I’m Leah and I’m a Traveling Operating Room Nurse in the United States.
That means I work for 13 weeks anywhere in the USA and then take a month off to country hop and decompress. Needless to say, travel is a big part of my life. But traveling while Korean and White is a completely different topic.
Let me throw it way back to the beginning when a Korean woman and Caucasian man fell in love, got married, and created a couple of hapa haole kids.
My mom was born and raised on Oahu, HI and is 100% Korean-American. My dad, mainly German background, was born and raised in Mayville, WI. Both were 3rd generation Americans. So before you can wonder about it, neither spoke Korean nor German, and neither do I.
When people hear my dad was in the Navy, they automatically assume my dad was stationed in South Korea and met my mom there. But really, they met in college while my dad was volunteering at the blood draw pregnancy clinic. My dad drew my mom’s blood, found out she wasn’t pregnant, so she dumped her boyfriend at the time, and there you have it folks, the romantic story of how my parents met.
Being both equally Asian and White, I constantly struggled with having to choose a side and a lot of the times having the side chosen for me.
A question I am surprisingly asked a lot, “Do you consider yourself Asian or White?” The answer is BOTH.
Why do I need to be one or the other? So when I won’t answer, others answer for me based off of their perception. “Well you look more White, I couldn’t even tell you were Asian.”
Or when I go to fill out a form and it asks for my ethnicity and I always have to choose “Other.” They don’t care what “Other” I am, just that I’m not a singular race.
Of course, my favorite is when I say I’m Korean and Caucasian and a guy says, “Nice, I have a thing for Asian girls.” Well, I’m only half so that is not only very creepy but definitely not a compliment. The sexualized Asian woman is a stereotype I often have to deal with.
Dealing With Stereotypes
Yes, we live in a world where we operate on stereotypes. Every ethnicity has them. But I tend to only get the Asian stereotypes even though I’m mixed. Like since I’m Asian, I must be:
- a bad driver
- wear your hair in pigtails with a school girl outfit at any age
- be into Anime
- laugh with a high pitch “hehehe” while holding your hand in front of your mouth
- be cheap
Asian women are seen as gold diggers and sexualized, while men are portrayed as aggressive and misogynistic towards Asian women on screen. On the other hand, Asians also have been given the term “model minority,” meaning they are typically seen as having positive stereotypes. Such as:
- being smart
These often overshadow the fact that Asians still get discriminated against and are overlooked when struggling in school because there is a given expectation to be naturally intelligent. However, Ronald Takaki, author of The New York Times article, “The Harmful Myth of Asian Superiority,” talks about Asians in today’s workforce hitting the “bamboo ceiling.” This means having to obtain more education and work experience while taking on an increasing number of work hours than Caucasian co-workers but making the same amount of money.
In addition, I often have to navigate awkward stereotypes. Like when I went to check on my patient: a quiet, well-behaved, 8-year-old, Asian girl and the Anesthesiologist asks her, “So, what’s your favorite subject in school?” And when she says Art, the Anesthesiologist replies, “Oh, art! I thought you were going to say Math.”
Can I get something out of the way: NOT ALL ASIANS ARE GOOD OR LIKE MATH!
Dealing With Racism
Then there are also days where I not only have to deal with choosing a side and being stereotyped but also being harassed by outright racism. Like the time I had a patient with multiple swastika tattoos who told me he didn’t want my “chink ass” anywhere near his OR room. This was after he had to ask me what my background was by saying, “What are you?” I replied, “Your operating room nurse.” He responded, “No! What ARE you? Your eyes are a little crooked.”
It took everything in me to walk away and not say, “what are YOU?” Also, little did he know he was wearing a swastika, which was originally used in Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism to represent ‘well being’ hundreds of years before the Nazis appropriated it and placed a different meaning on it for the Western world.
Or a couple weeks ago when I was at work, when my first patient of the day, who was an African American woman around my age, recoiled away from me and yelled, “DON’T TOUCH ME! I DON’T WANT ANY FILIPINOS TOUCHING ME!” I responded, “Well I’m half Korean.” She didn’t care and told me if I tried touching her again she would punch me in my face. I removed myself from her care and traded with a full White nurse who later told me the patient was very pleasant towards her.
