By Sunwoo Lee
The first time I felt my colored-ness, I was in a hotel in New Jersey during Thanksgiving break. An international student from Korea, I did not have an American home to enjoy turkey dinner — thus the hotel. In the elevator, a group of white kids held their noses and hurled insults: “Ew, kimchi! Smelly!”
The incident was striking for someone who had never seen herself as a person of color before. I had lived most of my life in an extremely ethnically and culturally homogenous society where I was luckily a member of the majority race. You could say I enjoyed something like “white privilege” at home. Being a target of a racial slur in Korea as an ethnic Korean was almost unthinkable.
When I came to the U.S. to attend boarding school, I was aware of the U.S.’s racist history, but the idea of being personally discriminated against still evaded me. In my mind, I was Korean Korean — an international student, a visitor. I believed that different cultural expectations applied to me, and that my foreigner status somehow made me immune from domestic racism.
None of this mattered, of course, to the white kids who called me slurs.
Being called a racial slur for the first time in my life was a solemn reminder of racism’s absurdity and its gross indifference toward individuality. My complicated identity was reduced to one label, “Asian.” Furthermore, it highlighted a mismatch between what I thought I was and what others saw me as. Although I did not identify as Asian American at the time — I was assumed to be Asian American and treated as one by default.
For some time, I disliked being lumped into the same identity group as Asian Americans. I must admit this was partly because it was easier to navigate social class in a New England boarding school as an international student than as an American person of color. International students were rarely on financial aid, and if anything wealthy enough to pay not only tuition but also donations. In a school where forming friendship was closely linked to increasing social capital, one could easily conclude that there was more to gain by being nice to an international elite than a middle- or low-income POC. Indeed, despite WASP culture dominating the school, I felt a greater sense of belonging upon knowing that Seoul, Korea was the third most common hometown among my high school peers, just after Greenwich, Connecticut and New York City. Hence, there were times I found myself emphasizing that I was actually from Korea.
Aside from this vanity-inspired reason, I resisted the Asian American label because I saw the conflation of Asians and Asian American as a symptom of U.S.-centrism. Not all Koreans in the world are Korean Americans with experiences unique to the U.S. Likewise, the POC experience is not something shared globally by all those who are not white. Koreans living in Korea don’t see themselves as POC simply because they enjoy the privilege of being the dominant ethnic majority. This view explains why Korean nationals are often unsympathetic toward the struggles of the AAPI community and ethnic minorities in general.
The same time the South Korean Foreign Affair Ministry decried the hate crimes against Asians following the Atlanta spa shootings (four victims were of Korean ethnicity, including a South Korean citizen), migrant workers in Korea were forced to undergo COVID testing within days despite the National Human Rights Commission of Korea ruling it a serious human rights violation. Migrant workers in Korea, especially women from Southeast Asia, are vulnerable to labor trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Additionally, while Korean Americans are seen favorably in Korea, ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship, namely Joseonjok, are neglected by the Korean government whether they reside in China or Korea. Further, Koreans harbor strong anti-Chinese sentiments. To no one’s surprise, top comments for the Korean coverage of the Atlanta shooting blamed “Chinese atrocities all around the world” for violence against Asians. I hope that the ethnic Koreans in Korea who have rarely been disadvantaged on the basis of race put themselves in the shoes of other racial minorities in light of the tragedy in Atlanta.
There is a reason we say racists are ignorant. I still think that Asian American and Asian are distinct identities, with the caveat that the boundary between the two is porous. I myself embody the slippages between the two identities. But the 21-year-old gunman and the white kids who called me racial slurs cannot handle all this nuance. In their eyes, I am very much in the same boat as all Asian-looking people. So we might as well fight back together. Expressing and validating complex identities can go hand in hand with fighting racism in solidarity with all kinds of racially targeted people of the world.
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