By Joyce LEE
*Disclaimer: I do not mean to generalize/stereotype Americans or Koreans but am merely stating my observations and opinions.
I am judged by the yellow color of my skin in my native land and my overly authentic facial features in my motherland. As a Korean American born and raised in Los Angeles, I often find myself struggling to grasp my identity. Am I an American or a Korean? Official government documentations claim me as an American citizen with a Korean heritage. But off paper, my identity cannot be so simply explained.
I realized this even more on my recent summer trip to Seoul, Korea. I have always been an avid fan of Korean entertainment and culture, consistently keeping up with popular dramas and music. Inevitably, I had a lot of expectations for my first visit to my motherland. I was delighted at the delicious taste of traditional Korean food and the various attractions in Seoul. Beneath the sheer fun and entertainment I experienced, the longer I stayed there, the more I realized that I felt out of place. I experienced a culture shock.
The first thing that I noticed was that people in Korea are generally not friendly like the people in America; neighbors are treated as complete strangers, subway passengers are glued to their phones while sitting and standing, pedestrians offer no apologies to those they accidentally bump into, students bully each other for no apparent reason (this is one of the reasons for Korea’s high suicide rate I think). There is an unexplainable cold atmosphere that looms over many of the people in Korea. Of course, this certainly does not apply to every individual. Do not misunderstand my observations as harsh. I am well aware that there are flaws in every country, culture, and individual – including myself.
I, like many other Asian Americans, have been a victim of prejudice in both America and Korea. During a family trip to Washington, DC two summers ago, an African American boy pointed to our family as if we were zoo animals and exclaimed, “Look! They’re from China!”
Although it was a bit funny at first, my family and I were offended at the racial remark. I understand how non-Asians can get confused between the different Asian races. But there always seems to be a tone of mockery when someone asks or even automatically assumes that every Asian person they see is Chinese. I feel a sense of inferiority, as if the other “Americans” view me as an outsider. This is apparent through the books, movies, music and media that are popular. I have grown so used to seeing white people on the big movie screen. When I read books, I unconsciously assume all main characters are white. This makes me wonder if other “Americans” view us Asian Americans as nonexistent in the world.
To add to the irony of not feeling I belonged in the very country in which I learned to walk, talk and grow, I failed to find my true self in even my motherland, Korea.
Korea is known to have the highest percentage of plastic surgeries in the world. I personally do not agree with plastic surgery because I believe everyone has their own charms and talents. By transforming our faces to match the current beauty trend, our individualism will be lost in the crowd. When I traveled to the wealthy districts, such as Gangnam where almost everyone looks identical from plastic surgery, people gave me looks and assumed that I was a tourist. I did not have the same pale skin, straight eyebrows, big eyes, tall nose and oval faces as they had. My friend’s younger cousins asked me which features I would “fix” later, automatically assuming that I would undergo plastic surgery. I was shocked to find that even little kids unconsciously favor beauty over personality.
It saddens me to see how materialistic the Korean society has become. This gloominess is not because I feel disgust. Rather, it is depressing because I care for the very country in which my parents grew up. It breaks my heart to see people despise themselves merely because they are not pretty enough or blend in with the crowd. Surprisingly, I found a reflection of myself in these people. Although I did not go under the knife, I realized that I was exactly like them on the inside, always worrying about what people thought of my race and face. This is the connection that brought me to understand and treasure Korea.
I will probably be judged by the color of my skin in America and my overly traditional Asian facial features in Korea until I die. My insecurities of being the lone Asian in a room full of white people in America and the awkward tourist in Korea will take me a while to overcome. But I am striving to no longer care how other “Americans” and “Koreans” view me as. Rather, I am proud to be a Korean-American, a hybrid of two flawed nations that I love.