Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human

My mom and dad came to this country separately over thirty years ago and met in New York City, where they were married; my dad came to the U.S. with sixty dollars in his single pair of pants, and my mom couldn’t speak a word of English.  My dad was a Vietnam War Veteran, 2nd Lieutenant in the R.O.K. Army on the side of the U.S., and the only escaped prisoner of war from the Tet Offensive in 1969.  He’s also a licensed veterinarian and a Grand Master of Tae Kwon Do, a ninth degree black belt, the 54th 9th degree in the world.

Before my parents divorced when I was fourteen, my mom owned a laundromat and a grocery store next door to each other and would run back and forth between them to serve customers; sometimes she took old clothes that people left behind because we were too poor to afford any. My dad owned a martial arts dojo and mopped the entire floor every morning, then taught four classes in the evenings almost all in Korean.  Between the two of them, they worked almost 200 hours per week and slept maybe three hours per night.

One summer, someone spraypainted a swastika on the front wall of the dojo. My dad painted over it, but on those hot humid days, we could still see that Nazi symbol like an angry pulsing scar.

We got a message on our answering machine — maybe the same Nazi artists — who spent a good ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

When we visited with friends, we felt the invisible walls of cliques and class between us.  We were aliens from another world, just a foreign prop in the hero-story of the Westerner.  I was the token Asian.  When I visit churches, I still am.  Christians feel proud to know me because I meet their diversity quota; my other friends are proud to know me because they can make Asian jokes and explain, “Don’t worry, I have an Asian friend.”

In elementary school, when I first made friends and came over, I would immediately take off my shoes and bow to their parents.  I remember freaking out the first time I saw a fork.  I asked for two sticks to eat my food, and they said, “No, you can stab your food now.”  I still slightly bow to people as a reflex, and I still don’t get forks.

When I meet native Koreans from my own country, they call me kyopo, which is a slang term for misplaced native.  They make fun of my heavy American accent when I try to speak Korean.  They’re surprised I’m taller than them and say, “It must be hormones in the McDonald’s.”  They think I’m arrogant because I watch American TV shows and I have a blog written entirely in English.

I live in two worlds. I do not fully embody either, yet belong to both.

One is the hard-working, honor-bound, 200-hour work-week ethic of the Korean culture, where we take pride in our long heritage of rising against imperialism and we take seriously the inter-dependence of family and loyalty.  At any moment my parents or brother were to have an emergency, I wouldn’t hesitate to quit a job to be there in two seconds.  I work hard.  I tend to be arrogant around lazy Westerners who complain about their careers and who dislike their own families.  I am usually passive during conflict because I’ve been taught to keep my head low and persevere through hardship.

The other world is the independent, image-driven, glamor-bound ethos of the Western culture, where we take pride in thoughtfulness and chasing our own goals.  At any moment I’m to quit listening to the voices around me because I’m to follow my own inner-voice, which is the greatest value of Western-American dreams.  I sometimes yell back during conflict because I’ve also been taught to stand up for myself and believe in who I am, and when things get hard, I am allowed to leave my “toxic surroundings.”

There is value to both the Eastern and Western mentality.  I find beauty in both sides.  I’ve been blessed to know them both, and though I hardly ever talk about my race: I take pride in my ethnicity.  I know the difficulties that my people have faced, and I immediately feel a connection with fellow Asians because I know exactly how much they’ve been neglected by Western society, how much they’re left out of social justice and civil rights movements, and how hard they work quietly behind the scenes.  I also grieve for Asians who despise their own traditions and roots, because there is so much dignity and honor in our history.  I grieve for Asian-Americans who have completely Westernized, not because the West is bad, but because having both within balance could be so much fuller, richer, and truer.

