How To Travel To South Korea And Ally Yourself With Korean-Americans

A Child of Immigrant Parents

The history to how I came to be lies in my name, Susanna YeaJin Park. Susanna because I am a child of immigrant parents who quickly understood the importance of having an American name. So they had their pastor give me a Biblical name as my first and my father gave me a Korean name as my middle.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s and eventually settled in Colorado. I am the first in my family to be born a US citizen, a privilege that I take seriously. My older sister and parents all took the US citizenship test when I was in my early teens. I remember helping them study for the exam and all I can say is, that ish is HARD. Most native born citizens of the USA would probably fail the citizenship test.

My family comes from humble beginnings. My parents have worked almost every job imaginable and it has shaped how I treat people working in the service sector. They have worked as housekeepers, janitors, factory workers, waiters, Uber drivers, and failed business owners. As a Korean American, I see survival in my parents. Their courage to leave the comforts of their home and seek this “land of opportunity” lives through my sister and me. Ever since their immigration papers were stamped, their lives were committed to breaking down barriers and being resilient in any situation.

More than 30 years have passed, and my parents still face the harsh realities of what it means to be an immigrant. Language barriers, job availability, and access to resources are obstacles they face on a daily basis. In their earlier years of living the in the United States, they worked at a company that made optical lenses for a wide variety of medical, military, and every day-use devices. My parents’ co-workers would purposely throw away products into my mom’s trashcan, so that she would be blamed. They would talk about her, cackling next to her, pulling “pranks” because she was a foreigner who didn’t understand. But, just because she didn’t understand the English language didn’t mean she didn’t understand the social context of racism. One day, my dad snapped and raged against their co-workers. He stood up to them, fighting for himself and his wife, cursing them out in Korean. They didn’t need to understand the Korean language to know the social context of being called out as racists.

The Japanese Invasion and Occupation of Korea

I am a light-skinned Korean American and with that come certain privileges. My home country never faced colonization from European nations and we don’t have a prolonged history of slavery. I wish to not take away from the narratives of other groups, but simply to explain what colonization and slavery means to Koreans, in case there was a lack of public information.

Oppression comes in different forms and is not necessarily Eurocentric. From 1910-1945, the Korean Peninsula was invaded and occupied by Japan. One of the many ways that colonial powers try to erase culture is by erasing the language. Japanese invaders occupied schools and universities, punishing anyone who dared to speak Korean. To this day, my grandfather knows the Japanese language because he was forced to learn Japanese when he was younger. Hundreds and thousands of historical Korean texts were destroyed. Korean people were also given the choice to adopt Japanese names. Many did because without doing so, it restricted access to food and other public resources.

Native Koreans were also forced into manual labor. While many of Korea’s beautiful historical palaces and buildings were being destroyed, Japanese settlers claimed land and planted foreign crops. Young girls and women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers. They are known as “comfort women.” 1945 isn’t that long ago- that means the comfort women are now anywhere from 80-90+ years old. You may see statues of comfort women in public spaces like on buses or in front of the Japanese embassy. These memorials are installed by activists to draw attention to the issue as there are still women alive today who were forced into sexual slavery.

Kinkakuji in Kyoto Japan

Going To School As A Korean-American

My parents were fiercely committed to preserving the Korean culture in our household. We were forbidden to speak English at home and I grew up being required to write my diary entries, birthday cards, thank you cards, all cards in Korean. During breakfast or on errand drives, my dad would have me read to him the Korean newspaper to keep up with my reading and comprehension skills. I honestly hated it growing up because I felt so conflicted with having to speak Korean but having nowhere else to speak it (other than at home or at church). None of my school friends spoke Korean, so why was I required to?

The early years of my childhood were spent going to a school where there were only 3-5 Asian students in total from K-8. Two of which were me and my sister. Majority White. Before I can even remember, I was unwanted in my own community. I was 7 years old when I was walking hand-in-hand with my sister on a sidewalk by the road near my apartment complex and a passing car full of men yelled Asian slurs and threw an ice cream cone at us.

In 2nd grade, I asked my mom to pack me a “normal American lunch,” like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. School kids had made fun of the “funny-looking sushi” that my mom had packed for me. (It’s actually kim-bap, a Korean dish where rice, veggies, and meat are rolled with seaweed). Or telling my mom that I want a Lunchable instead because her home-cooked meals were too embarrassing or too smelly. Looking back on this, it’s a painful realization to know that I was rejecting my culture because I was made to be different.

