When I am in pain, I write. And this pain is indescribable, so I’m going to write.
I am the daughter of Korean immigrants. My mom and her family immigrated from South Korea when she was in elementary school, and my dad and his family immigrated from South Korea when he was in middle school. I know bits and pieces of their stories from their early dates in the states. I only know a little bit because it was so painful for them to talk about.
I remember my uncle saying at my grandfather’s funeral that they came here with the equivalent of $20. My mom and her siblings loved going to school because when they got home, they had to go straight to their parents’ shop to work until late hours of the night.
Money was always a struggle and they had a number of businesses close down. In college, my mom’s friends would take food from the dining hall for her because she couldn’t afford a meal plan. In dental school, my mom’s cabinets were absolutely devoid of food.
Funny enough, my parents’ families both ended up in Baltimore, Maryland, though the two of them did not meet until dental school. Despite their circumstances, my parents both pushed and persevered to learn English, go to college and dental school and open up their own dental practices.
I acknowledge the hand of the model minority myth in their successes. I understand that there are systemic barriers that they were able to bypass due to their identities as Asian Americans. Our stories as Asian Americans are the almost stories. You’re basically white, just not quite. As long as you’re quiet and complicit, we’ll almost value you the same.
The danger in this is that it teaches Asian Americans to be quiet, to pretend that we don’t experience injustice. If we search deep in our souls, most of us will find that we’re desperately holding onto the belief that we’re almost white, that we can be just like white people if we ignore the aspects that make us different.
If we pretend that we don’t experience racism. If we pretend that we’ve never been hurt by the things white people have done to us, have said to us. If we conform to the way that white people act, talk and go about life, then maybe they’ll finally accept us. If we assimilate and act how white people want us to, suppress our culture to take on theirs, lose our identities to become who they want us to be.
My parents surely experienced mental health challenges growing up, but they did not have the time to address them and to seek help. When I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in high school, my parents did not know how to help me, because in their minds, “We didn’t have time to be anxious or depressed. We just got over it.”
I was so frustrated with them for so long, but I understand it now. This mindset of working hard, persevering through any challenges in our paths and pretending like nothing bothers us, is what makes Asian Americans the perfect employee— but never the ideal boss. The obedient follower, but never the strong leader. And it makes experiencing racism that much more excruciating, because we have been conditioned to pretend it doesn’t happen to us.
I hardly talk about my experiences with racism. When these things happen to me, I burn with shame but then put on a smile, laugh it off. I have become so good at pretending that I am perfectly fine and that nothing affects me, that sometimes I don’t even know how I am truly feeling. To put it bluntly, I have resented and been ashamed of my identity as an Asian American so deeply that I have grown to hate myself.
In middle school, my mostly white classmates started a trend of posting pictures of themselves with their eyes closed, holding up peace signs, captioning these pictures “The Asian Pose.” They probably don’t remember this, but I do.
Two of my middle school classmates went to get their nails done together over the weekend. They posted about it on Facebook. One of them grieved publicly about how her nail technician had accidentally cut into her skin when trimming her cuticles. The other replied, “Damn Asians, so aggressive.” They probably don’t remember this, but I do.
I went on a skiing trip with my family when I was probably around 10 years old and my siblings and I decided to ride the mountain coaster. While going up the first hill, I turned around to wave to my sister, who was in the sled behind me. Three older, teenage guys were on the ski lift above us.
They noticed me waving at my sister, and started yelling to me, “Hey, cutie in the purple!” I was afraid and didn’t want to engage with them, so I pretended like I didn’t hear them. They started laughing and exclaimed, “She no speaky English!” English is my first language, so why do people think otherwise just because of the way I look?
In college, one of my closest friends at the time told me that she had a “token Asian” friend from home and that I was now her “token Asian” friend at school. “I’m worried I’m not going to remember what you look like once I go home and see my other Asian friend from home!” The pain of hearing how insignificant I am, from one of my best friends, stung badly.
At my college graduation, I wanted my full name to be read aloud when I walked across the stage. I was beginning to embrace my full identity as a Korean American, and I was proud of my middle name, Jungeun, which means “love and grace.” I also wanted to honor my grandmother, who had given me that name but had passed away when I was 6 years old.
I clearly wrote the pronunciation on the card: Jung-un. The girl reading the names aloud paused after saying “Rachel,” and then stumbled quickly through Jungeun. I was embarrassed.
When I started teaching, my kids had had little to no experience interacting with Asian people prior to me. I taught sixth grade and my friend, who is Chinese, taught fifth grade. Our students would always ask us if we were twins, because we “look exactly alike.” I do not blame or resent my students for this, but I place the entirety of that blame on the white supremacist practices of segregation and gentrification that did not allow my students to have exposure to Asian people.
After one and a half years of teaching and working closely together, my fellow sixth grade teacher called our fifth grade teacher coworker by my name in the hallway. I felt like less of a human, my face must not be important.
These are my unique experiences, along with the “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” and “How long have you been in the United States?”, experiences that many Asian Americans are all too familiar with. I hope that by sharing my stories and my family’s stories, that other Asian Americans will feel encouraged to share theirs.
To my fellow Asian Americans: Your experiences are valuable and deserve to be heard. You don’t have to pretend that you are okay all the time—it’s okay not to be okay.
As we grieve the unbearable losses of March 16, I hope that we can stand together in solidarity, stop tolerating ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia and racism, value our lives as precious, and continue to advocate for all marginalized communities and communities of color.