No, I’m not Korean and I’m not trying to be.
My upcoming year abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea was a serendipitous series of events if anything. I was originally intending on studying abroad in Italy where I could study thousands of years of art, but here I am instead, a week and a half out before I board the Korean Air plane destined for Incheon International Airport. Thought I am very excited and I can’t wait to be in Korea, these feelings are muddled by anxious thoughts and worries of being a SE Asian in Korea.
The sad reality of growing up Asian-American in the United States is the unspoken existence of “East Asian Hegemony.” You can look up what those words mean if you don’t know them. But I can explain them to you through experiences and stories.
East Asian Hegemony is the model minority myth that applies to certain Asian communities disguising the high poverty and education inequality levels of other Asian communities. East Asian Hegemony is matters of mental health, intergenerational trauma, immigration, etc. going unaddressed by Asian-American activists, in favor of cries of lack of representation in mainstream American media. East Asian Hegemony is my people’s music, art, and culture being considered l*me (which is an ableist slur by the way and I’m only including it because of its prolific use in our society to deem them uncool) while other asian cultures are considered ‘trendy, cool, and interesting.’ East Asian Hegemony is actual East Asians telling me that I’m from the “shitty part of Asia” and that I’m too dark (when I’m actually pretty light skin) to be considered attractive.
The point of this is not to drive a wedge in the Asian-American community, but rather to highlight issues within our own communities that NEED to be address. Now how does this relate to me going abroad to Korea?
Well I think at this point, we all know how popular K-Pop and the ‘Hallyu’ wave is in America. When BTS is the only thing anyone talks about, k-dramas are all the rage, Korean makeup and skincare is on everyone’s minds and inline shopping baskets. I will admit, I’m as much of a BTS stan as others, I grew up watching k-dramas, and I religious do my ten-step skincare routine every night, that isn’t the point.
The point is to draw the fact that people treat me very differently, first off because I’m asian, and second off because I’m not the ‘right’ kind of asian. These same issues manifest itself in different ways in Asia, specifically like colorism, and I would be lying if I said that I’m not worried about how I will be treated in Korea when people find out that I’m Vietnamese. But of course it goes without saying that people will be rude, assume awful stereotypes, and so on, everywhere, but I’m still here writing this blog post up aren’t I?
My childhood was tinged of feelings of shame, of not belonging, of being too ‘asian’ or not ‘asian enough,’ of playing into the idea that being Vietnamese isn’t cool but being Korean is. I’m fucking proud to be Vietnamese, and I love our food, our culture, our music (and if you haven’t given V-Pop a chance, then you’re hella missing out).
Many of the things that I now try my best to understand critically and holistically were things that I used to take great pleasure in actively doing and consuming, and in many ways I still do. But I can’t just pretend like a SE Asian-American like me as the same experiences as an East Asian-American. Because I don’t and it’s not fair to assume such just because we have the same shaped eyes and we all like eating rice using chopsticks. Not when I hear the inevitable disappointed sigh when I tell people that “no I am not Korean, I’m actually Vietnamese” and the conversation usually end up on the only thing people know about Vietnam which is “oh I love pho (pronounced foe).”
So to clarify my intents on going to Korea for a year for study abroad, no it’s not because I’m a Koreaboo, no it’s not because I want to meet BTS, and no it’s not because I’m trying to be Korean. Yes, I like Korean music, food, fashion, men, beauty, etc. but I’m honestly just trying to challenge myself and grow and thrive in a different environment.