In middle school, my family moved to our first house. In the 18 years that my parents had been in the United States, it was the first time they had stepped into a house to call their home. We always lived in apartments, where we heard comments from neighbors call us “Chinks” or “Gooks.” I thought moving to a house would be different because we were no longer showing our neighbors that we were a poor immigrant family. But no, our house was the only one on the street that got toilet papered (TP) and egged, twice. The first time we were TP’d, my dad called it a racist crime. I told him that houses get egged all the time in the US and that it was probably a joke. Then it happened a second time. Toilet paper, eggs, yogurt, and crackers. It was everywhere: on our walls, windows, trees, and inside our mailbox. The cops didn’t know what to do and said, “You should get this off quick or it’ll eat your paint.” It didn’t matter that at the time, my family had moved into a more affluent neighborhood. It didn’t matter that we were succeeding in school, working hard, having friendly conversations with neighbors, and walking our dog around the block like any other normal American family. We were still the subject of whispered comments from young white boys who stopped bouncing the basketball and stared at my sister and me walking by, “Look at those Chinese people walking their dog.”

And then of course I was the never-ending subject of curiosity with questions such as, “Are you North Korean or South Korean?” “If you’re not Chinese or Japanese, what do you speak?” “What kind of Oriental are you?” “Does Korea even have shopping malls?”

When it came to academic success, my intelligence was reduced to simple fact that I am Asian. High marks on homework. “Oh, it’s because you’re Asian.” 100% on mathematics exams. “You Asians are so smart.” College applications. “You’ll probably get in because you’re Asian.” College. Where I experienced public humiliation from a professor who stopped her lecture to say, “You Chinese students are always talking in your own language and cheating.” I was actually asking my classmate a question on the worksheet the professor had just handed out, in English.

Korean Royal Palace Seoul

The Model Minority Myth

To reduce all Asian peoples’ experiences to that of success despite the limitations is oppressive. When I speak about the struggles of being an Asian American, I’m met with a hand-wave accompanied by “Asian Americans are doing far better than Blacks or Hispanics.” As if the skewed success of Asian Americans is enough to silence the fact that Asian Americans have the highest rates of income inequality than any other race. As if the highlighted successes of Asian doctors and engineers is enough for people to turn their eyes away from the discrimination and glass-ceilings that Asian people face even within those professions. As if the overrepresentation of East Asians in colleges is justification for the harassment that Asian people face in public spaces. As if our relative success should silence the need to address the fact that Asians are the least likely to be promoted to leadership or senior positions. As if because we are the Model Minority, we should say ‘Thank You’ and move on with our lives.

The Model Minority myth not only hurts us, but it hurts fellow PoC who desperately need their narratives to be changed. In 1966, sociologist William Peterson published a piece that contrasted the success of Japanese Americans against African Americans. He said, Asian Americans were law-abiding and scholarly and therefore the model minority compared to African Americans who continued to be criminals and defiant. As this idea became more solidified, Asian people started being respected more by White America for staying within the lines (and only if we stayed within the lines) that they drew for us. In contrast, society grew more hateful towards African Americans.

The Rodney King Riots in 1992 was a result of a narrative all too familiar today. Rodney King, a Black male, was brutally beaten and the officers were acquitted. The Black community was rightfully outraged at the footage that was released of the incident. Riots ensued, where people looted and caused an estimated $1 billion worth of property damage. At the time, Korean immigrants occupied the same space and owned various mom-and-pop shops in the community. The media exacerbated the already-growing tension between the two communities by presenting the riots as a result of conflict between the Korean American and African American communities. The conversation of White supremacy and oppression was lost and instead the two communities were pit against each other. It was only in 2017, 25 years after the riot that leaders from both communities came together in solidarity.

Cancun, Mexico

To support the Model Minority myth is to go against the solidarity that PoC need. We are all existing in a system that wasn’t created for us, and Asian people too face hardships that are unique. The Asian American struggle is not identical to that of the Black or Hispanic struggle. What you need to understand is that the Model Minority takes away from all of PoC narratives by pitting minority groups against each other. It is a system that perpetuates the idea that Asian Americans have attained the White man’s status of educational attainment, riches, and opportunity, when in reality we were simply used as a tool to oppress other PoC communities.

The Model Minority also erases the diverse narratives of the Asian American community. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans have the highest rate of income inequality than any other ethnicity in the United States. Southeast Asians are among the most marginalized and silenced, and young men and women who desperately need funding to attend college don’t get to check off a box where they are automatically considered for benefits on their applications. In addition, many science scholarships have deemed Asians a no longer disadvantaged group and therefore won’t provide funding to Asians.

The Asian American struggle deserves attention and needs to be included in conversations about diversity and inclusivity.

Lake Tahoe

Visiting South Korea

At the age of 9, I visited Korea for the first time. Korean students study an incredible amount and it is normal for them to attend multiple tutoring sessions after normal school hours. I remember one day having to use the bathroom at school and being terrified of seeing a squat toilet for the first time. I was so scared of using the squat toilet that the teacher had to stop her lesson and have her students demonstrate how to squat over the toilet. When the teacher tried to discipline me, she asked me to put out my hands for her to whack my palms with a ruler. I was so confused and scared because I never heard of a teacher who had the authority to whack my hands. At my scared expression, my cousin jumped in, “She’s from America!” This information suddenly put me in a light of amusement. The teacher quickly apologized and I was flooded with questions from the other kids on what home was like.

