Framing Identity as Self in Tribe and Place

Jenny Choi
Sep 8 · 6 min read

(when there’s no blueprint to really draw from)

The last record I put out (which yikes, was almost 15 years ago) was a short collection of songs I wrote in reflection of my family as Korean immigrants to Chicago. In between songs, I did mini-interviews with my parents, asking them to explain the backstories of old photographs I had found. In many ways it was a bookend to my catalogue (I’ve put out six records and a couple of EPs) to tell the story of my artistic identity.

The interviews are awkward — I’m not super comfortable with myself or with my parents. I annoy myself as I hear the way I interact with my parents — very sheepishly and almost babyishly, even though I’m a frigging adult and should know better. But it illuminates the tension of how little I know of them and how different I am from them, yet how much I understand and see myself in their pain, hope and experiences of betrayal in their pursuit of the American dream. And how unsure I am around them.

The video above is a good summary of my family’s story (and yes, this is a music video of a song by my band and me, so be kind, Internet):

  • My dad’s parents (my grandfather and grandmother) sell everything they have to take their three adult sons to Chicago from Seoul to pursue the American dream. My dad also takes his wife and their little son (my half-brother) to Chicago.
  • This is a family of entrepreneurs: they are a part of the wave of Korean immigrants in the late 60’s to open Korean restaurants and other businesses in Uptown, Chicago. I believe in one of these interviews my dad talks about how he uses martial arts to beat up customers who don’t pay.
  • My father, the middle son, is a former Korean literature and history teacher, having graduated from Yonsei University. He is also a self-taught artist and very good at building and fixing things. His first real job after he comes to America, however, is at a factory that makes industrial brushes. He works from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every night, sometimes also on weekends. Although he has learned to speak English pretty well (he learned English through Elvis Presley songs), he begins to grow resentful of his own experiences of racial and immigrant discrimination. He refuses to acclimate or adopt to American culture and expects his children to be the same.
  • Sometime early on, my dad and his wife divorce. Because my family refuses to speak of it, I’m still hazy on the details, but I’ve heard they had to divorce because his wife was “too strong-minded.” My grandmother (my dad’s mother) tells his wife to disappear and never contact the family again or my grandmother will kill her. Footnote: my grandmother came from a very poor background and met my grandfather, a self-made businessman, when he thought he was coming to her rescue because he had heard a group of boys attacking a girl. By the time he got to the scene, she had already fought off all of her attackers with a big stick. The rest is history. The irony of how tough my grandmother was and her rejection of my dad’s first wife is not lost on me! She was super old school.
  • My dad’s former professor sets my dad up with my mom (studying in Korea under the same professor). She decides to fly to Chicago to marry my dad and to become a stepmom to his son. She comes from a rather rural background — the youngest child of seven, and I later find out from her older sister that my mother was considered the diva of the family, as she pursued music and the arts, while the rest of the family worked in manual labor. My mom has told me that my father and his family expected my mother never to look back… as it would be many years before she was allowed to return to Korea to visit with her own family. My mom’s mother passes away while she gives birth to me in Chicago. My parents ask my ten-year-old brother to give me an American name in addition to my Korean name, so I won’t get made fun of at school. My Korean name means “first.”
  • We all live together in one house (my uncles and aunts, their kids, and my grandparents). We are the only Asian family in our neighborhood. My grandparents take care of all of their grandchildren while everyone else works (with the exception of my mom, who to everyone’s horror enrolls at a local university to pursue a Master of Performing Arts degree in piano). She will never become a famous concert pianist in America like she hopes, having had a devastating final performance where all of her in-laws and her husband criticize her. She becomes an at-home piano teacher, while her two daughters (my little sister and me) become trained in violin, piano and cello.
  • My dad continues to work through a lot of his own disappointments and demons in his new life in America. Although my grandfather is a pioneer of the Korean Presbyterian Church movement in Korea, my dad rejects institutionalized religion and tries to make extra money as a roofer. One Sunday while his family is at church while he is working, my dad has an accident while working on a roof and falls several stories. My grandfather says that he prayed so hard for my dad not to die that miraculously, my dad wakes up from his coma and dedicates his entire life to God from that day forward.
  • My dad’s older brother succumbs early in his life to liver cancer, passing on the responsibility of taking care of their parents to my dad as the second eldest son, which includes owning and managing a hardware store in Koreatown in a building where their parents were living well and independently. My grandmother, the matriarch of the family, around the same time suffers from a stroke and after about a year in hospice, also passes away shortly after her eldest son. The story of this hardware store and my family and me (among many others) will be interpreted and shared by this amazing immigrant youth theater group in Chicago which I highly encourage y’all to check out. My dad moves my grandfather into a nursing home, where he quickly deteriorates.

All this is to say that this is my story BEFORE I even came into being, really.

When we talk about how we show our selves and show up at work, the origin story of the tribe and place to which we belong, or veer from and perhaps to which we return…. all of these things start from even before we begin to form our selves, as we then situate these identities in the tribes we gravitate towards, reject and/or identify with, including when it comes to our work. Roles start to become socially constructed and codified, and unless we’re aware of how all of these things intertwine and affect one another, it’s really hard to develop the self-awareness aspect of one’s own emotional IQ.

As an Asian person born in America from parents who were not born here, but also growing up in a way as “foreign” and “outsider,” due to society’s perception of me, I now see how much longer it took for me to build confidence in establishing my own identity than my non-Asian colleagues — especially as a leader. Also within the Asian community, I’ve witnessed many of my Asian colleagues (my generation and older) deny their past and history to almost pretend their way into new narratives and new ways of being. And for many it worked for them in mainstream (or in other words, White supremacist) culture and norms, until it didn’t. More on that later.

I’ve been reading Stacey Abrams’s book, Lead from the Outside — which is a wonderful resource that inspired me to underscore how important it is to learn from a variety of perspectives regarding leaders who have come into their own using a holistic framework. After completing countless leadership development programs across a variety of sectors, I have to say it was reading this book that resonated most with me, in that we need more intentionally-designed curricula that speak to the changing demographic of next generation leaders. The book also makes clear that the competencies for leadership we’ve long prioritized and continue to proselytize are outdated at best — insidiously perpetuating the conditions that allow for trauma and White supremacist norms at their worst. I will also break these down more granularly in future posts.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I needed a genesis story that I could refer back to as I continue to share and frame with anecdotes to better illustrate my point. It also ties into how we choose to be seen and understood — or not, when others choose for us and put the responsibility squarely on us to prove ourselves worthy of the privilege to say otherwise.

I suppose this is my attempt to take back the power of telling my own narrative as it’s truly been since the production of this last record almost fifteen years ago that I’ve had the opportunity, time and space to do so.

On Work, Identity and Liberation

Personal reflections on intersectional identity and navigating the workplace

On Work, Identity and Liberation

An examination of the impact of sociocultural constructs in various workplace dynamics (structurally, interpersonally and internally) that offers practical roadmaps to joy, freedom and agency in how we show up to our work

Jenny Choi

Written by

OG on diversity/equity/inclusion, philanthropy and journalism. Adept at seeing the magic in the tragically ignored. Retired punk rock musician.

On Work, Identity and Liberation

An examination of the impact of sociocultural constructs in various workplace dynamics (structurally, interpersonally and internally) that offers practical roadmaps to joy, freedom and agency in how we show up to our work