Race is generally an uncomfortable topic to discuss or write about, for many reasons. For short, it stirs up a lot of bad emotions and it's a sensitive topic for many people, myself included.
I'm a Korean-American woman who was born and raised in South Korea. Most people will say I'm an extremely outgoing social butterfly with friends of all different races. But unfortunately, here's something I’m uncomfortable to admit: Majority of my closest friends I’ve made during my adolescent years are Asian.
It’s odd because I don’t particularly identify myself only with the Korean culture, and nowadays you can stick me in any community-white, black, hispanic, etc and I’ll fit right in and make a new best friend within hours. I can wholeheartedly say from the bottom of my heart- I absolutely love and take interest in all people, despite color, age, race, and background.
But as an immigrant, so many situations growing up caused me to find comfort in forming friendships with other Korean Americans. Though it is not the case now, once in awhile my non-Asian friends would ask, “Why do you have so many Korean friends? You racist” which I would shrug off. Those comments never mean much to me (because it’s so far from the truth), but it mindlessly covers up the depth and explanation of why an insanely social butterfly like myself limited friendships to a certain race during my adolescent years.
Early elementary school years, my parents were forced to immigrate to the U.S. due to my dad’s job promotion. My dad tried so hard to assimilate us into the country that he would shout “English Time!” randomly whenever he felt like punishing us. This means that everyone should stop speaking in Korean and communicate in English. You don’t know the level of awkwardness you can experience with your parents until you try to have real conversations with them in a language that doesn’t make sense to either of you. Pretty sure I would’ve preferred sex education talks over “English Time!” any given day.
Upon entering middle school, the mean girl groups started to emerge and the angry teenager hormones were bringing out the ugly in many of us. (Both mentally and physically) Having always been a pretty competitive kid with an immeasurable desire to be popular growing up, I knew I had to be on top of the game. I stole my sister’s YM magazines and read Sweet Valley like it was the bible. I listened to Boyz II Men, TLC, Mariah Carey, and memorized lyrics to every single song. I was allowed to listen to those because my mom barely spoke English, so she never knew that TLC was singing about sex about 99% of the time.
But apparently none of those things work with pre-teens if you have a hint of ethnicity oozing out of you.
When being “cool” meant fitting in with the rest of the school, my Korean lunches seemed no longer “normal” to the kids. I found myself feeling embarrassed about my Korean lunches that my mother would wake up at wee hours of the morning to lovingly pack for me, with cute chopsticks she would import all the way from Korea. I would sit down to eat this badass Korean lunch with my non-Asian friends and they’d crinkle their nose and say “ewwww….Chinese food.” as they picked up their ham and cheese lunchables to a different table.
In addition, my real, legal name at that time was Sung-Won Hwang. Yes, perhaps it sounds exotic and a millennial from a major city nowadays would say “what a cool name!” But not back then. I would go home and cry for hours after the boy I had a crush on would climb on top of the lunch tables and scream “SUNG-WONG-HONG-CHING CHONG!” as he bowed to me with “namaste” like I’m f*cking Dalai Lama. (random aside-I’m a yoga teacher now and students “namaste” at the end of every class and I swear to god, I find myself getting unreasonably defensive)
Roll call at the beginning of every class was a time of anxiety, vomit and fear.
That simple 5-minute period when the teacher would read off everyone’s beautiful names. My teachers never remembered to say my name correctly and somehow would make my name sound absolutely hideous.
I would quietly whisper, “Present.”
The students would then chuckle and whisper, “Sooong wong honk honk!”
(And yes, I regretfully have to say that I ended up legally changing my name to an American one)
All of these situations (too many to name) started to make me feel like a second-class citizen amongst my friends, even though I spoke perfect English and had a ton of friends. I did extremely well in school and participated in every activity imaginable. But just when I think I would make progress within the social scene during recess hours, one tiny little racist joke would crush me to the bones and cause myself to feel hate and anger against my own culture.
