By Ju Yon Kim
When I was seven years old I went to the circus with my family and friends. We had a great time. I was amazed by the trapeze artists, the lion trainers, and, best of all, the high-wire balancing act. I wasn’t aware of the other spectators around us, or what they thought of us. It never occurred to me that I was different from them.
My parents took me to the circus again last year, when I was 13. Six years can make a world of difference. This time, I was worried about what the other spectators would think of us. If I seemed rude or too noisy, any Asians around us would think my parents raised me badly, while everyone else would think Asians had no respect for others. This time, I was the one doing the balancing act.
Whenever I am forced to label myself, I say that I am Korean-American. I was born in Korea, but I live in America. However, the little hyphen between Korean and American isn’t there just to be grammatically correct. That tiny mark is a scale. I have to have just enough “Korean” in me to please Koreans, and just enough “American” in me to please Americans. I suppose that is my biggest challenge. I have to please everyone.
My school is more than 60% Asian. Even so, I face stereotypes. I can’t help feeling that, because I am Asian, I have to perform above and beyond to catch a teacher’s attention. I think some teachers see me as just another Asian kid whose parents will make sure she gets good grades. (You know the stereotype: that all Asians are nerds and all Asian parents pressure their kids.) This drives me crazy because it seems to insult both my parents and me.
The Korean part of me is something I’ll never hide or regret. However, it’s difficult to gain respect as both a Korean and an American. I’m sick of people thinking I’m a foreign tourist when I go places with my family. We usually converse in Korean, and people around us assume we can’t speak English.
One evening, my family and I were walking to a restaurant for dinner. As we strolled along, minding our own business, a truck came roaring down the street. The people inside yelled some indistinguishable jabber at us, apparently trying to make Asian-like sounds.
I stopped for a second, rather stunned. I probably spoke English better than they did. My parents didn’t seem to notice, but my brother and I did, and we didn’t like it. I still find it painful to relate. I felt like killing those racist jerks, and I am not a violent person.
I was glad my parents hadn’t heard anything. I didn’t want them to think that Americans were like that. I didn’t want them to start thinking about going back to Korea. I’d be different there, too, because I can’t speak Korean as fluently as English.
I find myself being extremely careful around Korean relatives. There’s a problem when they find an aspect of American culture strange or disgraceful. For instance, I feel embarrassed when my relatives see me relaxing by listening to the radio or reading magazines. I feel as though they are disappointed in me, since Korean students have to follow strict rules. But there’s also a problem when my friends who are not Korean find a part of Korean culture to be weird. As gross as it may seem to Americans, burping after meals is not considered rude in Korea. This has caused a few forgettable moments for me.
I want to show Koreans that Americans are not bad people and to show Americans that Koreans are not bad people. I want to show the bright side of each culture while fully acknowledging the dark side, too. I know that if I just give up and let one half of my life trample on the other half, I’ll only be promoting more stereotypes and more hate.
There may be teens out there thinking, “She’s making a big deal about nothing. Who cares?” Well, I care. Every day I have to be cautious and sensitive. Every day I have to fight stereotypes bombarding me from all sides. I hate the fact that humans judge each other. I hate the fact that when we look at others, sometimes all we see is skin. Most of all, I hate the fact that to Koreans, I’ve been Americanized, and to Americans, I’m just another Asian girl.
© LA Youth, Los Angeles