Recently, I had this experience of talking to a Korean man who was dropping off some huge packages at my office. Having been indoctrinated my entire life in the ways of Korean mannerisms, I politely bowed to him and thanked him in Korean. He almost dropped the scanner in his hands to the floor and in wide-eyed wonderment he asked me in Korean how it was that I knew his language. This happens nearly every time I encounter a Korean person. I just look too "White".
This is often a commonplace experience for not only me but also people who are bicultural/biracial. They often feel uneasy and lost in a world that wants them to be this or that. In the Korean culture I was raised in, I was led to believe that Koreans were an insular people in a sea of White America, and that the "White" culture had no place in the Korean community. For someone who attended a private school where there were more Caucasian students than Asian and also who attended a Korean church on Sundays, this resulted in a massive years long identity crisis for me. I was never "Korean" enough for my church friends and I was never "White" enough for my school friends. Having a father who was half white and half Korean did not help either. Though he spoke Korean and had chosen to adopt a very Korean approach to life, he still looked white to many people. That often trickled down to me, who out of my two other siblings tended to look the most blended. "You are Korean, that is all you are", my father once told me when I asked him where our White relatives were. To my father there was only one identity that mattered, his Korean identity.
I spent most of my teen years emulating my father and rejecting the ways of my school friends and social environment. I convinced myself that being just Korean was how I would find acceptance and community, just like my father. However, I found myself isolated, alone, and confused the more I rejected my American identity. The same occurred when I tried the reverse and I tried to be like my college American friends. To my surprise, choosing either to be just Korean or American and denying the other never resolved my quest to figure out who I was. I just ended up feeling stuck in a middle area where I never felt like I belonged to one or the other.
Eventually, I gave up on trying to be one or the other, and I decided to compromise and enjoy the middle. This compromise did not come easy. It involved a lot of processing and hours of my own therapy to come to an identity that I was happy with. The first step was understanding that I was not abandoning my cultural upbringing, rather I was honoring my community by becoming whole. To do so, I had to first use American individualism to accept that I alone was in control of my identity and my life. Then I added some Korean communalism to ground myself and to remind myself of where I could always find home and solace. Once I accepted this, I was free to choose what parts of my Korean heritage I wanted to keep, and that same went for my other half. Perhaps, a perfect example of this blend would be the work I do now. I chose a career path that meant something to me, a counselor, but I am also aware of my duty to help the Korean American community tackle issues such as stigma, intolerance, and mental health.
Learning who we are and developing an identity is not an easy or fun journey, but it is a necessary endeavor where the rewards outweigh the cost. Those who are sure of who they tend to be more confident, more successful, and have a higher sense of purpose than those who are not. This is no easy task. Forming an identity requires a thorough and complete look of all that we are from many different perspectives. It means accepting our life's story and all that we are. It means looking at what has defined you and choosing to adapt, redefine, or reject those definitions when they do not resonate with you. Finally,because our identities are the expression of who we are completely, our identities will not form when we reject any part of who we are. Who we are can only be when we accept ourselves completely.