Since then, I have visited Korea 3 other times. I always envied my fellow Korean American friends who are able to visit every year. My family simply could not afford the luxury of visiting Korea that often. I always expected to be seen as one of my own people. To be in Korea meant to blend in with people who looked like me and spoke my language. But each time I’ve visited, there is something that reminds me how “American” I really am. The last time I was there, I went to the salon to get a haircut, and the first thing my hair stylist said was, “You’re a gyopo (Korean-American), aren’t you.” Yes, how did you know? “I can tell. Americans dress differently, and their makeup is different.” Korean people are obsessed with having good skin. The cosmetic industry is huge and part of taking care of yourself is keeping your skin healthy. I have freckles and my aunt took me against my own will to a dermatologist to get some kind of laser treatment.

Or one time, my sister and I were cheated by a shop-owner. We were looking at shelf full of mp3 players and a pink one caught our eye. It looked like the iPod mini. “Don’t speak English or she’ll know we’re from America,” my sister told me sternly. I nodded. As we paid for the pink iPod mini look alike, we asked the woman if returns were allowed. She said “yes” and we went home. Once we opened the package and turned on the fake-iPod mini, we realized that we had been cheated. The interface was pixelated and the gadget felt nothing like the iPod. We had paid $80 for something that functioned like a child’s toy. Furious, we said we would go back for a refund. Our relatives laughed, “There’s no such thing as refunds at places like that. She totally knew you were foreigners.”

Paramount Theater Seattle

Traveling to Other Countries

As an Asian American woman, how I am treated depends on whether I am sexualized or demonized.

Sexualized. The idea that Asian women are exotic, submissive, and dutiful is a sexualization that strips Asian women of their intelligence, resilience, and voice. I’ve been sexualized as a “China doll” or “beautiful Oriental girl.” I’ve been approached with “I love eggrolls,” to which I gave him a middle-finger and he laughed, as if I was a child throwing a petty tantrum. Men have touched me while keeping a distance from the other White female travelers. They’ve interrupted meals with friends to sit uncomfortably close, asking questions and commenting, “I love Asian girls,” or “You have the most beautiful skin and eyes.”

Demonized. Even in places like Vancouver, Canada where East and Southeast Asians make up the second largest ethnic group, demonization exists. While paying at a parking meter, a man walked by rambling, “F*cking Chinese people everywhere…Damn Asians…” People have snickered at my parents while on tours. Sometimes, the demonization isn’t even from the White community. I see it from student PoC groups that have excluded Asians from their diversity panels. I experienced it when an elderly, well-dressed, seemingly pleasant Black man stopped me to ask if I was Korean and to my ‘Yes, I am’ he said the Korean people ruined his life and that Koreans were a terrible group of people.

Nile River, Uganda

Asians Need Allies

When you see an Asian person, throw away all your preconceived notions. You don’t know if they are Korean, Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Bhutanese, or Filipino. You don’t know if they are Korean or Korean American (yes, there’s a difference). You don’t know if they are poor or rich, or if they have a college degree or not, or whether they are adopted or biracial. You also don’t know if they are actually 50 years old or 30 (because yes, we tend to age very well). If you are curious about an Asian American, realize the multi-dimensionality of your questions. “Where are you from?” to you may mean what ethnicity they are. To me, it means I’m from Colorado. “No, but where are you really from?” To which I respond, “If you mean where my parents are from, they’re from South Korea.” Don’t refer to Asian people as “Orientals” because we are not your decorative rug that you bought from a “beautiful trip to Thailand.” Don’t assume you understand one culture because you did a 3-week backpacking trip in China. Realize that when you talk about Asian people, you’re talking about a group that consists of 48 countries and over 2,000 languages.

My community consists of a spectrum of skin colors, backgrounds, and values. My fellow Asian brothers and sisters who have privileges need to actively join conversations and show solidarity. I am sick of seeing Asian people depicted in stereotypical ways, or as those who care less to get involved in social justice causes and participate in the oppression of other minority groups (i.e. in Dear White People). We need to do better and show up for our fellow PoC folks and our own Asian community members who never get the spotlight.

St. Mary’s Glacier

Here’s to finding power in unity.

Cancun, Mexico

About The Author

Susanna YeaJin Park is a Korean-American born and raised in Colorado who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Health. She writes about academic life and educates people about various public health topics on her blog, Sujanee, and is part of The PhDepression, LLC team, where they advocate for mental health among graduate students. You can follow her journey by clicking on the social media buttons below:

 

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