WARNING: This article discusses sensitive topics which may be offensive, disturbing, or otherwise unsuitable to some readers. This article contains description, mention, or first-hand account of the following: bias incidents, derogatory remarks, racial slurs, and racism. These topics are left in to accurately convey the gravity of the issues discussed by the author.
We always had a massive cube television that sat in our living room. The screen itself was tiny, but its obtrusive volume and weight emphasized to anyone who came over that we were Outdated and Poor. I used to be afraid that if anyone came over they would make fun of its atrocious being. But then I didn’t have to worry about visitors’ judgment. Because I stopped inviting people over.
I invited Mackenzie over once. But as soon as she stepped into the house, she began choking and gasping for air, quite literally screaming that there was a Stench she couldn’t handle. I remember her diving to the nearest window, wrenching her fingers onto the panel, and then breathing a sigh of relief when she felt a breeze hit her face. She was horrified, but I was Also Horrified. When Mackenzie left, I wanted to throw away the new batch of kimchi my mother had so lovingly crafted all day.
The kimchi smelled fine; it smelled hearty; it smelled like the Chinese cabbage my mother carefully chose from the Korean mart, mixed with the freshest herbs, most savory oils, aging bean paste, fiery chile peppers, and sweet pears. But the only thing my American friends could sense was a putrid, fermenting pile of vegetables. And if it made my house smell like that to them, I would see it as such a Disgusting thing too.
So I hated the scent of Korean food, but I couldn’t even recognize when it was there, partly because it was always there, partly because all my senses embraced it as something that nourished me, and partly because I couldn’t just see the scent and go,
“Ah, there it is.”
What I could see was that box TV. Without cable, we rotated through the same VHS movies over and over again, most notably Korean Teletubbies and Shrek 2. I had every word memorized to Shrek 2, and while other little girls dreamed of living out their lives as Cinderella or Belle or Sleeping Beauty, I knew which Princess I was:
Fiona, from Shrek. Beloved by one life, Ogre by another.
Within the Korean community, I’ll say unapologetically, that I was adored. Slim, smart, and double-eye-lidded, I was on the cover of a widely-circulated Korean magazine for being the most ‘charming’ child in a modeling competition by the time I was three. I had friends who I loved and who cherished me. I never questioned my belonging.
But of course, once moving to a rural town in Georgia, I became starkly aware of how niche this perspective was. Surrounded by not a single other Asian in my entire school, I was not only an outsider but quite literally an Ogre. For most of the students and parents there, I was the first Asian they had seen or interacted with, and as such, the comments I received daily were spectacular.
“Why’s your face so flat?”
“Your chinky eyes must make everything hard to see!”
“Go back to your stupid country.”
“I won’t ever let you come over because you’ll eat my dogs.”
“Your accent just came out–that’s so funny; say that again.”
“My parents said I can’t play outside anymore because I need to be like You and study all day now.”
“You’re smart only because you’re Asian. You should do all the work.”
“Asians are bad at everything–except studying.”
“Cuss in Chinese right now. Do it right now.”
To say the least, I hated my skin, my scent, my eyes, my hair, everything. I felt so disgusted by my very own being that I took all measures to avoid looking at myself in the mirror when any other girls at school were around because I hated seeing the beautiful black and white faces standing beside my putrid yellow skin. I felt like an ostracized ogre, only this time, the ogre had slanted eyes.
Of course, the entire school was not a consuming whirl of racists, but I never noticed anyone actively working to correct these comments as well. My teachers disappointed me in their unwillingness to address racist comments, and one particular event still comes to mind.
It was a slightly precarious time in America. North Korea was sending missile threats, and because we lived near an air-force base, we were considered to be in a potentially targeted area. My fifth-grade teacher commented about this in class one day, and suddenly, the most beloved white boy in this class turned straight toward me and asked,
“Hey! That’s your people! Did your uncle pack a bomb in your bookbag for us?”
The whole class burst into laughter, and to my memory, either the teacher also laughed or did absolutely nothing to address the comment. I, on the other hand, was pretty horrified. Indeed it was a joke, but it wasn’t pleasant to be addressed as a terrorist simply for my race.
There were good days too.
In middle school, I put a group picture of myself with my Korean friends on the cover of my binder. Once a classmate saw the photo, she brightly said,
“Oh, so I guess you’re pretty for an Asian!”
It was the first time anyone at school had called me pretty, and I internalized it so happily. Only later in life would I come to realize how problematic that statement truly was.
So such was my childhood, and I recognize that it’s the childhood of many other Asian Americans who are born and raised in communities that wish to convince them in every way possible that they do not belong.
I now look back and my past and laugh because I now cherish my background as a Korean-American, but it’s not so pleasant to see how the world hasn’t changed much since I was a child.
When my youngest sister was four, she came home one day crying. She hated her skin; she wished it were whiter; she hated her eyes; she wished they were lighter. And as she combed the hair of her white-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed Barbie, I smiled as I wondered if Barbie, too, would have bullied me or my baby sister in school.