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.