"I was born in Seoul, South Korea, but I moved to the United States when I was only two years old so I'm technically American." Except no. In reality, I was and am still a full Korean citizen.
This was the explanation I used to give to everyone when they asked me where I was from. Why was I so insistent on letting people know that I was "basically American"? It's hard for me to point out one definite factor, but it probably had something to do with a struggle to fit in and simply just embarrassment.
I was raised in an area where the term "FOB" (fresh off the boat) was heavily used to describe Asian immigrants (and often in a more negative light). To me, being a FOB meant only hanging out with people of similar cultural background, talking in a language that Americans couldn't understand and wearing "weird clothes." When I was in the 7th grade, I promised myself that I would do all I could to avoid being labeled as a FOB. In doing so, I often made fun of people of my own ethnicity and acted like I didn't understand anything when people spoke my native language. My strong dedication to strip myself from anything that revealed the culture to which I truly belonged to eventually started to affect my relationship with my parents at home. I became increasingly irritated with the smallest things: my mom placing a bowl of rice in front of me every night for dinner, using weird toothpaste made from bamboo extract, shopping at my local Asian grocery store, having to go to Korean school on Saturdays, etc. My frustrations eventually led to random outbursts that would cause a lot of conflict between me and my parents.
It wasn't until sophomore year of high school when I started to notice a growing appreciation of Korean culture spreading throughout the United States. More specifically, K-pop (Korean pop) was becoming increasingly popular and several of my friends had started to pick up on popular bands and K-pop groups such as Big Bang, SHINee, 2NE1 and Girls Generation. Even when I was in the "state-of-denial-of-being-Korean" stage, I still loved Korean music. When my friends weren't around or I was home alone, I always blasted my favorite Korean songs and jammed out. Therefore, when K-pop was becoming trendy, I was ecstatic because this meant that I could openly listen to K-pop without fear of being judged.
It wasn't until one night (very late, around 3 AM) when I was having a very heart-to-heart conversation with myself that I started to realize how ignorant I was. I started asking myself questions like: "Why am I so scared of being different?" and "Why does being Korean have to be something that I'm ashamed of?" or "How is being Korean even remotely bad?" This helped me to make the unequivocal decision to change the way I perceived my culture and identity.
The truth was this: I loved rice. I loved my Korean school friends. I loved Korean music. I loved Korean traditional dresses. I loved Korean dramas.
I was set on rekindling my relationship with my parents, studying hard at Korean school to perfect my writing, speaking and reading skills, and embracing all the cultural differences. It was definitely a slow process as it took me a while to openly express my love for my culture in front of my peers, but I was able to eventually get to where I am today: a super proud Korean.
Lead Image Credit: Katie Kim