Jen: on being half-Korean, half-white

When Jen told me she was going to be in town for a few days, I was excited for two reasons. Number one, she was one of my first friends and next door neighbor in college. She moved to Los Angeles after graduation, like many other Emerson students. Did I want to hang out? Yes! The second reason was that I’d been meaning to interview her for several months, and this would be the perfect opportunity. We met up a cafe down the street from my apartment, and after catching up on work and life and everything post-college, we dive in.

One day, out of the blue, Jen’s parents asked her if she thought of herself as Korean or white. Jen’s mother is Korean and her father is American — or, as Jen says, “And that’s just a bunch of European things I often forget.” She was in middle school, and her parents had never brought this up before. She was caught off guard. After a moment, she replied, “Korean.”

This reply shocked her Korean mother, since other than her mom’s presence in her life — and Korean food — Jen was surrounded by very few cultural Korean influences. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t really even know her Korean relatives, since most of them still lived in Korea.

Her parents response made her rethink how she saw herself. At first, Jen had always considered herself white, because she grew up in Minnesota, surrounded by mostly white people. But as she got older, she began to see herself more as Korean. “It was more and more obvious to me that that’s how other people saw me,” Jen said — she looked different than her white friends, ate different food. So it made sense to her that people thought of her as Korean, even though she felt very little connection to that part of her.

“I don’t think I had much of a language to deal with it,” Jen told me. “I was always kind of aware that it was there, and aware that I was kind of split between two cultures in a single household, but it was very strange, because there were not a lot of — since I grew up in Minnesota — not a lot of minorities around. So I just remember points in my life where I was growing up, I didn’t really think of myself in any sort of way.

“Korean became a big identifier because it was how I was different from everyone else. It was more and more obvious to me that that’s how other people saw me. There was a lot of times when I would be like, ‘Okay, I am Korean.’ And after thinking about it I was like — that doesn’t make sense,” Jen says. “I don’t speak the language, I’ve never lived there, so I’m not really Korean.”

Jen shared the annoyance she felt others when she heard others talk about their distant heritage. She would listen to people talk about their connection to distant countries that they’d never been or experienced, and her response was,”Yeah, really? Have you lived there? Do you know a lot about that place? Any time someone would say that without having a strong relation to that country in particular, I’d be like, you don’t deserve that — what have you done for it? You can’t just say that and get away with it, and I can’t say that and get away with it.”

This statement deeply intrigued me. This idea of earning and deserving one’s heritage — what do you have to do to truly become part of that group. What makes us belong to a group of people? Is it the action we take to be a part of a community? Is it something earned, or something innate, because of the color of our skin, the texture of our hair? I’m not sure I know.

Jen told me about her Korean grandfather, who passed away when she was in middle school — a time in her life when she didn’t really see herself as Korean. “I had never been close with him, because that most of my mom’s family lives in Korea, and I had only gone to see them a couple times, and they had only come to see me a couple of times. And they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Korean.

“And it was just very strange, because I was like — I know he’s my family, but I just didn’t feel a connection.” Shortly before he died, Jen’s family found out he had Alzheimer’s. Jen’s mother went to Korea to be with him and called Jen one day. Before they hung up, she said, “By the way, your grandpa asked about you and [your brother].”

This deeply moved Jen, that even after his memory loss, her grandfather, whom she hardly knew, whom she could barely have a conversation with due to language barriers, had asked about her. Even with the cultural barriers, they were still family. “So I think that informed a lot my experience after that,” Jen says. “That was like a focal point where I just thought about [being biracial] a lot.”

When Jen got to college, she was able to explore and think more about what it meant to be biracial, especially when she met other mixed-race students. “When I met Audrey freshman year, it was so strange because I had been thinking about these things for a long time on my own, without talking to anyone about them,” she said, “And wasn’t sure if anyone else would really relate. I wasn’t sure how to talk about it.”

We had both befriended Audrey freshman year, who lived across from Jen and a few doors down from me. Audrey was very comfortable talking about her mixed identity, and it was powerful for Jen to hear someone else who was mixed talk so freely about their experience.

“And it was just really nice to talk with her about it, because we don’t have the same cultural background — she’s Indian and I’m Korean — but we had a lot of the same emotional experiences because of the biracial thing. It kind of felt like a relief to meet you guys. I didn’t know I could have this conversation with people.” It was comforting to Jen that it was not a unique experience — the confusion, the questions, the not-quite-fitting-in-here-or-there feeling.

Jen talked about the frustration of others’ assumptions about her knowledge of Korea and how they often assume she’s an expert. “People would sometimes ask me about the history of Korea, [or] Asians in America, and I was like, ‘I took the same history class, man, I’m missing all the same links.’ You know what I mean?”

I asked Jen how she feels now about being biracial, since being confronted with it during her childhood. “I feel much more comfortable,” she said. “It was a really weird and sudden process, because I was very angsty about it for a long time.”

Jen’s a-ha moment came one day in college. She had just woken up and was looking in the mirror. Being biracial wasn’t even on her mind, but suddenly, she thought how strange it was that she referred to herself as “half and half.”

“Because it’s not like you’re split evenly in the middle, you know? You just are a person, and you’re one whole of both things. And it was a really weird revelation, but I suddenly felt better about everything. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time, because it hasn’t bothered me for a while, because I just woke up one day and accepted that I was different in different ways.”

Jen talked about how she sometimes feels she should have pushed herself to learn Korean or wishes she knew more about Korean culture, like the common fairy tales and myths. But that pressure she used to put on herself has begun to fade. “I was suddenly okay not feeling obligated to do anything — because I am neither of these things. I am some third thing, and no one can tell me what I should know. You are who you are.”

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be solidified,” I said to Jen, thinking about my biracial identity.

“I remember specifically writing about a character who was biracial,” Jen told me, “And…writing about this feeling of her not belonging anywhere. At the time I was writing it, I was like, this is just a good story aspect, you know what I mean. I was pretty young; I was in middle school. And then I realized that that character was me.”

“So it sounds like to me that you’ve come to this place of, ‘This is who I am, and I’m not going to try to identify myself by how I feel like I should be,” I said.

“Yeah. I’ve reached that point where it’s bothered me less and less since then. And not like I don’t think about it anymore, you know, but I just like had a Eureka moment and I don’t have to worry about this and choose not to.”

“That’s really cool,” I said. “I love that. I feel empowered!” And I laugh.

Jen’s revelation was powerful for me. In many of my conversations with my biracial friends, there’s often this common feeling of having to choose one part of you; having to pick one identity over the other — this feeling that we can’t have both. Listening to Jen share her story, I realize: We don’t have to choose. We can be both, because like she said, we are both, and we aren’t split evenly down the middle. It’s a fluid identity, and at different times in our lives maybe we’ll connect more with one side of our heritage. And that’s okay.

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