Finding “Home”: A Love Letter to Korean American Representation in 2021

By Emily Chi

Emily Chi and her family, taken by Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

For many Asian Americans, 2021 was a year where we reckoned with what it means to be Asian American in an America that still doesn’t seem ready to accept us as we are. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt the pressure to pick one part of my identity: Korean or American. There haven’t been many public spaces where I’ve been able to show up just as I am, a Korean American floating somewhere in the limbo that is our 교포 (kyo-po) third culture. I’m often unsure where “home” really is. If I’m too American for Korea and too Korean for America, where do I belong? Many of us have learned to compartmentalize our identities; we code switch as needed, apologize to relatives for our subpar Korean, feel anxious when we are the only Asian in a store or plane, and juggle the expectations and norms of each society. In some ways, we have two homes, but it can feel like we are reserved to a second-tier status and misunderstood no matter where we are.

The anti-Asian hate that surged during the COVID-19 pandemic felt like both a rejection and a betrayal. Even the most diverse cities where we believed we were safe and accepted were not immune to anti-Asian xenophobia and racism, forcing us to reckon with the reality that our belonging had always been conditional. As long as our labor, food, and model minority status served others, we were welcome. When it was no longer convenient, we were cast in our recurring role as perpetual foreigners. I bought pepper spray for family members, forbade my grandmother from going to the bank or grocery store alone, held on to my mother’s hand tightly in public, and sat fearfully in the car with the doors locked whenever I waited for my tank to fill up at the station.

“The anti-Asian hate that surged during the COVID-19 pandemic felt like both a rejection and a betrayal. Even the most diverse cities where we believed we were safe and accepted were not immune to anti-Asian xenophobia and racism, forcing us to reckon with the reality that our belonging had always been conditional.”

Then on March 16, we learned that 8 people were killed in Atlanta, including six Asian women. Four of these women were Korean. Suncha Kim wanted to “watch her children and grandchildren live the life she never got to live,” just like my maternal grandmother used to say. Hyun Jung Grant was a single mother who worked tirelessly for her two children, just like my mother. Soon Chung Park made her living by cooking meals in back rooms for others, just like my paternal grandmother did for 30 years after she immigrated here. Yong Ae Yue loved Korean karaoke, just like my aunt. It could have been us. It could have been my mother, my grandmother, my aunt. It felt personal, as if we knew these women, like they were a part of our own family. After centuries of surviving war, poverty, occupation, authoritarian regimes, and even immigrating to an unknown land with nothing, it seemed like there was still nowhere we could ever exist or even die in peace. Was there anywhere we could be safe, thrive, and belong?

It was around this time that the entire family gathered to watch Minari. Finally, a movie about us, working class Korean families immigrating and pursuing the American dream. Steven Yeun, one of my American favorites, cast alongside Youn Yuh-Jung, the woman I spent my childhood referring to as “that one lady who plays the grandma in all the Korean shows.” It’s about us, by us, for us. We were excited, celebratory even, until we started to watch.

“It’s just so … sad.”

“I wish they would show us as being successful and happy, not struggling and poor.”

“This is too accurate, I’m being triggered.”

“I don’t want to be reminded of how awful I was to grandma when she used to visit us.”

“I used to hate that she couldn’t make us normal American food.”

“Oh no. Our parents did this too…”

“Yikes… that undeterred commitment to the illusion of the American dream…”

“Why did that just feel like trauma?”

It was painful. Our history, fights, pain, and fear were on public display. Still, it reminded us of who we are. I couldn’t help but think about the women who were killed in Atlanta and many of our own immigration stories: the struggle to care for one’s family, the wounded pride that comes from taking a job you are overqualified for, the language and cultural gaps that emerge between the parents and the children, the insecurity of having no back-up option because coming to America was our last option. At the same time, Minari captured the joy in our stories: the excitement when your mother flies across the ocean to bring treats from the motherland, the impenetrable sibling ties that form, our grandmothers’ tenacious ability to comfort and make the best of any situation, the warmth of a home-cooked Korean meal. This is our Korean American story. It’s not perfect, but it’s ours, and I became braver and prouder to tell it.

My grandmother coped in a very different way. The pandemic world was dark and scary, so she escaped into the BTS fandom. It was only a matter of time before I followed her there. We would spend our evenings drinking tea and watching BTS videos for hours. 방탄소년단 (BTS) had been popular for years in South Korea, so there was no shortage in content. But with the release of “Butter,” BTS’ fame in the US reached new heights. “I can’t believe Americans like BTS, too!” my grandma would exclaim. When BTS performed at the Grammys, my grandmother tuned in for the entire show. It was the first time she had ever watched an American award show and she marvelled at the fact that seven boys from South Korea had made it. When Suga gave a speech in Korean on the American Music Awards stage, we cried. The first time I heard “My Universe” on our local radio station, I was driving with my mother. “Wow, this sounds just like Korean…Because it IS KOREAN?!” We both sat in silence, listening in disbelief. This was the very station I had started listening to in high school when I decided that my K-pop CDs weren’t “cool enough” to play in the car.

“I never could have imagined this when I immigrated here,” Emily’s grandma said while watching BTS perform at the SoFi stadium in California.

Of course I had to take my grandmother to SoFi stadium for the BTS concert. She was stunned to see a stadium filled with fans of every race and background. When the jumbotron displayed lyrics in Korean and 50,000 fans who looked nothing like her sang along in her mother tongue, she fought tears. “I never could have imagined this when I immigrated here.” For 50 years in the United States, my grandmother had accepted her status as an outsider with no entitlement. She came from an insignificant poor country with tumultuous internal politics and violence; she spoke the wrong language, looked different, and didn’t understand the culture; she never belonged, and never dared to dream of belonging. But we belonged here. We weren’t too Korean or too American. This was a space for us, where we could celebrate how special we were because we understood all the Korean and English songs, where every joke was for us because we caught both the Korean and English puns — and it filled us with joy. I only wished we had all found this space earlier.

And that is what brings me great hope and excitement for what is to come. These spaces of belonging do exist for us to discover. For the future generation, I hope they won’t have to wander between their intersections of identity at all, because they will exist by default. When Sesame Street announced their plans to debut the first Asian-American Muppet character, a Korean American girl named Ji-Young who is puppeteered by Korean American Kathleen Kim, our entire community celebrated. There was no Korean American character created by Korean Americans on TV while I was growing up, but Ji-Young is different. She isn’t just Korean; she’s distinctly Korean American. Younger Korean Americans can now see themselves in Ji-Young, who is proud of her Korean name, breaking stereotypes, and doing her part to teach others to be upstanders. And other programs like Woori Show are doing even more to create programs to teach Korean American children about our culture, history, and traditions, including working with Advancing Justice | AAJC and Hollaback! to produce bystander intervention training videos made for children.

So against all odds, even at the end of another tumultuous year, I am hopeful and thankful. Through the highs and lows of 2021, I’m reminded that my family and I do belong here. This is home, and with our community, we will own our narratives and celebrate our authentic selves. Together, we will continue to create more spaces of belonging and dare to dream of a future where the next generation can exist, rest, pray, work, grieve, and rejoice just as they are. Thank you to all the creators who have already made these spaces for us, and for restoring one 교포’s belief that we can always find — or create — “home” no matter where we are.

Emily Chi is the Director of Technology, Telecommunications, and Media at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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