Ethnic Identity is your Special Fusion

People say weird things to you when you are an Asian-American. One thing I realize is that for many Korean people, I will never be a true Korean to them. And for many American people, I will never seem a true American to them. Many times in life, people have put me in a ‘box’ which made me question myself: ‘What am I?’

I’ve spent life in the States for the past 20 years. It still hasn’t made me fully American though. I never forget my Korean side. I appreciate my Korean side. Whenever people mention my Korean-ness, it’s a source of pride. Same with my American-ness. When I go to South Korea, I often stand out based on my open-mindedness, frankness and the American-ness engrained in me now. I appreciate my American upbringing as much as I appreciate my Korean upbringing. I’ve had more American mentors of multiple ethnicities than Korean mentors in my life.

The problem is, there’s many “pure” Korean people who don’t seem to get along with me very well. Granted their life arc is very different from me, based on military service, having spent their entire life in Korea and having problems confidently speaking English and so forth. I must rub them the wrong way, or maybe they have trouble relating to me. In the beginning, I felt hurt because they wouldn’t always consider me their own. Eventually I realized something. I don’t have to belong to them to be happy with myself.

On the bright side, There are Koreans who appreciate me. Not all Koreans are close-minded against Korean-Americans. For those people, I’m a unique, special blend. They don’t relate to me just because I’m Korean but because I can offer them a new possibility. By being true to me. Not having to be somebody else. It goes to show that you cannot please all people all the time. Some of the people will accept you all the time for no reason. All the people will accept you at some of the times for no particular reason. But you cannot make all the people accept you all the time.

In a way, many Korean-Americans and Asian-Americans are operating on a scale system, not a binary system. You are not just completely American or completely Korean. Oftentimes, you are an amalgamation of both to a varying degree. You might have spent 1o years of your life in Korea and then 20 years of your life in Connecticut, North Carolina and New York. So Are you Korean now? Are you a New Yorker now? I don’t know. I would say mathematically speaking, 34% Korean, 66% American. In that manner, we retain a piece of the environment around us wherever we grew up in. I know Koreans who spent most of their childhood growing up in Germany, India, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, France or the Philippines. It doesn’t make them any less lovable or less respectable. They have their own valuable identity, which is separate from the pure Korean identity. And yet, we share that commonality, as the ‘in-betweeners’ which is also important. That alone is a unique identity in its own way. Being a precious hybrid.

For those of you who might be suffering from identity issues, believe me, it’s not an easy puzzle to solve. Especially if you are half-Asian or multi-racial, I can only imagine how much tougher it is for the outside world to consider you one way and then your internal world trying to express another. In a really funny way, I suffered from color discrimination from my own people based on my unusually dark skin tone growing up in South Korea. I was made fun of, along with my mom and sister growing up.

At the end of the day, the path I believe is “self-acceptance.” Not all Koreans will accept me, and that’s okay. Not all Americans will accept me, and that’s okay. But that doesn’t make you a watered down version of a Korean or a watered down version of an American. I am both of those identities and none of those things. Some people understand this better than anybody, especially those in America who call themselves ‘mutts,’ whose identity is so mixed from several generations of ethnic intermixing. Some people just like to disregard issues surrounding race and ethnicity altogether because it’s much easier to live that way in America.

I’ve recently been reading Professor Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s Book “When Half is Whole” which is an amazing read written by a leading scholar on the subject of identity. It’s been one of the best recent books I’ve discovered. He mentions that the 3 steps to living with your multi-ethnic identity is 1) Knowing and feeling different from those around you often in a negative way + 2) Struggle to belong, social pressure to conform and loneliness + 3) ultimate self-acceptance through self-definition of your own identity.

The ‘tweeners are a weird, special bunch. I truly believe that.

In marine biology, there’s a term called “Biodiversity.” Researchers say the most diverse, creative forms of marine life can be seen at the point where two completely different types of ocean currents collide. In that way, multiethnic individuals are like the meeting point where those two ocean currents collide. Throughout history, it is those multiethnic individuals who have given us amazing innovation and creativity only possible through cultural fusion. Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Indian-Americans, Asian-Americans just to name a few.

We can think different from those of our origins who are set in their ways. What will you choose to create with your own fusion? The world is your oyster.

