It’s hard to draw a line between my parents’ features and my own. My Korean mother and my white, American father look so different from each other that when the gene pools mixed, the outcome was something new - like copper and tin losing themselves to become bronze. It’s hard, in turn, to find the line between who they are and who I am.
My growing pains were specially formulated by a multiracial, multicultural background, plus five schools in five years, life split between two sides of the world and a lot of distance between me and my extended family. I was always floating, never finishing a whole school year in one place, never making any lasting friendships, never connecting who I was with where I was. My identity was lost. Lost in translation, both literal and figurative, without me ever realizing that I was supposed to look for it. I thought that I was supposed to be the person that others told me I was - that identity was something that other people found for you, handing it over wrapped in a few words: Asian. White. Smart. Dumb. Fat. Thin.
In my case, it wasn’t that people were telling me who I was - they were telling me who I wasn’t. Every time one of my mom’s friends told me, “Oh, you must look just like your dad,” what I heard, somewhere deep down, was, you look nothing like us. The door to my white identity would slam shut every time a coworker of my father’s told me that I must look like my mom, Asian. In these two halves of myself, I floated between, doors locked.
But I spent most of my time growing up in rural Kentucky, in schools dominated by white kids who always saw me as an other. As the Asian girl. Eventually, the thing that they identified me as became who I was, ignoring the pangs that I felt when I couldn’t connect with “real” Asians. Ignoring the jab to the self-esteem I took when the Korean girl at summer camp told me I was lying about our shared heritage. Struggling through the language barrier with my grandmother, my hal-mo-nee, on the phone - her English limited to I love you, I miss you; my Korean almost nonexistent.
For over 20 years, this was who I was - a projection of the people around me. Then I left for college. They tell you that college will change everything, and it did. It threw me in with an incredibly diverse student body, and no longer was I the Asian girl. Now, I was surrounded by all kinds of racial identities, including large groups of Asian students. My identity quickly became compromised. I wasn’t able to find which “other” I was. This whole struggle changed for me in one revelation. Sitting in my Intercultural Communication class, my Korean immigrant professor, Steve, asked if any of us had Asian heritage. I raised my hand with another girl, ethnically Filipino. He asked us, “How do you identify yourself?”
“Asian American,” I told him.
“Because I’m half Korean, half white.”
“So, you identify yourself by your ethnicity? Or is it cultural? Why not just ‘American?’”
All these questions, and I didn’t have easy answers. He opened a levee that had been holding back doubts about who I was and why. And instead of being afraid of the flood, he dove right in - Who decides who we are? Is it who other people say you are? No, it’s who you say you are.
In the middle of a poorly-heated room, under fluorescent lights, I had a revelation. I get to choose who I am. I get to choose who I am. My identity isn’t relative to the identities of the people around me, just who I think I am. I think that having those questions come from Steve, a symbol of one half of the person I’d struggled to see myself as, was a big player in this. Accepting and matter-of-fact, the exchange was an antidote to all of the exclusion I’d felt before.
This all stretched far beyond my concept of my own race. Am I pretty enough? Am I thin enough? Smart enough? Do I work hard enough? All of these answers, I realized, I could find without looking at the girl next to me. And the questions became, Do I think I’m pretty? Am I happy with my body? Am I healthy? Am I who I want to be? Are you?
Written by: Michelle Eigenheer
Michelle is the assistant web editor for Louisville.com
photographer: Amber Thieneman