across fulfilled all stereotypes discussed in UNRAVELING THE MODEL MINORITY STEREOTYPE book, which apparently didn’t include me. This book was another one that enraged me; a well-intentioned (they’re always well-intentioned, aren’t they?) teacher in high school gave it to me and it made me feel even more alienated than before.

The thing is, the experiences catalogued in books like APRIL THE DRAGON LADY, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB aren’t really relevant to a lot of young Asian-Americans today. While there are still a lot immigrants coming in from Asia, the biggest “boom” occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, and we’re about a generation and a half removed from that now. There are a good number of people my age who are mixed race and even more whose parents are pretty Westernized themselves. Not to mention Asia today is a vastly different place from Asia of 35 years ago and the cultural gap isn’t so huge anymore.

The older I get, the more I realise that I’m not alone and there are a gazillion other kids out there like me who are Asian-American but not “Asian-American”. The older I get, the more okay I am with identifying myself this way because blogs like Disgrasian exist: other people my age who no longer identify myself as “Asian-American” but Americans who are of Asian descent. Or simply, themselves. Asian people have a lot in common with other, sure, but insofar as a Mediterranean-Americans do and no one thinks to discuss that experience. We’re no longer just piano prodigies or future doctors with “traditional” parents–and if we are, we can kvetch with sarcastic love.

Unfortunately, fiction and media are having a slightly harder time catching up to this notion. Some strides have been made, but not nearly enough. I’ve mentioned I want to read about protagonists who are “incidentally ethnic”–in short, someone like me. Someone whose “foreignness” informs a part of who s/he is, but not the whole. I speak Korean, but I also speak English (and sadly I speak English better than I speak Korean). And Spanish. And can get by in French, Italian, and Japanese. And am learning German. (By the way, I FREAKING LOVE THE LANGUAGE. Ich liebe Deutsch.)

Next week I suppose I will undertake the loaded topic of representing race in fiction: from story to covers to why there’s a need. I won’t lie; I’m a wee bit wary because THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS I COULD GO WRONG. Nevertheless, this is a bit of a background post on where I’m coming from, so I don’t sound like some complete hack. Go easy on the flames, guys. I’m just one person, after all.

Buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com

21 Responses to I’m Korean and I’m Okay

  1. E. Kristin Anderson (Emily) 4 Mar 2010 at 5:50 pm #

    I love H.O.T. And I’m whiter than cake flour.

    Great post, though. I’ve known a lot of cultural minorities who don’t feel like they fit into the niche that both the media and their peers seem to want them in. Looking forward to your post on race in fiction!

    • JJ 4 Mar 2010 at 9:08 pm #

      Going to college helped me in coming to terms with being “Asian-American”. It was nice to see other people enjoy Asian things like their music and dramas. (The dramas are very important!) I will, however, admit that I’m just not that into K-pop. Or boybands in general, really. ;)

  2. Yamile 4 Mar 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I was born in Argentina, and like many of my country people (and contrary to the stereotypical Mediterranean Argentine) my family is of Arabic descent. I NEVER felt anything but Argentine when I lived there. When I came to the States to attend college I had people ask me if I considered myself Arabic or Hispanic. I stared openmouthed at the first person who ever asked me this. Now, I really don’t even bother answering anymore.
    My husband is Puerto Rican. His dad is Puerto Rican too and his mom is American. He did suffer to find out who he really was. What group he belonged to.
    Now our kids, who have a combination of so many races and cultures, love the fact that we speak Spanish at home and follow futbol obsessively on internet, and have huge family parties every time we can. I wonder what it’ll be for them growing up, what struggles they’ll face. I hope to be understanding and let them be whoever they want.

  3. Najela 4 Mar 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    Yeah, I was odd and I never fit in with my group either. Race was never an issue until I got into 7th grade and realized, Wow, I’m Black. I pretty did everything within my power to reject the label because of the stereotypes associated with it.(even though it is pretty clear that I’m Black,lol)

    In America, they always force you to pick a side, as if we have to deny some part of ourselves that make us who we are. There is never a right choice and yet, they always preach “Be yourself” when they really mean “Be yourself, just not that part of yourself.”

    I look forward to your posts on race in fiction as well. I suppose that it doesn’t matter whether you’re wrong, but that you bring up a discussion about the topic.

  4. Tara 4 Mar 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    Great post.

    The weird thing is I do identity myself as an Asian-American, but . . . I still see myself as half-white and half-Asian despite being full-Asian LOL.

    And H.O.T. HOMG. I think I fit some characteristics.

