Being Korean at School, in America

For most of my life, I had been extremely conscious of my Asian-ness—my skin color, my facial features, my Korean family. It started when I joined preschool. At four years old, I knew less English than my non-bilingual peers, and had physical features distinctly different from those of my Caucasian or Black classmates. It didn’t matter much then, what I looked like, but other aspects of my being Korean started to show. I remember sitting at a tightly packed cafeteria table, opening the lunch my mother packed me—fried rice with eggs, a common Korean home dish. I remember my friends asking me what that was, eyeing my thermos with suspicion. I told them.
“Ewww!” they all exclaimed, going into a frenzy about how gross my lunch was, how it would make them vomit. I just shrugged and tried to eat, but I closed the thermos without finishing my fried rice and stuffed it into my lunch box, as if that could hide my Korean lunch. I remember going home that day and casually asking my mom if she could stop packing rice for lunch and instead make peanut butter jelly sandwiches for me. She knew immediately what was going on, muttered something about those rude, ignorant Americans, and told me to never say the same things about other people’s food.

That became my first step in separating my Korean identity from my American onepacking strictly American lunches. I kept my Korean culture behind the safe doors of my home, far from the scrutiny of judgmental children. I wasn’t ashamed of my culture, and was proud to be Korean, as my parents had raised me to be. I was more than happy to introduce classmates and teachers to Korean cultures and foods when there were parties involving "Cultures of the World" themes. But one of the main reasons I tried to keep my Korean identity at home was because I knew from too many sour experiences that otherness was rarely celebrated and more often trashed on, especially in my world, which was filled with uneducated children. I hated when they would make faces at my food, when they would pull at the corners of their eyes in mockery of Asians, when they would ask me what my middle name was, only to twist it with their American tongues and make a joke out of it.

By the time I was almost done with elementary school, I had developed a thicker skin. I had heard enough of the same offensive Asian jokes to last me a lifetime. I knew my skin was yellower, my eyes smaller, and I knew racism when I saw it. It made me so aware of my Asian identity that it made me uncomfortable. I was becoming too conscious of my differences, trying still to separate my Korean identity from who I was at school.

In middle school, I discovered that maybe my skin wasn’t so thick after all, and maybe it wasn’t so “yellow” either. Two years of middle school were spent laughing at and making Asian jokes with friends, as if that would excuse my Asian characteristics—as if there was anything to excuse. While people were more accepting and respectful of who I was, I had become friends with people who thought Asian dog jokes and accents were funny. And I had convinced myself that I was okay with these jokes—that’s all they were, because surely my friends weren’t racist in real life. They even asked if these jokes were okay, and I had tried to be cool about it, telling them I didn’t mind. Now I realize that it wasn’t cool; it was stupid. Regret and anger come over me when I think about how I enabled them and didn’t correct them. They started pinning any Asian stereotype they could find onto me. If I had good grades, it wasn’t because I tried hard, but it was because I was Asian. If I couldn’t hang out, it was because my parents were "being Asian." I hid my language, my family, and my culture away from them. I wasn’t able to be myself around them because what they had seen of my Korean identity, they had made fun of.
Then, in eighth grade, things changed—I changed. I was no longer willing to take racist bullshit from my friends, because, if we’re being honest, it was racism. There’s no point trying to disguise it behind smiles and laughs, just like there was no point in me keeping my Korean identity behind at my house. I was proud of who I was, and I was determined that no one would ever make me feel bad about it.

Sometimes, things are kept behind closed doors for better reasons—we want to feel safe with our little quirks and secrets, we want to present ourselves in a different way to the world. My thing behind closed doors was too important and essential to who I am that it was harmful to me and others like me to keep containing it. Being Korean is no fault or embarrassing quirk of mine. It’s the basic fabric of who I am and how my life is. People already know I’m Korean, how could they not?—but I want them to understand it. For most of my life, I had been seemingly proud of my identity but had kept most of it at home, away from school. No more of that. I am proud of being Korean American and I claim both identities wherever I am, whichever doors I am behind.

By Hannah Yang

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