In 1996, my dad was assigned to go work overseas at Samsung’s new semiconductor chip manufacturing plant in Austin, Texas. Initially, he was hesitant to go. It would mean uprooting his entire life, and plus he didn’t want his children growing up losing sight of their Korean heritage. But they sent him anyway, and thus began our family’s strange, but exciting new life in America, born out of my dad’s enormous sacrifice.
There were language barrier issues and little culture shock mishaps since the beginning, sure. Since the first grade, I remember starting off every new school year with a plea to not embarrass myself by messing anything up with my English, to not give away the fact that I was different in any way from my classmates. But my dad’s fears came true as I gradually became more comfortable speaking English to my friends than speaking Korean at home. I knew the conversion became complete as soon as I started dreaming and thinking in English. It made my school life easier for me at the time, but looking back on it now, I wish I hadn’t been so quick to try to assimilate.
My mom and dad moved back to Korea when I left for college, their parental duties having been fulfilled by giving their kids that “coveted” American education. That’s why it came as such a shock to me when they casually dropped a bombshell — after 20 years of forming my life and identity in the US, they wanted me to come back to Korea after graduation. To them, it was expected that their kids would learn everything they could from America, then return to Korea and make use of what they’d learned.
I wish I hadn’t been so quick to try to assimilate
I fought, cried, and argued with them for months. I was finally ready to enter the world I had worked so hard to be accepted by, and this felt like wiping out right before the finish line. Then, three months before graduation, my dad had a stroke and the decision was made for me. I finished school early and decided to forego the graduation ceremony because I knew what I had to do — I would be going back to live with my parents, at least until my dad got better and I gained some sort of idea about what I wanted to do with my life. We made an informal deal that I would stick it out for three years, and give my birthplace a chance. And like a dutiful daughter, I did what they asked me to, working and living for three years in a country that was now as foreign as America first was to me in 1996.
People in Korea often ask gyopos (Korean-Americans), “Which do you like better, Korea or America?” They look at me expectantly, jealousy in their eyes for my fluent English and American citizenship. I don’t know what answer they’re looking for. I usually laugh and give my stock response, one I’ve picked up from hearing so many times: “Korea is the most fun Hell, but America is the most boring Heaven.” It’s a desperate, vague attempt to appease both of my identities. Looking back on my words now, I’m ashamed. How did I live my life thinking this, so blissfully unaware? After the events of last night, I can no longer think of America as the heaven I once thought it was.
Three lonely but eye-opening years passed. I experienced the beautiful and ugly sides of Korea, traveled to nearby countries in Asia, and saw how privileged I was to be able to live this dual life. After I finally saved up enough money to move back on my own and secured a job in America, I made the leap. For the most part, repatriation has been a smooth transition, but I’m consumed by guilt and dread for the future when I think about the aging parents I left behind in Korea. Though they gave their reluctant blessing to let me have the life and career I’ve longed to have in America, their worries are ever-looming in the back of my mind. I want to prove to them that they made the right decision, but every day is a struggle to convince my parents that I am okay here, that I’m safe in a country 7,000 miles away from them. And now in the wake of Trump’s victory, the implications that a deeply racist nation elected him make it harder for me to justify my living here to them.
The past few years for me have been the most accelerated crash-course in learning what it means to be Korean-American, and last night felt like a “fuck you” to everyone who looks like me. An Asian immigrant, and a woman at that. It feels like the failed culmination of a 20-year struggle to fit in, of yearning to look like my white classmates, for someone to look at me and not think I’m completely out of place. I’m most afraid of people who I thought were my friends, but stayed silent and walked into the voting booth yesterday to cast a ballot for Trump. I knew America feared us, but this just confirmed it. It feels like a punch to the gut because it proves that my parents were right.
I’m lucky to have spent most of my formative years in California and to be currently living in the diversity of New York, but yesterday, my paranoia that the people around me don’t see me as part of their white America was confirmed. Even though my job has allowed me to surround myself with like-minded people, ultimately my carefully curated social media feed has allowed me to live this last election cycle in a bubble. But now that bubble has popped, and today feels like when the lights turn on at the club and you realize you’d been dancing with a dirty mop.
The most disturbing part about a Trump presidency is the fact that half the people who came out to vote agreed with a sexist, racist maniac — and half of all Americans stayed home and watched him get elected. And these people aren’t so visibly different from you, or me. Even the Hillary supporters right now, the ones who are looking for ways out by threatening to leave to Canada, are part of the problem. Now more than ever, we need white allies to step up and show their support for millions of Muslim, black, Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ+ Americans who have always been — even more so today — living in fear. Something is incredibly broken when the immediate response to a new president-elect is “I’m scared.”
For the rest of us POCs, we have to keep living our lives and create art and make ourselves heard, because we can’t keep waiting around for America to do it for us. We’re a nation of immigrants and minorities, and we’re going to keep creating and building things that are going to be better than a fucking wall.