Not all the kids in my school during elementary/middle school tried to single out the minorities, of course. But even as I kid, I noticed that even my non-Asian friends never really took interest or fully embraced my culture, which was a huge part of who I was. Anytime I would expose something of my race, it was considered “weird.” I would warn my mom to never cook any Korean food if I were to bring friends over, and I would hide the fact that we would go to a Korean church every Sunday. But it was always constantly eating me up inside. I felt insignificant and often misunderstood that my non-Korean friends were completely disinterested in who I was and remained indifferent to embrace the things I loved the most about myself.
During this time of confusion, I fell into a state of mild anger and depression. Most of it was aimed toward my parents for bringing me to America. I wanted to hide everything Korean about me, including the color of my hair and the way I looked. I never wanted to speak Korean and cringed when my mother would come by the school and speak to me in Korean in front of everyone.
And here’s the confession I am ashamed to make: I wanted to be white. Because at that time, being white meant being an American. I wanted to be nothing more than a blonde-hair, blue-eyed girl who everyone would smile at and never make fun of because everything about her would be “normal” and that was the cool thing back then. Her parents would speak perfect English, listen to Nirvana and laugh fabulously with all the teachers during those dreaded Back to School nights.
Things could’ve gone downhill from there. But when my parents moved us to another city, we moved to a town where a fair percentage of the population was Asian. Suddenly I went from feeling ashamed of myself to feeling like I belonged somewhere. My outgoing and quirky personality started to emerge as I met other Korean Americans that packed those cute rice lunches and talked to their parents in Korean. I still remember those years of making new friends and feeling like my life was complete. I was proud to be Korean-American for the first time.
But something deep down inside of me even as a pre-teen/teenager knew I wanted more. I wanted to make friends with people of different races, cultures and somehow still embrace my roots. I knew there had to be a place in time where I could have both. Though I loved my friends with a passion, I knew it was unlike me to only limit my friendships to one particular race.
Upon entering high school, my parents had to move us again to Virginia, which completely changed my life once again. It was an interesting community, where the races were mostly segregated. The Asians had their own cliques, the whites had theirs. There were only 2 black students (they were siblings) and the hispanic population didn't really exist. The jocks ruled the school and the mean girls weren’t just mean, they were vicious. I once again found my comfort zone in Asian friends and felt safe whenever they were around.
Except this time, when Asians were getting picked on, it was the real deal. It was harmful, hateful, and sometimes scary. The segregation between the races was pretty dramatic. I felt that the only way you could truly “fit in” with the majority of the cliques in the school was if you stripped away anything Asian about yourself. Forget speaking Korean, eating Korean food or outwardly embracing your culture.
There was one particular girl who constantly bleached her hair blonde because she, in her own words, “love that people think I’m a half white girl” even though she was 100% Korean. At that time I didn’t think much of it, but now, it breaks my heart.
I will forever remember this incident in my high school cafeteria where I experienced fear for the first time for being a minority. I decided one day to have lunch with my Korean friends, most of them forced to be in the states due to their parents jobs working as ambassadors. While we were enjoying our lunch, what felt like an entire cup of soy sauce mixed with rice came flying over to our table. I was wearing a bright new white shirt my mother bought for me and it was now completely covered in sticky black soy sauce. I looked up and turned around to see that the next table of blonde hair, blue-eyed jocks were laughing as if they just witnessed the world’s best comedy routine. As I got up to wipe off the soy sauce and the rice off my shirt, one of the girls hissed, “go back to China.”
The school didn’t do much except offer a hideous gym T-shirt for me to change in. That was a pivotal moment when I realized that the school might be “one of them.” I refused the shirt and went on about my day like nothing happened. Wanting to fit in so badly and not embarrass myself by causing havoc, I didn’t tell my parents and went on to the rest of my school year as if nothing happened. (My pitta mother would have probably reported it to the local news fuming with anger, which is probably what I would’ve done now, too.)
