By: Leia Oh
I was adopted from South Korea and brought to to the US when I was a baby. I’ve grown up in a white American family in a predominantly white community. There aren’t any other Koreans, and hardly any Asians at all for that matter; so I’ve grown up extremely whitewashed, cut off from anything Korean, deprived of diversity. Ever since I was a child I’ve struggled with my identity and trying to decipher where I fit in, but it wasn’t until I got to high school that my insecurities really took off and my confusion, frustration, and sadness overwhelmed me. I was lost, and I still am, searching for a home, despite knowing it’s nowhere to be found.
My high school has about 1200 students, and I’d estimate only around ten are Asian. I’d say 1100 are white. Everything I’ve learned about Korea, I’ve taught myself online. There are things I will never be able to relate to or understand about Korean culture, or even Asian American culture. I follow those Asian meme accounts on instagram, and it may not seem like a big deal, but I don’t understand half the posts. All those relatable Asian videos and memes on instagram? Yeah, I have no idea what they’re talking about. I have two Chinese friends, but other than that the rest of my friends at school are white. I don’t talk about Korean related things with them because I know they don’t really care, and they have no reason to care. I have to suppress part of who I am when I’m at school, and it’s draining. I hear people mocking Asians or making Asian jokes in the halls, and I have to bite my tongue, because I’m the minority, and if I say anything I know people will just laugh at me. It’s a constant reminder that I’m different. That I don’t belong here.
Honestly, when I was younger, I made Asian jokes. I wanted to be the cool, funny Asian that people liked to hang out with. I wanted white approval. I always acknowledged that I was Korean, but part of me always kept my Korean roots at an arm’s length, never genuinely putting in effort to learn about it. Despite my acceptance of my Korean heritage, I didn’t pay much attention to it.
That changed the summer of 2015, when I went back to Korea with my family. I was young then, and honestly didn’t care much about Korean culture. While I was there, I definitely felt out of place. People stared at me and my white parents, and I felt like an idiot for not knowing Korean; at the time, the extent of my knowledge was hello and thank you. It wasn’t until I got back that I started taking interest in Korea, diving into the culture, spending hours on the internet absorbing as much information that I could dig up about it. I surrounded myself with Korean music, Kdramas, Korean variety shows, just about as much as I could do in my white town, with no Asian American community around for miles.
As I’ve gotten older, this overwhelming feeling of being the odd one out has only escalated. I used to think, I’ve just got to wait it out, get through this, and in college I’ll find other Asians and I won’t be lonely anymore. I’ll be normal. Yet the more I’ve learned about not just Korean culture but Asian American culture, the more it’s dawned on me that I’m always going to be left wandering between two worlds, stuck in no man’s land. I’ll be honest, it really, seriously sucks, and I get so frustrated and lonely, so sick of always trying so hard to be the perfect person–the perfect Korean girl, the perfect white girl, and the perfect Asian American girl. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fit in. Trying to figure out what it is that makes me different, that makes me feel like an outcast no matter how many friends I have, and getting slapped in the face as I’ve learned more about the Asian American community: how despite my Korean blood I’ve been raised white, and blood means nothing when you’re as whitewashed as me.
I know my whole life will be spent maneuvering different groups, trying to edge my way in and out, a little too Asian or a little too white wherever I go. Coming to terms with the fact that I’ll never really belong anywhere is hard; trying to figure out my own identity even harder. Do I even have any right to call myself Korean? Yet I’m obviously not white either. I’m a weird mix of cultures, too much of one thing or another, or not enough of this or that. There’s always something I don’t understand, a reference or joke that doesn’t click, always something that makes me different, no matter who I’m with. I’m split in such a way that there’s a bunch of random parts of Korean and American thrown together in a confusing jumble. It’s exhausting trying to act the right way, trying to figure out who I am underneath my Korean American identity struggle. I’m at a point where I have no idea how to balance being Korean and American, and I guess it’s just something I’ll have to learn to live with: being a wanderer, a girl between two worlds. Someone with nowhere to call home.
Leia Oh is a high school student in the US who hopes to pursue a career where she can help others and stand up for causes important to her. Adopted from South Korea, she’s an artist, writer, and activist who’s passionate about speaking up for those who are marginalized.