On Being a First Generation Korean American Woman by Antonia Park

The following article by recent graduate Antonia Park ’18 was originally published in Keke Magazine, of which she is the Managing Editor. Focused on on female empowerment and representation, Keke offers unfiltered, honest reflections of women’s lives and seeks to challenge the stereotypes girls and women face. Park encourages members of the larger Newark Academy community to submit editorials, interviews, art, and articles to:  kekemagazine.com/submit.

 On Being a First Generation Korean American Woman

by Antonia Park

I think that every Asian American has that childhood story where they brought their mom’s cooking to school and everyone laughed and ran away.  For me, growing up Korean American was crying every Saturday begging my mom to let me skip Korean school, where I was 9 and being bullied by kindergarteners in words I couldn’t even comprehend.  It was celebrating the Korean New Year on January 1st with ttok bokee, bowing for money from my elders, and immensely competitive games of yute (a traditional New Year’s Korean game, similar to Sorry, but better).  It was reminding everyone to take their shoes off inside my house, and worrying if my white friends would be willing to eat Korean food for dinner. It was having a rice cooker that’s always full and talks to us in Korean.

 I feel like every Asian American also goes through that stage of childhood where they reject their parents’ culture and try to become “truly American.”  Wanting Lunchables instead of homemade dumplings, a classic American name, just to be like the other kids in any way possible. For a while, I refused to tell people about my Korean middle name, Nabi, meaning butterfly.  It wasn’t even really that I was embarrassed by it, or that I resented my parents for giving me it, it was more that I felt like people not knowing about that part of me gave me some sort of strange power over them.

As I grew up, I learned to embrace my Korean culture.  I love Korean food, rooting for Korea in international sporting events, and most of all, hanging out with my crazy Korean family.  My mouth waters at the thought of green tea ice cream and bonguhpang (hot fish-shaped pastries filled with red bean paste). I think there’s something special in being able to be a part of more than one distinct culture.  The sparsity of the Korean American population makes it all the more exciting to meet a fellow Korean American, and laugh over pa bing su. (@ktykim)

I’ve always resented my mother for not teaching me Korean as a baby.  Going to Korean school wasn’t the same, being that everyone was already fluent, and spoke Korean at home all the time.  I think the hardest part for me is not being able to fully communicate with my grandparents. They speak English, but not with great fluidity, so it’s always been hard for me to have a meaningful relationship with them.  My mom had to explain to my grandpa at least 50 times that I’m not going to Harvard. He is already harassing my twelve-year-old cousin Ava that she must go to Harvard. He was satisfied that my college has a golf course though.  I understand now why my parents never taught me Korean, and the fact that it was ultimately in my hands to learn if I wanted it that bad.

I’m reminded of my otherness when people ask me if I’m from North Korea, or little kids ask me why my eyes are like that, or when I’m traveling and people assume I don’t speak English.  I think my perspective allows me to have a unique understanding of the intersection between race and gender. It’s when people scream “NI HAO” at me as I walk down the streets of New York City in an attempt to catcall me in Mandarin, or assume that I love math (which I do lol), or that they can walk all over me, that I see how much people assume about me because of my gender and racial identity.  I’ve learned to understand that it’s okay for me to not be the smartest kid in the class, to dye my hair purple, and to pursue all of my creative dreams.

It’s tough to see Asian American women fetishized in the media and the incredible lack of representation. It’s hard for white people to understand what it’s like to never see people that look like you on TV, in ads, or on the runway. That’s why movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” are so groundbreaking and incredibly important.  Being a minority is more than just being another race, it’s an integral part of who you are as a human being, and an interconnectedness like no other. These are some of the reasons I am so passionate about feminism, and the idea that everyone should see themselves represented in positions of power so they can believe in themselves. I cannot even put into words how much it meant to me to see Constance Wu and Awkwafina on the big screens. I almost cried when I saw “Crazy Rich Asians” hit #1 at the box office.  I hope that by the time I have my own children, it’s no longer radical to see minorities and LGBTQ+ people in blockbuster movies, or female CEOs.

Being the child of two immigrants means a lot of different things to me. I harbor a great appreciation for a world that exists outside of my own.  I will never fully understand how much my grandparents and parents gave up for me to live the life I do, but I am grateful for their sacrifices every single day.  My parents have shared stories of taking the public bus to school at age nine, desperately scrubbing their sneakers with white chalk in an effort to pass the shoe check, and looking at the rankings of all the kids in the school outside the classroom door (my dad was always first, or so he claims).  My mom speaks of running to cover the TV in ice with her siblings so holaboji (Korean for grandpa) wouldn’t know they were watching a show by the touch of the hot TV. These are tales I hope to share with my children one day.

My family is absolutely everything to me; my brothers are my best friends, and my parents are my biggest inspirations.  I see my extended family almost every week, for a barbecue at my house, or a trip to Paris Baguette to get some decadent red bean buns.  I love my cousins more than life itself, and my uncles are the funniest people I know. My aunts show me every day what it means to be a beautiful, powerful Korean woman. My family has taught me the value of hard work and discipline. My mom has taught me to put everything I am into everything that I do, something that I try to live my life by.  My dad taught me to never be afraid to ask: for help, for advice, for anything. My dad had also taught me not to waste my time on people that don’t see my worth. Most of all, my parents are living proof that you can be anything you want to. Do I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer? Nope. I want to be a marketing executive and a professional stylist. Is that okay? Absolutely.

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