To my fellow Asian-Americans: I know it’s not easy in a Western world where we are often seen as “simple” or “ignorant” just because we are “nice Asians.”  We are quickly dismissed, or seen as “exotic” and “mysterious” and the object of fetishism. We are caught between the world of our parents and capitulating to the opposite values out of seduction or rebellion. At times we think fighting the values of our parents is better.  But I’m hoping you see the purity of our Eastern world, because there is so much vibrant life in our art, our spirit, and our perseverance.  Your parents are not perfect, but they tried very hard to give you everything.  And I’m hoping you see the goodness of the Western world, that gave your parents a chance, and that there is a care-free cheerfulness in the West that transcends mere practicality.  Knowing both will make us more human, and not less.

Mainly I hope we don’t ignore our roots.  I learned the tenacity to endure from my parents, who came to this country with nothing and poured out their entire lives for me and my brother.  I learned about sacrifice, and self-respect, and upholding the honor of blood.  These are not values we can learn from just anywhere.  I never say so: but I’m truly proud to be an Asian, to be descended of a hard-working people who abide by their word, no matter what.  If I must be proud of anything, I’m thankful for my parents, who dared to make a home in another land, and never gave up on their dreams.

— J.S.

28 thoughts on “Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human

  1. J.S. you have gone through the fire and have come forth as pure gold. Many times we treat others differently based on outer appearances because we don’t know people’s hearts. Your dealing with hate crimes against your family sounds extremely painful. It is amazing how cruel we can be based on preceived differences. I follow a blog clled Harsh Reality written by aopinionatedman who was born in Korea and adopted as a young child by a white couple who lived in the South. He notes his parents were wonderful but he had much discrimination in society for being Asian.

    Your blog is thought provoking and I enjoy it. I appreciate your honesty and transparent style of writing. You make a difference! Keep up the good work. What was meant for evil against you and your family God is using for tremendous good!


    1. The interesting thing is I had never perceived it as a “hate crime” when I was younger, because it was so normal for me. Only now do I see it as it really is, a very hateful prejudice that for all our awareness, still hasn’t ended.
      Appreciate your kind words as well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Even though I’m a typical North American white I can identify with a lot of what you are saying, because I, too, have switched cultures right here in my own country. I grew up in amongst poor folks such as you Americans would call “trailer trash.” My husband and I joined a religious group whose roots are primarily Dutch and whose values are very middle-class.

    I have a love for my own people even though they may spend their days hanging out at the bar and/or into and out of shaky relationships. I call them/us “the English poor” to distinguish between people whose ancestors have grown up in NA and immigrants who came here destitute and struggled with language and economic issues like yours did. Your parents were obviously middle class and would find it impossible to understand how a person could have all those advantages and still be on welfare.

    My husband’s people are middle class, too, but I grew up with a “poor whites” value system where friends & good times are more important than (providing for) family. Money flows freely between them. Work is only for paying the bills; my people never expect to buy their chunk of the American dream.

    This attitude differs so totally from the western middle class mindset — and is part of the reason why the North American Christian culture is so middle-to-upper class and it’s hard for the “trash” to fit in. My people like to identify with Jesus because He was poor like them, but they aren’t much for the “Thou shalt nots.” Christians in NA today are very much for wealth. Get it, keep it, flash it — discreetly, mind you. My siblings have a lot to say about Christians being so covetous.

    My husband and I became a part of something other than what I was inside and I struggled in a lot of ways like you have with being of two worlds. I went though a time when I so much wanted to be like these others that I completely lost my moorings. I finally realized you can’t tear yourself totally from your roots or you lose yourself.

    With God’s help I’ve made it and can feel like (spiritually) I belong in the Church, in the safety of the sheepfold. But I still think of Jesus’ simple life. I still shake my head at the accumulation and display of STUFF, the blatant ignoring of Jesus words to “lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth” or John’s “Love not the world, neither the things of the world…” Just like I shake my head at the way some of my own siblings throw money away on booze & smokes.


    1. Thank you for your raw honesty. What’s so great about Jesus is how he cut across all these cliques and class, from the Roman officials to the synagogue leaders to the blind and beggars and demon-possessed. He walked through every heart with such ease and grace. Even more interesting are the individual reactions: it was always the rich and religious who couldn’t stand him, but the poor in wealth and spirit who received him. I’ve always found it disingenuous when people say “the Bible is a crutch,” because certainly we need the crutch when we see our own true bankruptcy. Thanks again for sharing your heart here. 🙂


  3. Joon, thanks for sharing these honest thoughts!

    I’m with you, bro! Far too many Asian Americans have experienced the painful existential brokenness of being “neither/nor” — never being accepted as fully “American” here, but also never quite finding our place in the “home” we never knew. Some of us run and run, others hide behind “success”; it takes years to untangle the mess we’re in.

