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Reflection: What it really means to be Korean in America

Aside from drawing awareness to the pervasiveness of racism in America, the "Stop Asian Hate" movement highlights the significance of the Asian American experience and the need for immediate change in our country's culture. – Photo by Flickr.com

The transition from attending a diverse, culture-rich elementary school to a predominantly white middle school in a new town completely changed my perception of being Korean American.

In a diverse setting, I felt comfortable in my own skin, rarely questioning if I was different compared to the similar faces I saw every day. But moving to this new town allowed me to feel the weight of what being a minority truly is — beautiful but scary. 

On my first day of middle school, people were friendly and I made many new friends right off the bat. But there was an elephant in the room — I was one of very few Asians.

My new peers would ask me, “Where are you from?” to which I’d respond “North Jersey," to which they’d reply with, “No, where are you really from? China?”

One time during a fire drill, a girl asked me in a slow and derogatory voice if I knew what a fire drill was — as if I hadn't just answered a question in perfect English minutes before.

I really want to say that these kids were just that — kids who didn’t know any better, but the truth is, this isn't enough of an excuse.

Rather, this is the direct result of the education system and parents failing to teach these children what they should know — we aren’t always our stereotypes. And even if we are, so what?

Just like English or geometry, children need to be taught tolerance and be educated about others of different backgrounds. In the real world, being considerate of others and having an open mind allows people to get places and makes them a better person overall.  

From there, I felt like I constantly had to prove myself, that I was normal, that I wasn’t some weird Asian girl that some of them expected me to be. I slowly and quietly wished more and more that I could be white, that I wouldn’t have to be the minority or the butt of everyone’s joke.

I stopped wearing glasses to school because I thought they made me look too Asian and switched to contacts. I tried way too hard to fit in, so much so that I ended up losing myself in the process.

I sought validation from the white person’s gaze and believed that if they approved of me then that validated my worth. To top it all off, middle school in general is already a difficult transitional period for kids.

Consequently, I suffered in all aspects of my life — a lack of self-worth and confidence in my mind and body.

One time at a football game in eighth grade I was with two of my friends and one of the guys in our grade approached us to play a game. Some game it was. He pointed to my two friends and said that he’d date them and after a long pause looked at me with distaste. “But probably not you,” he said. “Because you’re Asian.”

Because I’m Asian. Little did he know that this “game,” that one single sentence, would ruminate in my mind like a parasite for the majority of high school.

Yet I stayed quiet, just laughed awkwardly with everyone else while holding in tears. 

My current boyfriend, whom I was close friends with since middle school and would start dating in high school, helped me shift my mentality. He genuinely had a deep respect for my culture and was eager to learn more.

I slowly began to realize that not everyone held me to such inferior standards. But even with him, I still needed to work on myself. When I finally started to attend Rutgers, I felt more at peace in a diverse environment. It was like a breath of fresh air, and from there I began to rediscover my love for being a strong Korean-American woman.

I began to fall in love with the shape of my eyes and my facial structure, the food I eat and the language of my people. I became proud to be different and grateful for the hardships my grandparents and parents had to endure for me to be where I am today. Our history and Asian presence in this country have been a difficult process — but beautiful and worth sharing. 

I no longer want to be quiet. I don’t want to just tolerate passive-aggressive racial comments because I don’t want to make a scene. I want to be loud, speak up and use my unique voice.

This is the time to be shameless about who I am and what I look like. It's important now, more than ever before, for Asian Americans to use their voices. For non-Asian Americans and people around the world to use their voices.

This world is terrifying, and recent hate crimes are proof that society is not getting any better. I want to emphasize the word hate. There are people who have so much disdain and hatred for Asian Americans that they are willing to impose violence on us.

These victims are our grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters and friends. We're human, we're people, we're breathing the same air as anyone else and trying to make it in this country just like everyone else.

We don’t deserve to be treated like we're nothing or less than. It’s important to note how unfair it is that non-Asian people get to be obsessed with our culture, our food, anime, fetishize our women, yet treat us this way or not speak up for us.

We are not your toys, the subject of your jokes, objects to be fantasized about or the dirt on the bottom of your shoe. 

I'm tired of being scared to go out in public alone, tired of feeling unseen and unheard. Change is possible though — and we can start by spreading awareness about what is happening now. We can share our history and strive to educate our children so that the Asian youth won’t need to suffer the same way I did or any other Asian American has.

In the future, it starts with what we tell our children, but for now, it's never too late for teenagers or adults to do better.

Although it has been prolonged, people can work to check in on their Asian friends or mutuals and hear their stories. To avoid ignorance, people can take the first step and start a conversation with Asian Americans to break down barriers. Learn that we are more than a stereotype and more than just an Asian face. Learn about our struggle and success stories, as well as everything in between. I am tired and frustrated, but proud.

To donate, find out more information, report an incident or just want to become more involved, click here.

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