I wasn’t going to write this article.
Normally, I publish about virtual and augmented reality and how technology can enhance our lives, so going deep within my personal experience and being vulnerable is something I truly have avoided, and have rarely spoken out about in the past. Frankly, I’ve never looked at myself as a voice for Asian people as I’ve always felt detached and disconnected from that identity.
One would look at me as a white person living in an Asian body.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with my Asian identity, and my story has many nuances and layers that I’m still working through to this day. But with the increase in violence, hate, and disdain towards the Asian community, I feel compelled to speak up about my experiences.
Here goes nothing…
Growing up, my home life was difficult. I had a traditional Korean father who was only in our lives early on but left a rampage of psychological trauma that ran deep. I remember as a child that the anger he had was palpable. He was a ticking time bomb who was very abusive and violent to my mother, my sister, and me and ended up leaving us with nothing when he took off back to South Korea. I equated the short, tumultuous experiences with my father in those early years to Korean and Asian culture. I hated it, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
The next phase in my childhood was a struggle, with lots of moving around. There wasn’t much stability, as the three of us were on welfare and had to stay with family or friends. My mother was a “tiger mom,” a strict Korean single parent, who had to work multiple jobs to get by. I was a shy and sensitive Asian kid living in a small, mostly-white town. I’d turn on the TV and rarely see anyone that looked like me. There were a few films and shows that featured strong Asian actors like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, but I always remember seeing the toxic Hollywood caricatures of Asian people: Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — the angry, tight-eyed, buck-toothed Japanese man with a stereotypical accent — or the nerdy math geek in high school.
I couldn’t really make the connection with being Asian.
Growing up, I always wished that I had bigger eyes and was white like everyone else in my small town. To blend in, I was conditioned to act like my stereotypical vision of a white person. As a second-generation South Korean, I had always looked down on my ethnicity as if it were a handicap. I was ashamed of my culture. I vividly remember how I would sheepishly bring friends over for dinner, wishing my mother didn’t have her strong Korean accent. I would ask her to cook something more “western” like burgers or spaghetti, worrying that my friends would think our food smelled weird.
Looking back, I find it ironic how Korean food is now seeing a renaissance, with many hip dining spots serving dishes like kimchi and Korean fried chicken.
The town that I grew up in, Fernie, British Columbia, was a picturesque spot nestled in the Rocky Mountains and other small towns. Fernie is a world-class ski resort, home to some of the best champagne powder in the world, but when I was there, it was a caucasian, blue-collar coal-mining town. It was like something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie: snow banks taller than buildings, a place where kids would play road or pond hockey for hours on end, and where the community was built around the hockey arena.
Although I have some fond memories of growing up in such a beautiful place, my relationship with the town was complicated by bullying and racism.
Kids would pull back their eyes and say “ching chang chong” or sing the classic “me chinese me no dumb” song. I would be called “ch*nk,” “n*p” or “g*ok.” (Though I almost appreciated being called “g*ok,” as it was more specific to Koreans. What a refined racist, I thought to myself.)
I was even beaten up because of my race. I once had a regular bully throw rocks at me while yelling “go back to your country,” and I ended up having to get stitches.
Worse than the physical scars were the emotional ones. I remember when a so-called “friend” I was playing with at the park turned on me the moment that another group of his friends started bullying me. He ended up joining the fun, spewing racist comments, and hitting me.
I really enjoyed sports as a kid, especially hockey. I grew numb to the racist slurs from the opposition, but the comments from my own teammates stung. Of course, there was the more subtle racism like, “Where are you from?” or “are you Chinese or Japanese” or “you must be great at math.” Sometimes I’d try to laugh it off; to try and fit in by joking about it or changing the subject. I remember as a youngster it would hit deep and I would cry for hours in my room. As I grew into a teenager I would compartmentalize it, but the odd time my anger would boil over and get me into fights at the local weekend “bush party.” I realized I would always have to keep my head on a swivel. There were people who hated me for being Asian, and they would go out of their way to beat the sh*t out of me.
As I grew older I continued to resist anything to do with Asian culture. Sometimes I would even say racist comments about Koreans or other Asian people, as I tried to embody being as white as I could be. Hell, even my friends would often say that I was whiter than them — the classic “twinkie” or “banana” — and I relished it. I felt that I didn’t have much of a choice; I was a product of my own environment. But while my personality mirrored whiteness, I was still Asian on the outside, and I knew that there was something missing inside me.
I ended up venturing out to Vancouver in 2007 in search of not only a career path but also to chip away at my outlook on life. Slowly, my relationship with my identity began to change.
Vancouver has a large Asian population, and it was my first taste of seeing and meeting people who looked like me. Though it was initially still difficult to feel connected to the Asian community, I began to grasp who I was, and the person I wanted to become, in spite of the trauma, perfectionism, and anxiety that have held me back. Through therapy and mindfulness techniques, I began to reflect on my experiences and give myself some compassion. “Compassion is, by definition, relational,” says author Kristin Neff. “Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with,’ which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.”
The pandemic forced me to sit with these thoughts and pulled me into understanding my culture.
I dug into researching past Asian oppression, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps in Canada and the U.S. during World War II. I learned more about Korea including its history of poverty and asked my mother about her experiences — her intergenerational trauma and the events that shaped who she is. As a big food lover, I’ve eaten at famous Korean American chef David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, watched his Netflix show Ugly Delicious, and stumbled upon his podcast — not just because I wanted to learn more about food but because his own struggles with identity growing up in Virginia have resonated with me.
Recently, the social-audio platform Clubhouse has given me an opportunity to connect with others on a similar path, sharing their own stories while providing safe spaces for me to tell mine. I’ve realized that I’m not the only one on this journey.
The March shootings in Atlanta, the rise of racial violence especially against senior Asian women, and the exponential increase in hate towards the AAPI community because of the “China virus” have outraged me. It brought me back to my own struggles as a victim of racism and has compelled me to stop standing on the sidelines and to start stepping up for the community that I have pushed away my entire life.
I’ve been on a long journey of self-discovery, and there’s still a lot of work that I need to do — but now, finally, I feel like I’m on the right path.
To the Asian (AAPI) community: I stand with you! I’m sorry for being ashamed, and for resisting my connection to you. For Asians that have long struggled with their own identity, for the AAPI community and all marginalized communities that feel like their voices aren’t heard, for anyone that witnesses racism, for and allies who are here for us — please stand up against bigotry and help end discrimination. We can’t let hate win.
I truly hope that the portrait of my struggle with identity can help others open up and tell their story, and share their experiences with the world. Now, I’m proud to be South Korean. I’m proud to be Asian.
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About the Author: Dan Burgar (Twitter, Instagram) is a leader in virtual and augmented reality, he focuses on democratizing the technology to change the world. Dan is the co-founder at Shape (building 3D, VR, AR for top brands), president at Vancouver VR/AR Association (building and growing Vancouver into one the top VR/AR ecosystems in the world), advisor to creators and startup leaders and a contributor to publications like TechCrunch.
Featured Image via Sabrina Fenster of StreetScout (left), Dan Burgar (right)