My American Identity
My parents are immigrants. As a teen, this probably upset me more than it should have. Teenagers have a way of thinking that everything is about them.
As an adult, I can’t believe what they were going through at my age now. I’m a little older than my mother was when she had me. At this point in their lives, my parents moved across the world to chase the American dream for her children; I’m the second of four. They were living in a new country with a new language and culture. I am the first natural born American citizen in my family and I have no idea how many steps and how much paperwork were required for my parents and brother to come here. They opened a business, bought a building, and built their dream house – which they still live in now. Unlike many immigrants, they must have come here with a certain amount of wealth to be able to afford this and my father had family here that could help their transition. But if they had money, it also means that they left behind a life with security, where they were the ethnic majority, and reliable income to start over at the bottom. We have never been on vacation as a family; my father hasn’t been on a plane since he came here. They worked 6 or 7 days a week for nearly 40 years. For this, I am so incredibly humbled by the sacrifices they made for my siblings and me.
That is just the start. They must have also spent endless nights discussing how to raise us. Whether we would be Korean-Americans, American-Koreans or something in between. Ultimately, they made a conscious decision to not teach us Korean – they had a belief that if we only spoke one language, we would be better at it and that we needed every advantage we could get to be able to compete against households where both parents had an American education. We understood Korean from listening to them, but never learned how to speak.
I believe they genuinely wanted us to be American and to not grow up as an other, but we always would be. In the 90s, there was a belief that the US was a melting pot. That we could all assimilate and that the country would blend together, but we now know that it is untrue.
We would never fit in with any group, including other Koreans or even Korean-Americans. We cobbled together some sort of bond with other Asian-Americans with our shared experiences of growing up in a town with very few minorities. We certainly looked too different to not get questions about where we were “really from.” I believe it was benign, but it made it clear that my classmates thought I was different from them. One classmate used to save all the tags that said, “Made in Taiwan” for me because she thought they would be meaningful for me. I was regularly stopped in the hallway and shown labels and asked if I could read them (they were always in Chinese). In middle school, none of my classmates had even heard of Korea.
Our parents wouldn’t have known that our adolescence would be punctuated with questions about our identity and that I would be unable to identify with the concept of Korean pride. For a while, I got into K-pop and it made me feel connected to a country that I had never visited. Then, in high school, I met many bilingual peers who had a real connection to our parents’ homeland and I felt like a fraud.
At some point in college, I realized I was an other with Korean-Americans, too. I studied Korean in college, but just enough to fulfill my graduation requirements. I hung out with other Koreans, but couldn’t wrap my mind around the social hierarchy and I realized that it made me uncomfortable. Eventually, 23andMe taught me that the reason other Koreans told me that I don’t look like one of them is because my dad is part-Japanese – something he also suspected, but never really knew for sure. Around that time, I learned that my mom’s family was from North Korea and escaped when she was a newborn in the 1950s with the help of generous strangers. We weren’t even like the other Korean families.
Eventually, my parents told me that they regretted that they never taught us Korean, but I didn’t want us to languish in the “what ifs.” One day, a fellow Korean-American mockingly asked my brother how he felt about having been born in Korea, but unable to hold a conversation in Korean. I puffed up my chest and stood up for my family, for the decisions that they made, and life we’ve been able to have as a result of it. That was when I realized that I’m an American. I broke the taboos by talking back to an elder and calling him out for what he said, and for reminding him that when he had said he was jealous of my brother’s success, he must not have realized that my parents’ decision probably helped him get there. I couldn’t let someone try to shame us for who we are. This is my identity, one that my parents sacrificed everything to give me a chance to discover on my own and no one had the right to make us feel bad for who we are.
But as a kid, I really only thought of myself. My parents genuinely did what they could do. I couldn’t see that then, but I can see it now. They are incredible. They are brave. And they gave up any dream they had for themselves for us to have a shot at a new future. I’m lucky.