Dear Asian Deerfield student,
I am guilty.
Maybe you have Asian parents, maybe you were born in Asia, maybe you have an Asian passport, or maybe your home is in Asia. Maybe you are all or any combination of these things, just like me. Yet sometimes we find ways to take our smallest differences and blow them out of proportion to drive wedges between members of our community. I am a witness and I am guilty.
When I first came to America as a seven-year-old, following my dad’s new assignment in Washington, D.C. as a diplomat, I was shocked to discover that other diplomat families’ kids could barely speak Korean after only about a year in America. Feeling pity for them, I swore not to lose sight of the place I belonged to and came from. I read Korean novels and watched Korean news and TV shows, refusing to speak anything but Korean with my parents.
At the same time, I was determined to fit into this new environment. Weeks before starting school in America, I memorized the Pledge of Allegiance and practiced it in front of every adult I came across. Come the first day of second grade, I marched into the classroom, placed my hand over my heart, and triumphantly recited the Pledge perfectly with all of my new classmates. I looked up at the American flag on the TV screen as if it were a prize for my assimilation. It was the first day of school and I already blended in perfectly, like a jigsaw piece fitting snugly into a space where it was meant to be all along.
Later, in my middle school of 1400 students (30 percent of whom were Asian), we surrounded ourselves with enough other Asians to feel as if we were in an entirely yellow world. With fellow Asians at every turn, even the slightest differences were subject to criticism and fuel for gossip. Lunch table seatings were analyzed, social media scrutinized and evaluated, and “twinkies” — yellow on the outside and white on the inside — pitied and resented. An Instagram post with a brunette in a sea of blondes was a red flag. Even people who got highlights in their hair would cue whispers throughout the cafeteria, the phrase “wannabe white” hanging in the air. In truth, I was overcome by a misled sense of superiority. In the endless battle between conformity and “authenticity,” each side took pride in its stance while condemning the other, and I fought to prove that my choices were right.
I moved back to Korea the summer before I came to Deerfield after living in Virginia for six and a half years. Over those years, I had changed completely. When I stepped back in Korea, I realized that I did not really belong there. I saw kids in school uniforms using slang I couldn’t understand, streets swarming with fans of K-Pop stars I had never seen before, and hundreds of city names tangled up in the map of subway stations, none of which I could relate to. In the country I struggled to call my own, people pointed out my “American” clothes, “American” accent, and “American” attitude. Indeed, it was true: once I started viewing myself as an outlier, there was no going back.
By the time I came to Deerfield, I was overwhelmed with guilt whenever I called myself Korean. Curiously, when I introduced myself to new Asian students at Deerfield and explained the (stereotypically Asian) activities I took part in, some of them dubbed me the “epitome of Asian,” laughing. Of course, it was a fleeting title, but this memory became something of a manifesto to live up to — a foundation for my four years ahead. The nickname seeped into my head like water on dry ground. I was given an opportunity to reclaim my identity, so I took the offer.
Every day, I kept track of even the most trivial decisions to see if I had been “Asian enough.” If I get in the line for lasagna instead of ramen, does that mean I’m not Asian enough? If I don’t go to ASA meetings, does that mean I’m not Asian enough? If I don’t mention Korea in my Instagram bio, does that mean I’m not Asian enough? At the end of the day, I reflected on my performance in these numerous tests: I chose lasagna over rice, didn’t go to ASA meetings, and had an Instagram bio without the word “Korea” anywhere, and I told myself I failed. Looking down on other Asians’ similar “shortcomings” seemed like an easy escape from this disappointment. With my attention on someone else’s confusion and what I perceived to be a surrender to the American “melting pot,” I could shield myself from toxic self-criticism that threatened to tear down my entire lifestyle and identity.
My time at Deerfield around Asian students with incredibly diverse backgrounds has slowly torn down my misguided judgment. I am still in the process of eliminating these poisonous thoughts that have fogged my mind for so long. But to my friends or any Asian student who has sneered, “X is so white,” please do not lash out against others because of your own confusion. I’ve been there; it does no good for anyone. Being Asian in America — being an immigrant or a child of immigrants in America — hides a world of self-doubt. I know I am not the only one who struggles to come up with the name of a single place to describe where I’m from or debates calling myself “Asian” or “Asian-American,” because identity is not made of the names of places or labels; it is made of experiences. The path I have walked in my life cannot be distilled down to a few words, and neither can yours. You are not alone.