Growing up in Tennessee where there were 4 Korean kids in my high school (my brother and I making up 50% of this sad little demographic), I felt that my race always preceded me. I was Asian first and Hannah second. I was Hannah Kim, Asian girl, and that was something that followed my name like a doctorate degree. It was the typical bullshit, people exhausting their knowledge of Asian countries after asking if I was Chinese or Japanese; comments on my flat face, chinky eyes; assumption of my natural prowess in Math despite my clear lack of skill and intuition on the matter. Overarching these pointed barbs, a general confusion – confusion that I wasn’t white, and confusion why that made me automatically less than.
After graduation, I went to Los Angeles to attend USC and suddenly found myself in a sea of Asian Americans. Far from being a culture shock, I immediately dove in, relishing the feeling of something I hadn’t even realized I was missing. In particular, my close involvement with the Korean American Student Association led me to exciting new heights of comfort and self-discovery. Namely, the ability to be myself without being first and foremost Korean/Asian. The right that white people take for granted (and other majority races in their respective countries) to be judged for who they are as an individual. It’s fine if people don’t like me, I just want them to judge me for being Hannah Kim and not on behalf of the Asian populace, you know? The right to be disliked for myself – what an odd but tangible relief. The feeling of melting into a group of people where your race is such an obvious factor that there’s no need to mention it. [“What the hell is water?”]
I think herein lies the value of community. By joining yourself to a larger group of similar people (through culture or an interest like scuba diving, woodworking, comedy) you’re paradoxically able to become an individual.
Not to mention, how whole I feel around people who have shared my experience of being spread-eagled between two distinct worlds – my feet on two islands as they drift inexorably apart, me, falling into the most uncomfortable splits of all time. Not accepted as Korean or American by either country, shunted into a no man’s demilitarized zone. My “people” are not Koreans, who grew up with the luxury of invisibly blending into a sea of other Koreans, my “people” are Korean Americans. Together we share the joy of eating Korean food without fear of judgment or exotifying bullshit. We mix in Korean words with rapid-fire English, for a hodgepodge that provides a nuanced clarity of meaning. We sing Big Bang and TLC at karaoke, we are able to talk to each other’s parents, we are able to talk about our parents, feeling both guilty and grateful about their immigration struggles.
It’s taken many years, but I think I’ve finally reconciled my identity as a first generation Korean American. Not that there won’t be challenges ahead, but the overwhelming confusion has cleared. After moving to Portland, KAC Oregon has been a big part of my journey in understanding my identity. It’s empowering to be a part of an organization that is so inclusive and works so hard to build community for both Korean Americans and others. My particular experience is far from representative, and it’s likely your own story is different from mine. However, whatever your unique identity and journey, I hope that you find peace and that KAC Oregon can help provide you with a sense of community in the process. Hope to see you at our future events and please reach out via our Facebook page with any questions!
Hannah Kim works in digital advertising and is one of the newest additions to the KAC board. She is a Kimchi princess.