My grandparents came to live with us when I was eight because my dad moved back to Korea to take another job. That was a turning point for me because I was a banana until then—in every sense of the word. (Banana refers to someone who is yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It’s certainly not the most elegant or PC term, but it was a commonly used reference growing up.) I didn’t speak any Korean. I didn't know much about the culture. I don't think that I really took pride in it either. At that age, I desperately wanted to be the same as everyone else in my class, which was white. But my grandmother opened my eyes to the world of K-Pop, Korean dramas, food and culture. I fell in love. That's how I started learning the language and I quickly became immersed.
My dad eventually came back to the States, which prompted another move for our family. After a short stint in California, we ended up in a small town in Maryland during my sophomore year of high school. It was a conservative town and not very diverse. I have this appalling memory of when my class did senior superlatives. I was given “hottest import,” and I had to accept the award in front of the entire student body. Along with a certificate, they gifted me a bag of rice and chopsticks. All this to say that I’ve been in many different environments throughout my life.
Looking back, I never felt like I fully belonged anywhere or to any one group. I recently went to Korea, and even if I'm wearing Korean clothes and I'm speaking the language and I'm with my Korean friends or relatives, people can still tell that I'm from America. I asked my cousin about this once. “How can you tell?” “It's just the way that you carry yourself. It's the way you walk. It's even in your facial expressions. Americans are more open and expressive when they talk.” It was an interesting realization, to feel so proud of my Korean culture and heritage, but to visit “the motherland” and people could tell right away that I'm not from there.
I’ve come to peace with this though. I am as Korean as I am American, and I love being able to pull different parts from each culture into my work, into my relationships and in all the ways I show up in the world.