Reclaiming What I Had Chosen to Lose

The other day, I cried while reading my daughter a bedtime story.

The crying, in and of itself, was not unusual. As a feeler, I often empathize with characters in books or movies and cry regularly for them. I even cry watching commercials (the one with the big sister taking care of the little sister while Mom is deployed? Guts me every time).

The difference was, this time, I cried for myself.

While reading Julie J. Kim’s beautiful book, Where’s Halmoni?, I could not hold back tears.

Now, there is nothing inherently sad about the story. In fact, it’s a beautiful picture of Asian American joy and a funny nod to some well-known Korean folktales. There’s even a mention of designer underwear (super on-brand for Koreans).

But I cried for myself because I stumbled to get through the hangul, the written Korean language, on several pages.

In reflecting on and thinking about all the hate crimes and abuse towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders this year, in that moment, it hit me. Throughout my four decades, I had lost, and willfully lost, so much of my Korean culture in hopes of being seen as more American. And in that moment, I realized it was lost for nothing. It didn’t really matter. People that looked like me would never be seen as fully American.

And all that I had lost, willfully lost…was it too late to reclaim?

I am the daughter of Korean immigrants. My dad and mom immigrated to the states with their families in 1969 and 1974, respectively. They arrived in this country earlier than most of my friends’ parents. My dad entered high school here in the States and my parents met as college students in Philadelphia. Growing up, I prided myself on my dad’s perfect English and on the fact that my parents had degrees from American schools. With Korean Americans constantly comparing 1st generation and 2nd generation experiences and even creating a 1.5 generation, I claimed the 2.5 generation as my own.

Sure, we had Korean food at home most days, but we also had steak and spaghetti and meatloaf and mashed potatoes. From scratch! We spoke a mix of English and Korean at home, but my parents didn’t need me to speak Korean; they understood my English just fine. They didn’t need me to translate for them or to do their taxes for them as so many children of immigrants did. In my mind, this made me more American than my other Korean American friends.

So, what was the point of me going to Korean school? I didn’t need to read and write Korean. Sure, that meant my conversations with my Korean-speaking grandparents were limited, but we always had food and the weather to talk about. Why should we celebrate Korean holidays? I had Halloween with store-bought costumes and Thanksgiving with a real turkey. Korean New Year could stay, though, since I relied on saebae dohn as my yearly income. But the others? I couldn’t even name them.

I was gleefully shedding the Korean part of my Korean American-ness in hopes of achieving True American Status!

My family in the mid-1990s, doing decidedly “American” things like visiting the Smithsonian and amusement parks.

But as I’ve grown older, it’s become more and more apparent that that isn’t possible.

No matter how hard I try, my Asian-ness will always precede my American-ness. After all, the label is Asian American, not American Asian. My Asian face and hair and skin tone will always be the first thing people see and notice about me and others that look like me. They won’t care whether I can or can’t speak Korean; they won’t care whether I celebrate Korean holidays or American ones, whether my weekly menu consists of Korean food or not.

So, I want to take it back.

At 40 years old, I want to gather that Korean-ness I worked so hard to shed and make it mine again.

I want to eat and cook all the Korean food. I want to watch all the Korean dramas (I recently started with Reply 1988 and am mad at myself for not watching it sooner). I want to speak and read and write hangul.

And not just for me, but for my kids.

My kids who, as true third generation Korean Americans, should also have their own choice about what parts of their Korean-ness they want to wear proudly and celebrate. For my kids who can have actual, deep relationships with their grandparents because they don’t have to worry (as much) about a language barrier and can learn about Korea and Korean culture firsthand from those grandparents.

For my kids, without whom, my family’s Korean language and culture could be lost within three generations.

How long did it take for White immigrants to fully assimilate into American culture? How many generations passed until there was almost no trace of a mother tongue or references to a home country? Is that kind of assimilation even possible for Asian Americans?

I don’t know.

And now, I’ve realized, I don’t really want to find out.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Effuah Sam (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).