Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
It was in the crowded food courts of Manhattan’s KTown – where the smells of fresh kimbap and hot tofu stews are unrelentingly mouthwatering – that I came to appreciate the power of good storytelling to connect us to otherwise unspoken truths. I would sit on a high barstool by a window facing out over a bustling 32nd Street and barely notice when the bright neon karaoke bar signs would relieve the setting sun of its duties. My head would be buried in “Pachinko” or “Native Speaker” as their pages, recounting wars and the legacies of han, collected chili paste stains and creases. Scrolling through my phone with one hand and boba in the other, I discovered the earnest voices of other young Asian American writers across the internet who expressed feeling just as invisible as I often had. And I too cried in H Mart before realizing I was not alone. These stories and many others, beautiful and matter-of-fact in their presentation, humbled me with their honesty and reconnected me to that which I once rejected but has made me.
Storytelling was never really part of our relationship throughout my upbringing, and the two of us hardly ever spent much time speaking directly with one another. But over time, the stories of our family unfolded on their own just the same.
When I was little, I remember being puzzled at how brief and impersonal your phone calls to Halmoni seemed to me, a Western child by birth who was ready to offer physical affection at any opportunity. Every night without fail, you’d run through some variation of the same few questions before hanging up: How are you? Are you eating? Did you go for a walk? Have you seen the doctor? I rolled my eyes at the tours of the grocery store aisles you insisted you take me on as you marveled at the many brand options of pickled vegetables. I could not understand the sudden and visceral enthusiasm with which you described Jay Gatsby or Frances Ha. And though I knew I was supposed to, I was hardly ever careful about taking my shoes off before entering our house.
Growing up mixed race in SoCal, my blend of genetic features was not unusual, nor was the experience of feeling caught between worlds. When I was young, I asked you to enroll me in a school that would teach me to count and say “thank you” in a language you yourself had forgotten over the course of a quaint St. Louis upbringing and years of chasing American Dreams. But I quickly backed out upon realizing I was the only white girl in the classroom. At thirteen, with your encouragement, I chased my own dreams of being a ballerina all the way to New York City, where, surrounded by long, blonde cherubs, I learned that I was not actually white either. In Precalculus, Mr. Kim would tell those of us blessed with the last name Lee we were lucky, because if we had to be “pathetic” Koreans, at least we could pretend to be Chinese. Yet among the closely preserved circles of Korean PTA moms, my blue-eyed mother was an unwelcome trespasser unable to raise me to be a good Asian girl.
By the time I left for college, I had little sense of what I had in common with you, what I had inherited from my immigrant roots beyond a desire to belong somewhere and an inescapable fear I did not. I felt shame both in not being Asian enough to confidently take part in my cultural inheritance, as well as in being Asian enough to know I would never comfortably fit in with polite White suburbia. When I arrived on campus, I was awkwardly greeted by two confused girls who represented the AAPI student union. Upon confirming they had my last name correct, they hesitantly offered me a party favor bag full of Hi-Chews and instant ramen packets before leaving me to unpack my room. That night, in a futile attempt to reclaim control over how the world saw me and disguise my lack of belonging anywhere, I anglicized the spelling of my last name on social media, exchanging the last “e” for an “igh.”
The next four years of my education, however, would not permit me to continue hiding. I had decided I wanted to be a journalist to tell stories that would shed light on overlooked voices and lead people to interrogate themselves. My time at college coincided with the rise of Black Lives Matter and an astonishing wave of beautiful Black pride that deepened this intention but confronted me with my own hypocrisy. The more I read, the more I was forced to realize that though I desired to be a champion of rich and inclusive storytelling, I had already silenced a sea of voices I could not hear growing up, including yours and mine. By the end of those four years, I felt guilty for having attempted to erase half of myself and began to wonder what stories I had failed to take pride in.
It was those books and essays and the subtle traits of Asians I devoured on the streets of KTown that began to reveal the parts of me that seemed to belong somewhere. The calm and poignant words of my favorite fictional authors and editorial writers brought new life to histories I’d never bothered to study and unspoken experiences I recognized all too intimately. They told stories of skilled assimilators who felt like spies among their own people, mothers who outlived generations of sons tortured by their Korean blood, personal explorations of identity among children of immigrants, and everything from marriage proposals to second generation revelations in the aisles of H Mart. They articulated the passions, quiet labors, drive, discipline, resilience, humor, and warmth that I recognized in our own family and friends, and that I too wanted to write about for others to see and embrace.
The more stories I read, the more I began to see the evidence of Korean heritage I had spent my life fearing both was and was not there: My preference for scissors over knives in the kitchen. My habit of carefully cutting up fruit when words are insufficient to convey how much I care. Even the depth of love I too now feel in a 10 second, daily phone call to run through a checklist of someone’s health. The 10-pound supply of kimchi in my fridge. The leap of faith you pushed me to take when I booked a one way ticket to dance in New York. And the neatly stacked shoe rack outside my door.
As I have come to understand the kinds of stories I want to share with the world, I wanted you to know that I see now how these pieces of me I can finally take pride in – and that I hope you can as well – come from you.
Feature Image by Grace Kim