Growing up in a traditional Asian family, I was taught that race was a somewhat taboo topic. Although my parents have never directly had a conversation with me focusing on the importance of race in our society, as I got older, they slowly started giving me glimpses of their ideas about the lives of other people beyond my small bubble at my private school in Korea.
My mom always painted an ugly picture of life beyond Korea. She would always tell my sister and me that the United States was a dangerous place, and portrayed most Americans as dangerous criminals. My parents had developed a sense of xenophobia from all the media that exaggerated the bad parts of America: the guns, violence, drugs, kidnappings, etc. They always told us that we shouldn’t trust foreigners, but if we had to, white people would be the ones we should open up to.
She would also tell me that I needed to learn how to mingle with people of other races so that I didn’t get left out or harassed. She made sure that I was fluent in English before I was fluent in Korean because her plan was to send me to the States, where she believed I would get a better education, and, when I was there, she hoped that me being fluent in English would help me defend myself in any bad situations I found myself in.
When my sister started dating, my parents always hated the fact that she didn’t date Asians (a rule of my sister’s that I choose not to follow because I think it’s pretty unreasonable). Although they couldn’t stop us from dating outside of our own race, they laid down their expectation that we get married to somebody who is Asian.
I never grew up thinking about racial differences because I was always around other Asians and learning about different cultures wasn’t a priority in my school even though it was an “international” school. We spent time memorizing all the countries in Asia and Africa, but we never talked about the concept of race.
When it came to race, my views came mostly from TV shows, movies, and social media. This exposure didn’t necessarily mean I had a clear understanding of it because, frankly, I still don’t have a complete picture. What this meant was that despite my parents’ efforts to persuade me that those who aren’t Asians are not to be trusted, I didn’t grow up with any preconception that certain races were better than others.
My sister and my brother both grew up with specific ideas about race stuck in their heads, my brother more than my sister. My sister, who is otherwise extremely open-minded, still believes she can’t marry anyone who isn’t Korean. My brother claims he doesn’t like anyone other than Asians.
It always made me uncomfortable when my family members made rash generalizations based on all the bad things portrayed by the media about different racial groups: the claims that white people are ignorant, black people are dangerous, and Hispanic people are untrustworthy. On the rare occasion that race did come up explicitly in our family conversations, I would try to give a different perspective by refuting their arguments, but they remained stubborn in their beliefs. When I realized that my family couldn’t be steered away from their biases, I gave up on trying to change their minds and instead just decided to believe what I believed.
Being Asian, I always found myself in an awkward position when it came to race. I felt like I didn’t have the same privilege as those who are white, but I also felt like I couldn’t complain about it because Asians didn’t have as deep a history of race-based oppression in the United States as some other groups.
I truly didn’t feel conscious of my race until I started going to summer camps in the States and was exposed to people of different races. I distinctly remember the summer after seventh grade, when my mom and I were driving through the neighborhood of Bel-Air in California on my way to UCLA for a summer program. It was a peaceful day, and I had my window down to help ease some of my anxiety about being in a new place without my mom for the first time.
When we stopped at a red light, a white Jeep pulled up next to us. I looked over out of sheer curiosity, and saw that the Jeep was full of people who looked like frat boys. Before I even knew it, the boys rolled down their window and started yelling racial slurs at my mom and me. Although I didn’t completely understand what they were saying, I understood the fact that they were making fun of us. Even my mom, who wasn’t fluent English, realized what was happening.
As I was about to yell back at them, my mom rolled up my window. In frustration, I looked over at my mom to protest, but the look on her face stopped me from even trying to argue. Her face had become stoic, and I knew from that look that she was as angry as I was and hated the fact that I had to experience that, but all she said was, “Don’t pay attention to them. You just ignore things like that.”
Thankfully, I haven’t encountered anything else as humiliating as what happened to us that one summer day. However, that doesn’t mean that I am exempt from racist remarks. There have been numerous occasions when a stranger would come up and ask, “Where are you from?” and when I responded with “California,” they would always respond with, “No, no, your motherland,” or, “No, where are you really from.” I always found myself laughing these responses off, but it always frustrated me. I’m a dual citizen, and the fact that I am Asian does not and should not lead people to entirely disregard the American in me.
When kids made jokes about Koreans eating dogs or having small eyes or “yellow fever” (a slang term used to mock non-Asian males who have a clear sexual preference for women of Asian descent to an obsessive degree), I learned to let it go. It also led me to make jokes like these myself just so other people didn’t have the opportunity to do it first. I thought that if I were the one making the jokes, it would be better than having other people say them to me.
As I got older, I realized that that wasn’t the case at all. I began to see the problems with my way of dealing with these situations and started to change my perceptions. I built up the courage to defend myself and call people out when they were insensitive. I still haven’t mastered that skill, but I’m making a conscious effort to do so more often.
As an impressionable teenager, I let these things affect me and it made me constantly wish that I wasn’t Asian. Now that I’m getting older, I’ve learned to embrace my race and believe that I have nothing to be self-conscious about. I hope to get across, to not only other Asians but people in general, that it’s perfectly okay to be proud of who they are. It is okay for people to speak up about injustices they face, and they shouldn’t shy away from expressing their discomfort just because they don’t feel like they shouldn’t. Regardless of the history of or stereotypes about people of a certain race, racism is still racism, and people should feel comfortable acknowledging the racism they face regardless of what form it comes in and be courageous enough to speak up about it and name it whenever they encounter it.
Copyright Ally Kim 2020