Being Proud of your Immigrant Multi-Identity

Koreans are known for being patriotic and nationalistic. I myself was a big a Red Devil myself rooting for the red uniformed South Korean soccer teams when I was a kid. Generations and history of fighting against oppression and fighting for freedom remain in my blood. I love Korean culture, the people and the amazing recent explosion of its potential. Who knew our culture and our unique fusion of fashion, music, dance and entertainment would become a global export loved by so many?

In a way, what people see in Korean fashion, music and entertainment is a delicate fusion of East and West. We’ve learned a lot from Japan’s once dominant music and entertainment industry that came long before us as well as hip-hop, R&B, rap and dance from the U.S. Fashion from Europe. Philosophy and literature from China. Food culture that’s a fusion of many neighboring Asian nations that’s also distinctively our own. I’m proud of all of that.

What I want to write about is the delicate confidence that you must have as a multi-identity individual if you are an immigrant in another country.

I’ve wondered about this for a long time. It’s rarely discussed but it’s very important. The problem is this. If you were born in another country but currently live in another, your sense of your self-identity will be challenged from different conflicts that can happen: both in yourself and with other people. And the challenge actually has more to do with other people’s acceptance and “view” of you.

For example, I traveled to Israel recently and had the opportunity to interact with Israeli locals. I actually didn’t know that K-pop was a huge hit among Israeli girls, and many locals asked me questions. But the nuisance I got from these people, when I told them that I was Korean-American, was a weird, mixed confusion. Granted, Israel itself is a country formed by the idea that all Jews share the same blood so I can understand how they will be black-and-white about having a “pure identity” but they just seemed utterly confused that a person who looks completely Asian and Korean on the outside can call himself an American instead. They started asking me factual questions like “When’s the independence day of South Korea” just to test me, which I thought was freaking stupid. I barely remember the exact day of Chinese new year. Or my mom’s birthday.

I actually think I must have been a novelty to them. That an Asian person who looks Asian on the outside can actually be different in their life experience and mentality and can speak perfect English. Outside of multiethnic countries like the U.S, Canada, Australia, and certain nations in Europe, I can see how it’s an uncommon thing.

As Korean-Americans and Asian-Americans, we are always walking a delicate balance. We want to be accepted by society but not everybody will accept us because of who we are. We can often cause confusion in other people (especially those who tout that they are valuable for being “pure” culturally or ethnically, having spent their entire lives in one country or only one culture). When I go back to Korea or interact with die-hard Koreans, some Koreans make fun of me for not being able to remember Korean words proficiently. When I live in the States, some people make fun of the Korean accent in my English. Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong anywhere. Completely non-lingual lol.

In that way, the U.S. really is a blessing despite the existence of racism. Equality not based on bloodline or ethnicity or religion but equality as a basic, god-given right for all.

Being Korean-American is actually a 3-step process. First you realize that you are Korean and will always look Korean to people no matter how much you try to fit in with American society. Second, you realize that real Koreans won’t accept you fully because you think and speak differently from them, and have totally un-relatable experiences, that you’ve actually outgrown your motherland. Last but not least, third, you come to grips with all this non-sense and accept yourself just as you are. Both the good and the bad of being Korean-American. Holding onto the positiveness that comes with being Korean AND American, and also the negativeness that comes from both as well. People will ask you about both BTS AND Miley Cyrus’s latest meltdown.

That’s why I am the most comfortable with other misfits in society. I don’t believe in being a “pure Korean” or a “pure American” or any of that nationalistic non-sense. I’m proud of all things but I also don’t like to hold on to any of those things. Being multi-ethnic is the quintessential American identity. In this country, there’s people who are 1/8 Navajo Native-American and 1/16 Irish-Italian and 1/64 Japanese. Who cares.

I no longer let anybody make me feel bad by saying I’m not Korean enough or I’m not American enough. I’m me. We are our own group. We are ethnically Korean, legally American, and the ultimate magical balance that holds both of those things in one scale. Nobody else does that balance as well as us. The identity we have to own is the Middle path. Realizing That the Middle path is just as valuable as any pure path, perhaps even 100x more difficult. Being unbiased toward either but knowing both of those worlds fully. Embracing and criticizing them at the same time. That unique perspective is the unique power that we have.

In that mindset, there is no shame. There is pride. For being the rare, unique product that we are. Don’t let anybody tell you “you are not enough.” You were born enough.

Sometimes I like to eat French Fries with a little bit of kimchi and miso soup that’s all I’m saying.