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.