On Reconciling My Asian-American Identity

Julia Lee | staff writer

I hail from a town whose population is strikingly diverse in terms of race, culture, religion, economic status. During my sophomore year of high school, one of my teachers asked us to raise our hands if our native language was one other than English. In a room of 19, every hand shot up but mine. This didn’t come as a surprise — I was always known as “the Twinkie,” or “the girl who’s Asian but not” — but still, when this happened, I felt myself shrink among my peers.

Given the household and community in which I grew up — my parents are first-generation immigrants from Korea — my Asian-American identity is something that has always been especially difficult to wrestle with and accept. English is the language I was raised with and my comprehension of the Korean language is extremely limited, while my mother’s uency in English is elementary at best. e barrier between us continues to grow as I do, because not only do I lack the capacity and proper words to express my sentiments with her, I am and have been unwilling to learn. Communicating with her is only possible on a basic and super cial level, and a er developing a personal resentment towards her early on, I made the decision to keep it that way.

The people I was friends with in high school mostly came down to a matter of who was in my classes and the same clubs as me, so given the variety of factors that came into play, the people I interacted with were always pretty ethnically diverse. It was almost assumed or expected that I was the most “Americanized” and culturally devoid person in those groups, but o en times I felt like I was too white for my Asian friends, and too Asian for my white friends. There was always the implied and mutually understood sense that I was similar to them in some way that united us, but that I was the odd one out — that there was something fundamentally different about who we were that made it nearly impossible to relate to each other entirely.

After coming to a university where the overwhelming majority of the student body is white, I felt an inexplicably pressing urge to revert to my roots for the first time. But then, I realized I didn’t know what my roots are to begin with, because my foundations were unstable and nonexistent from the start. I shied away from joining cultural organizations because I didn’t think I had the right to be a part of a group dedicated to the customs and values I spent so many years avoiding, rejecting, and looking for excuses to turn away from. I was never comfortable identifying myself as a Korean, because although that’s exactly what I am. Calling myself that made me feel like a fraud, undeserving of the label.

In high school, I felt what I now recognize as a sick sense of pride in being the most whitewashed person in the room. But looking back on all the time I spent being hostile towards my culture, I shoulder an incredible amount of guilt for being so unwilling to embrace it. A lot of what held me back was the fact that I considered it impossible to fully unite and reconcile being both Asian and American, without sacrificing some part of one for another part of the other. I never thought I could be both, and believed it was too late to learn about what I’d so deliberately neglected for virtually my entire life.

I’m still working my way through the internal dissonance that ensued, and I’m far from harmonizing it. It’s one thing to live with a prolonged conflict that’s always existed in the background, and it’s another to place it at the forefront where I explicitly and willingly acknowledge it. To be frank, I don’t know what I’m going to do from here on out, but bringing this internal conflict to light for the first time has allowed me to come to terms with my circumstances in a way that was never possible when I made every effort to internalize them. There’s no magical or right solution to any of this, and whether I’ll become more disillusioned or enlightened moving forward is up in the air, but I hope to grow closer to some kind of fulfillment or greater understanding throughout the pursuit of developing my identity. ◆

Julia is a first-year student intending to major in social work and minor in creative writing. She feels really lucky to be a part of such a progressive publication like The Fourth Wave and to go to a university that offers so many resources and opportunities to its students.

Check out more from our April 2016 issue!