Thursday, March 8, 2007

*Gasp* You're...Korean?!

Yep, it happened again, folks. Another case of mistaken ethnic identity.

Not that I have ever really cared unless someone said I was Vietnamese (since my cousins through marriage are Vietnamese and have been nothing but trouble for me) to which I would half-smile out of politeness and grit my teeth to reply "no" for them to second guess correctly: Korean.

I think that as most Korean-adoptees there is something distinctly different with how we view ourselves on the racial borderlines. I remember writing my college essay about how my racial identity was like the line that is found in the dollar bill only when you put it up to the light. You can't see it otherwise, and when you do see it, it divides the bill in a most unbalanced way. That was always me.

Perfectly unbalanced in every way. I straddled this line between American and Korean for a long time before becoming who I am now. I used to fight to use the word "Korean" whenever describing myself, as if from right off the bat when any one would ask "Where are you from?" I had to join the defensive lines and wear my Hanbok with a chopstick full of kimchi in order to be heard.

Now, I am content and without hesitation to say, "I am Korean."

And yet, somehow, this news always seems to come as some sort of shock for people. Despite my long and emotional fight with my identity internally, externally - people tended to see what they wanted to see and at first I found it kind of odd, and ironic, and sometimes funny.

But in the past few years it's become one of the most disturbing aspects of the "intro" conversation (you know, the one where you say "Hi, my name is....oh, nice to meet you! Yes, well I was raised in Towson with my parents and I have two dogs and two bunnies. I like take-out Chinese"...etc, etc.). Primarily because it has once again taken a twist on the ethnic boundaries that I had drawn for myself.

Last night, while having a conversation with (yes, none other than a Korean person) a friend, he stopped in mid-thought and paused, "Wait...are you Korean?"

Okay, forget that for the past 20 or so minutes I had fondly referred to close friends of mine as "oppa" or "unni" and forget that I had answered the phone by saying "yoboseyo" and asked "mo he?" and called him "babo" minutes before. All of that didn't seem to matter to him - my Korean linguistic skills could not match with his curiousity to see otherwise.

Me: "Uhh...yes, I'm Korean" ...What I wanted to say is "OF COURSE I AM!" but I figured that might be a bit pretentious.

Him: "Oh...really?" There is shock here, a bit of surprise which in turn, made me surprised myself that I was Korean.

Me: "You didn't think I was Korean?"

Him: "I wasn't so sure. I mean, I didn't know."

Me: "I see."

The conversation drifted onto another subject and for the next five or so minutes we were thralled in the verbal jousting on subjects such as his business, my work, how his parents were, etc. But my own curiousity to see what exactly prompted him to question so suddenly my ethnicity gave way.

Me: "Hey...um, what did you think I was all this time?"

Him: "Wha? You mean your ethnicity?"

Me: "Yeah, you know, what was your first guess?"

Him: "Like, what did I think you were when I first saw you?"

Me: "Sure."

Him: "I thought you were Chinese...but then I said 'no, she can't be Chinese.' So then I thought maybe Laotian...you look sorta Laotian."

Hmmm...Laotian. God, Mee-Bear would have loved to have snuck in on this conversation. (And then in floods memories of me standing there in front of his cousins, and uncle saying "jao mi ken koi?"....What a great first impression!)

The whole mistaking me for something else is acceptable. I have never been seen as Korean for as long as I can remember. I have always been seen as Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino or Polynesian or Japanese. I guess what's really irking me is what came next in the conversation...and what has ultimately come up in every "intro" conversation I have had lately when talking to another Korean, Korean-American, Asian-American, or anyone for that matter.

Him: "I don't know. You think maybe you're mixed? You never know...what with being adopted and all."

Alright, yep, right there. Stop right there. Did you just say you think maybe I am mixed? Wait, no you didn't even say you thought I was mixed, you said maybe I think I am mixed. And then you try to sway and justify your conclusion on my racial ethnicity by stating that it's (oh my God, gonna use it...it's that word - that...word.... a...a.... a...) ADOPTION that probably left me mixed.

And what's worse is this epidemic has not just been within my recently found acquaintances but into my close friends as well.

"Well, Em, geesh, you do have a darker complexion than us."

"Remember when you were younger you had wavy hair? You still have a little wave naturally. That could be the answer."

I'll admit. When I was younger, and even in the more recent past I have been known to tease MYSELF about possibly being mixed, because in pictures I looked darker than my friends, and in summer while my Korean friends would turn a darker yellow, but still remain sort of light, I'd stand out with my Honduras friend like a sore thumb. But it was all in good fun, and I never blamed my adoption for it (save a few times, but even that was all just in good natured goofiness) but these people are serious!!

Don't get me wrong - there is NOTHING wrong with being hapa. Jeeesus, if anything hapas are the hottest creatures in the world. They are gorgeous babies (I know a few hapas that I could name right now that are, by far, the cutest damn babies I have ever seen) and they make even gorgeous people. But to say that my "unknown" hapa-ness is from my adoption, and to have everyone in my life trying to ethnically draw lines around me is sort of frustrating.

Sure, I don't know where I come from and my skin's a little darker, and my hair is a bit more wavier than the rest, but that doesn't make me 'hapa'. I might never know whether I am or not - but I just wish people would stop trying to answer the question for me - as if my entire happiness depends on it.

Because I was happy irregardless of who people thought I was, or wanted to think of me as - because through and through I knew I was that little yellow girl from Towson who grew to love that little line that unbalanced her perfectly between Korean and American.

1 comment:

angie said...

EJ...You know people have asked me if I was mixed too just b/c I am adopted. And I don't even have the dark complextion or wavy hair!

But I know where you are coming from girl!