For the past couple weeks, I have walked past her as she sits outside smoking her cigarette. I keep telling myself that I’m going to walk up to her and tell her how she made me feel, but every day I keep my mouth shut and try to brush it off like I have time and time again for the past nine years working as a nurse.
Then there’s the time I had gotten into an argument with a Caucasian man whose final response was, “Go back to Korea.” Well, there are so many things wrong with that statement and not just because it was a generalized racist comment. I was born in California! Also, he did not specify which Korea. At the time I hadn’t been to South Korea and had no desire to go to North Korea even though my Great Grandfather was from the northern region and left long before the Korean War.
Well, in 2016 I finally made it to Seoul, South Korea for the first time, and I’m happy to report, I’d love to go back! I was excited to see where half of my family history was from and indulge in some true traditional foods like bingsoo, bulgogi, kimchi, etc. It was AMAZING!
Being Accepted By Your Sides
Having to choose is not the only struggle. Being accepted by one side or the other is another. My first boyfriend in college was 100% Korean. His family was so traditional they flew back to South Korea from the US because they wanted him to be born there. Traditionally, Koreans are supposed to marry Koreans. My grandmother’s sister was the first to marry a Non-Korean and was shunned from the family. It wasn’t until my mom’s generation that they all married Non-Korean spouses and my grandparents were accepting of it.
So it wasn’t a surprise to my mom when I was dumped shortly after meeting my first college boyfriend’s parents, who didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Korean. Among the long list of hurtful things he mentioned when dumping me, one that he slipped in the middle was that I wasn’t full Korean, which was a fact that hadn’t changed since the first day we started dating. This was the first time in my life I was discriminated against because I was too White. Shocking, I know, but sometimes the oppressed are the oppressors as well.
I honestly haven’t experienced any racism abroad, or if I have, I didn’t know it because I don’t speak any other languages… ignorance is bliss. Unless you count the time that I was in Japan and they took away my chopsticks and replaced it with a fork, just because I didn’t speak Japanese.
Things I’ve Learned Traveling While Asian
Being single in your 30’s is hard enough without having to figure out if a guy is just trying to sleep with you just because you’re Asian. Nevertheless, I take the good with the bad and embrace my “Halfie” status. I will continue with my life as usual and do what I always do when a patient asks me if I’m a Kamikaze as they drift off under anesthesia… pretend he’s talking about the drink and stop by the liquor store on my way home from work.
Kidding, but in all honesty, I hope this article brings awareness against Asian stereotypes and educates people of all ethnicities to see that Asians do experience discrimination and mixed Asians experience it from both sides.
Here is a list of annoying/insulting questions/comments/final thoughts on what not to say or assume when talking to a bi-racial Asian/Caucasian:
- Just because I’m part Asian doesn’t mean I like anime or Hello-kitty, or am good at math, or speak the language
- It is never appropriate to ask if my vagina is horizontal
- You are still not allowed to make Asian jokes even though you are married to an Asian
- You do not get to define which ethnicity someone is based by which one they look like more… or just at all, in general
- Like I said before, the swastika has been used in other cultures for hundreds of years and you will still see many religious buildings in Asian countries with a swastika on it. This does not represent Nazi Germany in any way
- Just because someone is half something doesn’t mean they know everything there is to know about that culture or every single food dish from that country
- If you haven’t been to every country that makes up your ethnicity, why would you assume someone else has?
- I don’t eat dog meat
- Finally, I’m sure a lot of people are wondering… Not all Asian men have small dicks. I only know this because I’m a nurse and see a lot of dicks everyday… so yeah, mystery solved.
About the Author
Leah is a Korean-American author that runs the website Off The Clock Nurse where she talks about being a traveling nurse. She also works with affiliated nursing websites to document her experiences and give advice in the profession. To see more of her travel adventures, follow her on the social media buttons below.