    And yet.

    Christ is truly our Redeemer. Part of helping to plant a Third Culture church comes out of my own experience. In Jesus, we become the “both/and” people you describe — we can see the best of and navigate between different cultures. Since we understand what it’s like to be an outsider and a misfit, we can have authentic ministry with the lost & the lonely who are all around us.


    1. Yes and amen, my brother!
      More than any other philosophy or person, I’ve seen Christ do the painful wonderful work of bringing cultures together in both our distinctions and commonalities. It’s amazing to go to the other side of the world and see people loving the same God together.


  4. I fully get what you write, and I understand completely, I am half Metis and half white, I too am caught between worlds and cultures, I call it Ghosting. Very well written and I appreciate your sharing, Thank you, have a very Blessed Christmas


  5. As a first generation immigrant to the US from India, your blog post rings very true to me…I mirror your sentiment when you say “you embody both worlds but do not fully belong to either”.


  6. I have an bit of understanding the issues you have raised here. We have five adopted daughters from China. Very early on our first visit to China, we recognized the differences in Western and Eastern thinking and values and (everything else). We spent a lot of time on those five trips talking to people as we walked around, to orphanage workers, to our own guides and tried to catch as much of the culture as we could – a daunting task.

    From that time on, we tried our best to maintain that balance between the two with our kids as they grew up. It has worked out well, they are all very proud of their heritage (even to pride in the specific area they each came from and its own special diversity). And they are American enough to be a successful part of a system that is alien to the world they came from.

    Your story is very inspiring and has encouraged me. Thanks for sharing.


  7. My children are half pinoy, half kano. Everyone feels like an outsider at times. If you’re in Christ you are my brother, no matter where you came from. Everyone has a struggle, everyone feels its them when its really the outside world pushing them. Stay strong my friend.


  8. I admire you and your family. My Irish Catholic grandmother was forced to marry a Protestant when she came to this country because he threatened to burn her uncle’s house to the ground if she didn’t marry him. She was shunned by her own family in a country where Irish were considered dirty and were lucky to get menial jobs. She was abandoned with three children in Maryland and forced to sell her beautiful long hair to feed them. When my grandfather came back he took her to a New York City tenement where she scrubbed the floors morning til night for rent. He hustled pool and drank up his winnings. He also abused the older two children.

    Eventually she managed to save enough money to buy a little farm in upstate New York, every Irish person’s dream, and lived out the rest of her life with the security of a few cows for milk and butter, some land to farm, chickens for eggs and meat and a little extra to sell for sundries and clothes for her children. By the time I was born, new immigrant groups were there to take the place of Irish as scapegoats and my father went to fight in the Korean war.

    Yes, your culture is much different and yes, you look different. But the maltreatment of immigrants is the same. Watching your children starve because you are hated not just by your new country, but by your own family due to circumstances beyond your control, is a burden no one should have to bear. Know that there are people out here who value you as a person and can sympathize with your situation.


  9. Reblogged this on Carys Cooper and commented:
    He has amazing parents that we could all take a lesson from the first time we think about complaining about the bad hand we were dealt in life. I can’t imagine moving to a new country with nothing but a few dollars and the clothes on your back. Can you?


  10. I believe that if you are in Christ, you are above all cultures, and have the grace and the freedom to love all cultures – its then when culture falls away and you begin to see people and their potential that Christ has put in them.


  11. I just found you. Even though I came a full generation ahead of you and under different circumstances, the raw feelings and essence ring true for me. This both/and-ness, I sometimes pick up and hold in the light to examine. Often, it lolls around in the shade like a dust ball.
    Today, I picked it up, blew off tbe dust, and remembered.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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