4 years of this went by and it was the first time I started to see non-Asians as the enemy. We often labeled them “white people” and it constantly felt like it was “us” vs “them.”
But deep down inside I was unhappy about the way things were. I wanted more than to somehow make friends outside of my Asian circle scene but it was hard. Perhaps I could have tried harder, but the fear factor of getting my feelings hurt kicked in. The few non-Asian friends I had were the most special to me, and I loved them dearly for accepting me for who I am. I marveled at the fact that they weren’t crinkling their nose when my mom would invite them for dinner, and they’d happily eat the food as if it was a special treat. My heart would fill with pride and joy when my white friends would come over and say, “that’s so cool” to a Korean family heirloom hanging on our wall. But unfortunately, these situations were very rare and the majority of the students at the school would dare step foot into a Korean home.
Upon entering college and moving to New York City, my perspective shifted dramatically. It was only until I moved to NYC that I started meeting “white people” that were actually curious to learn more about Korean food or traditional values we practice at home. Here in NYC, culture is a cool thing to explore. All of a sudden it was considered to be “tacky” to never try sushi and I felt as though my Korean background was a positive trait about me. I started aggressively making friends outside of my Asian social scene and it was exciting. I worked for a great company that embraced diversity and focused on growing the company internationally. I started to expand my social circle to groups of all races, and I love it more than anything I've experienced in my life. All of a sudden, traveling seemed like an important necessity to learn more about different cultures first-hand.
People think I get offended when my non-Asian friends constantly ask me to take them to Korean restaurants every time we hang out, but it brings me so much joy and pride to do so. Nothing is more attractive to me than a person who is curious about my culture or the food I eat, because it is a huge part of what I am and it feels extremely personal and intimate to share that space. I am so thankful for my friends that prefers to call me by my Korean name because they know that is who I truly am. My heart used to grow five times its size whenever my old boss called me “Sung won” around the office, and it wasn’t followed by a chuckle or “ching chong chong!”
However, the reality is that the rest of the country is not like New York City or other major cities in America where there is a huge cultural melting pot. While I was lucky enough to find a place to call home where I can truly experience that "freedom" America is known to stand for, racism is still a huge issue in this country (and other parts of the world) and we hear about it everyday, all over the news. But what is just as worse is remaining apathetic and resistant about embracing the culture of our own friends and colleagues.
Call me naive, but I don't believe that racist people were actually born racist because they harbored some mutated gene from their racist ancestors. Perhaps they were never educated or told that that cultural differences was a beautiful thing. I also believe that those students who made fun of my Korean name or hated the fact that I was eating "Chinese food" wasn't because they were racist; It was because they were never told from an early age that cultural differences is what makes this world beautiful.
So with all that was said, there is one thing I want to ask of everyone, and it is something that I truly believe will enrich your life:
Please consider cultural differences as a positive influence and a necessity for your personal growth. It’s never, ever enough that we’re not racist or that we don’t discriminate against different races. Apathy and lack of curiosity in the subject of race is the root of the heartbreaks, miscommunication, stereotypes and the segregations. We need to take interest in our differences and the culture of our own friends and colleagues, in order to create a free and open space to express who we truly are.
Whether it’s at the office or even in your social circles, I want to encourage anyone reading this to try making a friend of a different race and learn about his or her culture with a positive, open mind. I’m not saying to be a stereotyping dick and walk up to a random Asian person and say “so where are you really from?” (that’s a whole another topic) but if you find yourself in a situation where you have the opportunity to learn about the cultural practices of a person you care about, embrace it and stay curious. Let them know you want to learn more. Make them feel they are appreciated for what they are. Maybe you won’t enjoy everything you will learn or maybe you’ll grow uncomfortable, but let's encourage one another to accept that life is all about exploring new things. Who knows what kind of new friendships you will make, or the great things you will learn? The world is too big, interesting, mysterious and awesome to live in the confinement of what we are comfortable with.