My sister and I in matching outfits.

Hyphenated

Why I’m going back to Korea after 21 years.

I’m 8 years old, looking with admiration at my 16-year-old cousin. She has sunny blonde highlights that seem to propagate themselves on her head, as if marking her merit in Americana. Her accent is so honey-thick that when she speaks Korean, it almost sounds like a new language altogether. I roll out my hard syllables, Valley-Girl style. I try out accents in odd places, like “HAW-money” instead of “hal-muh-nee,” and my words tumble out like confused thorns.

I don’t remember wanting anything more fiercely, only to feel conflicted by the outcome with just as much force many years later. As an adult, I’m planning on seeking out answers in my home country.

I don’t remember ever being afraid of losing my Korean identity as a child. When I first moved to the U.S. from Korea at age eight, my identity was so loud that my biggest concern was about how to mute it down.

In our American life, umma would run to close all the bedroom doors in the house before cooking to prevent the smells from clinging to our clothes. And I, too, was in a hurry to close all the doors, afraid to show my roots outside the house.

I couldn’t close them fast enough.

In those years, I obsessively strove to be the antithesis of Asian. I foraged Limited Too T-shirts secondhand, brought PB & J sandwiches for lunch, listened to Backstreet Boys, replaced my Hello Kitty stationary with Lisa Frank, and hoped this would be enough to make my skin tone invisible.

I was one of three Asian girls in my third-grade class, and the only Korean. I lived in a devastatingly white middle-class suburb in Michigan, which I interpreted to be a microcosm for the whole U.S.

It was the golden locks and blue eyes that struck me most. These kids that dolls were designed after — talking mouths and moving limbs and all. Their hair was so delicate and their skin so fair that I couldn’t imagine anything bad ever happening to them. I imagined their lives, all elegance, all wholesome.

And as I made American friends, many of their families reinforced what I imagined. They were families who didn’t eat all foods, regardless of ethnic origin, with chopsticks. Their parents took them to soccer practice and made them ants-on-a-log afterwards. They would play board games together and laugh heartily and roll out casual ‘I love you’s.

The difference was so stark, it didn’t matter how fast I shut the doors.

I would go home to the shame that lived inside of me.

Many years later in college I would read the following passage from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and feel equal parts seen and overwhelmed:

Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous. To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane.

Ironically, it was my English degree (the major most likely to anger your stereotypical Korean-American immigrant parent) that pushed me back toward my Korean identity.

I was finding ties between my world and the worlds portrayed by writers of color.

And although it didn’t happen all at once, it wasn’t coincidental that this was also the point in my life in which I began to openly display my Korean identity again.

I explored Korean indie music. I watched Korean movies. I asked my parents how to make kimchi jjigae. When my halmuni visited the U.S., I laid next to her at night and listened to her wild stories of the Korean War.

Around the same time, I visited my favorite elementary school teacher. Elementary school was a time I remembered with both fondness and sharp pain. I suddenly remembered my fat tongue, practicing the exact distance between the sounds in the simple question, “do you want to play with me today?”

Deep into reminiscing, my former teacher brought up a memory I seemed to have buried.

“Don’t you remember? There were a few times when you brought kimchi to school and the kids were not very nice about it.”

Some time between the year she had taught me and this particular day, kimchi had become a loaded word. Before the kimchi-gut-health revolution in popular American culture, I ate it like a stinky secret. This secret was now outed. This secret was now publicly “cool.” It was hard to know how to feel.

“The kids were so cruel sometimes,” she offered, knowing these words hardly said enough.

The cruelty did exist everywhere, but with adults it tended to be the microagressions that ripped me open. They would gently “other” me, reduce me down to my skin tone. A man on the bus, asking, “are you her sister?” when I was sitting nowhere near the other woman. An employee at a store throwing me a compliment like a needle, “wow, you sound so American!”

These comments would often undo me. And even before the particularly violent events toward Asians in recent years, I was feeling the pain. Before I understood there was a community behind me.

Little by little, I started to understand that I was not alone. And with that, I found ways to fuel the internal and external conflicts into small proclamations of pride for my identity.

The first time I drove into Koreatown in L.A., my vision was blurry with tears. I had not known a reality that looked like this in the U.S. The signs, the sounds, the music, the food, and quite literally everything you would ever need to live. All of it was Korean.

Koreatown was all the doors open, a force field of kimchi stink wafting out.

It was lights on. Windows open. Doors wide. Naked, and not a single care.

Korean-American. Most days, this hyphenated identity feels like a dull pain that you stop noticing.

Most days, I don’t sit and ponder which of my identities I should declare more loudly.

Years after my initial awakening, I still find myself trying to understand my roots. Some days, like the Koreatown days, I find whole roots that feed and fuel me. Some days, I clutch at roots like hairs, trying to figure out where it all connects. I find myself digging, searching for ways to be.

I don’t imagine the digging will end. But I am choosing now to dig in Korea, a place I keep calling out to, like child to mother. I know the returning will not be easy.

Returning is never easy when you’ve run so far you can hardly make out the path you came from.

There is a picture of my sister and I. We are in our Korea days, standing on a cobblestone path. Umma had a terrible habit of putting my sister and I in matching outfits until it became age-inappropriate. The same hairstyle, and even matching hair accessories. We are in matching white jersey dresses with bright cartoon drawings on the front. Our pigtails are impossibly high. Hers gathered together in pink beads, and mine in blue. I’m holding her hand close to my chest, with a look of entitlement. There is a confidence in my eyes that I envy.

We look as though we’ve always lived there. In that exact spot.

I belong, in that matching outfit, in that picture, in that family, in that country, in that schema that makes sense.

In a way, I’m jealous of that child. The one who was comforted by the singular identity thrust upon her. No Mary Janes, no confused accents.

I tell myself that if I look at enough photos, I can gather enough clues to settle the conflict. To heal the inner shame. To reclaim the identity I once chose to abandon. To let the kimchi stench waft all the way out.

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sometimes writing, sometimes crying about tangentially logical plant/produce metaphors

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Juhee Lee

Juhee Lee

sometimes writing, sometimes crying about tangentially logical plant/produce metaphors

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