The Asian American experience is becoming an increasingly more common story as generations of us begin to move past adolescence. It’s an experience that continues to evolve as I near adulthood. A little about myself. I am 20 years old, born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, and I am ethnically Korean and nationalistically American.
Growing up in one of the most diverse geographic areas of the US, being a Korean in America was never an issue which caused me to be discriminated against. In fact, I am proud of the fact that of the average 40 student classrooms in my elementary school, no single ethnic group stood with a supermajority. Growing up, I was surrounded by all sorts of people and ethnicities, and so race was never any sort of issue until I ended middle school and neared high school. As five elementary schools in the district converged into one middle school, the stereotypes and notions of one’s ethnic backgrounds began to seed and take root.
In middle school, groups and cliques began to take form, most often by way of ethnic group. My first experience with bullying was in the sixth grade, and for some reason, after this incident I immediately assumed that I was targeted because of my Asian descent. The incident was mild, but it stuck deeply, as I can still clearly remember the incident today. In short, I was confronted by three older non-Asian students and interrogated. “Do you know where you are, kid?” “What do you think you’re doing on this side of the school?” There was no physical contact, but it was enough to put some fear into a 5 foot tall 11 year old. I’m not going to lie and say that this incident caused me to think introspectively about who I was, and what it truly meant to be an Asian-American, because in all honesty, I was just a scared eleven year old. However, it is in hindsight that I realize how incidents like this attributed towards the molding of my dual identity.
Even with mild and infrequent cases of racial discrimination through middle and high school, I was still extremely comfortable in my skin as an Asian American. I had a good group of diverse friends ranging from all sorts of ethnic groups, and I felt welcomed and privileged to be part of such an eclectic nation, so I thought. Having spent all my life in Southern California, I was naïve in thinking that the sample population of my town and county was an accurate representation of the rest of the United States. When I decided to attend college in New England, to uproot myself from my home for the past 18 years, I was hit with an eye-opening realization. The realization was that the rest of the nation, though somewhat diverse, was not nearly as much of an ethnic medley as my hometown. For the first time, I felt uncomfortable and insecure because of my race.
I believe it was this experience and this culture shock that played a large role in my miserable first semester away from home. My struggle with my identities was the struggle of balance, attempting to be proud enough of my Asian heritage where I wasn’t insecure of it, while being “American” enough so that my peers would socially accept me. Unfortunately, I failed at this balance and ended up forsaking my Asian background entirely. I became an ashamed Asian. Rather than attempting to balance my two identities, I rejected my Asian identity, and attempted to assimilate myself into the ethnic majority at my university. The result of this was a deep insecurity that never allowed me to feel comfortable with my “friends,” and never truly opening up as a person. My first semester in college, I was nothing like I was growing up. I rejected everything that I had become in the past 18 years and attempted to redefine myself, all while being haunted by my own Asian shame.
I am now in my third year of college and have since accepted my Korean identity, as well as my American. It was only after I accepted my Korean heritage as a defining characteristic of myself that I began to feel comfortable again, only then was I able to surround myself with peers and friends that knew that I was neither just a Korean nor just an American. I am not in perfect harmony with both of my identities; however, I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to identify with two nations that have so much to be proud of. This whole experience might sound cliché, common, and over-told, but it’s a struggle and question that many Asian-Americans should face and ask, “Am I Asian, or, am I American?” The truth is, we are not like our parents who emigrated from foreign nations, nor are we like the students next to us who are the fifth and sixth generation of their family in America. Our cultural roots are important, and to lose them is to lose a part of our identities. However, to ignore the fact that we are nationalistically Americans is also rejecting the opportunity and life that our parents chose for us when they decided to come to this nation. Acceptance of both of our identities is what will define our generation. It is an ideology that we must face, realize, and address.
The author was raised in Los Angeles, California before attending Boston University, where he studies Finance. Currently he is working for a legal management consulting firm in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, MA. He requested that his name be removed from this post.