    And as for your Korean school experience? I know what you mean. I never attended Korean school, but I did go to Korean piano hagwon, and it was the pits. I never made any friends amongst the Korean children. Like you stated, “I was too white” for them.

  5. Kristan 4 Mar 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    Fascinating! Both your post, and Malinda’s (which I’d read and commented on before). As a halfie who always felt “not Asian enough” but desperately wanted to be, I think it’s so interesting to see the other side of that picture, to hear about people who wanted to deny or play down that part of themselves. Unlike you both, I strongly identified with the experiences described in Joy Luck Club growing up — and still do to this day, in fact. Having moved away from my family, my friends, and my diverse hometown, (to the Midwest!!) I acutely feel the loss of my culture. Just two nights ago, I was looking at pictures of Taiwan and almost cried, because I want to go back to visit so badly.

    (Although, funny enough, I used to want to be blonde and blue/green-eyed as well. And tall, hahaha. Don’t ask me how I thought that would work out.)

    Anyhoot, I think the “Amy Tan version” of things is legit, but perhaps better represented in literature than your side. And to your point, the best part about literature is the ability to feature a wide scope of human experience. So yeah, I’d love to read more about “incidentally” ethnic individuals. And I look forward to the rest of your posts on race in fiction. :)

    • JJ 4 Mar 2010 at 8:56 pm #

      I’ve never “denied” being Asian–I rejected being “Asian-American”, which I disliked. I actually did like THE JOY LUCK CLUB, which was as much about mothers and daughters as it was about an Asian-American experience (of that time, anyhow). I also really liked THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES by Amy Tan, and that’s because it featured a hapa as a protagonist. :)

  6. Wicked Cool Riley 4 Mar 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    Have you listened to Commentary! A Musical yet? (The musical commentary for Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog) If not, please do. This post got the fantastic song “Nobody’s Asian In The Movies” stuck in my head.


    • JJ 4 Mar 2010 at 9:09 pm #

      I have! I LOVE THIS SONG.

  7. Kristan 4 Mar 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    I loved Hundred Secret Senses! And Bonesetter’s Daughter!

  8. Jessica 5 Mar 2010 at 12:29 am #

    Great post!

    I’m actually writing a contemporary YA novel with a Korean protagonist right now for this exact reason. I teach high school and the Asian girls in my classes (and the Middle Eastern girls, for that matter) don’t have any books about people who look like them AND act like them. The protags in contemporary YA act like them, and the characters in the Amy Tan books look like them, but there is nothing that gives them both, and that makes me kinda sad. It seems like all Asian characters in YA right now are filling out some sort of stereotype, and that doesn’t reflect the experience of being an 2nd, 3rd, etc. generation Asian-American AT ALL.

    I’m looking forward to the race in fiction post. It’s such an interesting discussion.

  9. Erin Schultz 5 Mar 2010 at 1:44 am #

    Great post!!
    Do you know Dr. Sarah Park? She is a professor at my school in the library science program and focuses on, “Representations of the Korean diaspora in children’s literature, children’s librarianship, library services to underserved populations, social justice, transracial adoption, and Korean diasporic history.”

    I don’t know her personally, yet, but hope to have a class with her next semester.

    Check out her info and list of published articles:

    Just thought this might interest you :o)
    Keep up the great blog posts!!

  10. Natasha Fondren 5 Mar 2010 at 10:57 am #

    After my dad died, my mother married into an Italian-American family. It was very odd, because they were welcoming and somewhere inside me, I guess I started self-identifying as Italian, LOL. I guess that’s weird, because I’m really an English/German/Native American mutt.

    In college, I lived in Little Italy because it’s the only place my stepdad felt was safe, LOL, and also because it felt like home. Again, I worked there and felt like “one of them,” I guess.

    But you know how a group, I guess, has that instant sort of recognition of mutual understanding?

    A few years ago, I was at a party, and there was a group of Italian-Americans there, and I was immediately drawn to them because I felt like I belonged. But of course, to them, I’m just some white mutt, LOLOL… and although kind, of course, I was NOT one of them.

    It felt weird and sad.

  11. Jenny 5 Mar 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Very insightful post. Though I do possess many of the traits of an “Asian-American”, I find it annoying when people stereotype and generalize. “Oh, you like Asian dramas because you’re Asian.” Uh, no. I like Asian dramas because *I* like them, not because I happen to be 100% Asian. But as I criticize others for making assumptions about me because of my race, I know that I tend to do the same to others without even being aware of it. :/

  12. Shawn 10 Mar 2010 at 2:14 am #

    This is the reason I like sjaejones.com. Amazing post.

Leave a Reply