As a third-generation Korean American, I was never conscious of my family lineage, especially growing up in Irvine, California, which has been a melting pot of diversity for the last twenty-some years. Like many others in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, recent headlines like the deadly killings in an Atlanta nail salon have led me to reflect on my values and my story here in America. Even before that, I’ve found myself tracing back the breadcrumbs of my grandparents that started my family’s arrival here in hope of a better life outside of postwar Korea. I’ve realized that their immigrant story is largely ingrained in my identity. But I've learned that my family’s story is viewed differently by other Americans, for better or for worse.
My own story is much like a new immigrant's story, with similar hardships of prejudice. But it is also starkly different.
My parents are Americans. My dad was born in the deep-red state of Tennessee, and my mom has been a citizen since she was young. They are both college-educated, registered as Republican voters, and could seem like poster children for the American Dream, defying the odds and “making it.” My sisters and I grew up in the early 1990s. Like others, listening to pop classics like Backstreet Boys, watching Boy Meets World on TV, and going to Anaheim Angels baseball games.
I think when you grow up in Irvine, it's easy to fall under the illusion that the rest of the world is like that. Historically, it's a growing suburb in Orange County that houses many first- and second-generation immigrants. The city is known to have one of the best public-education systems in the county, which is a huge attraction.
Growing up, I felt like I could see the world through my parent’s backyard. The idea of having a conversation about inclusivity seemed unnecessary thanks to the large and increasingly-diverse population. Every culture seemed represented in Irvine. Today, visitors can see that in the sheer amount of multicultural grocery stores and classrooms filled with color. I don't remember ever feeling conscious of my roots because everybody brought their own origin story to the playground, and it was not a focal point in the context we lived in.
I did not experience racism until I went to college. I went to Concordia University Irvine, a small liberal arts college that—like many other colleges—accepts undergraduates from all walks of life. I studied communication and was active with on-campus clubs and took part in the social aspect of school. We were required to take a grueling core curriculum that had freshmen and sophomores reading a new book seemingly every week, which was a challenge for me at the time.
I remember going to a late-afternoon class my sophomore year and talking to my classmates about the reading that we were going to be tested on that day. We were discussing either an American Literature book or maybe Homer's Iliad. My classmate, David, interrupted our conversation abruptly asking me, "Where are you from?" I replied to him with the truth, "Irvine." He then asked, "No, where are you really from?"
I've never been somebody to shy away from telling the truth. I told him that my grandparents were from South Korea, and I felt my peers grow quiet—as if it was subversive to have a foreign background. I remember feeling like I was looking into a dust-free mirror for the first time seeing my reflection; honest, bare and not white American. In hindsight, that was a seemingly harmless question, and nothing compared to racist comments others are experiencing today, but it was an eye-opening moment for me.
At the end of the day, I feel as American as any other citizen born and bred in the United States. Although I realize that I'm also not.
Within their homes, first, second and third-generation immigrants are forced to contend with dueling cultures and identities. On one hand, I am raised reading Twain and Hemingway novels in the classroom that encourage me to carve out my space as an individual and pull myself up by the bootstraps, fantasizing about chasing the American Dream. While at home, though, I'm hearing remnants of a culture that comes from popular East Asian religion, Confucianism. That part of my upbringing stresses the importance of family, collectiveness, remembering where you came from and respecting my elders. They are these dueling identities that are often at odds with each other.
There is also a cultural divide among immigrants between generations. That divide has become so large that a popular slight against first-generation immigrants, known as, "F.O.B. S or Fresh off the Boat" have been almost normalized amongst many, relating to all transplants from abroad trying to make a living here.
Sometimes as an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants, it can feel as if we are placed in this polarizing, No Man's Land.. We compartmentalize ourselves into small subcultures that separate people who actually share similar values and ideas. As a third-generation Korean American, for instance, I have witnessed many others who come from a similar background as me, talking down about immigrants who have the same ambitions as my grandparents who laid the foundations for our lives here.
I hope that I can help and encourage many others to come and do the same as my fathers before me. I choose not to believe that accepting differences is a lost concept.
As history feels like it’s repeating itself, I feel frustrated that my story is continuously sidestepped as racial issues continue to divide America. Despite other’s best effort, the AAPI community continues to be hindered by bureaucracy or treated as a subversive talking-point. Like many before me, I have always called America my home knowing it’s not perfect but believing in its long-lasting proclamation and values made available to all who put in the effort to be here.
I hope that my generation and those after us can lead the way in compassion when shaping our future. I sincerely hope that my own story can encourage others to reflect and empathize with the stories of immigrants, those who have come recently and those whose families are still relatively new to the American project.
I hope that everyone reading this will feel free to go outside their comfort zones. I believe taking a small step in reconciling hurt, judgment, and misunderstanding, will at least nudge us in the right direction, where the safety and inclusivity of all cultures feel welcome.
After working in a university, I've realized how integral and formative the short four years are for undergraduates. Like any institution, colleges are a collection of different kinds of people coming together. In my experience, I think it's important that educators create more inclusive conversations within the classroom that spotlights the similarities and ambitions that people share. I believe inspiring tomorrow's leaders starts in the classroom and can help affect change for the future.