SMFH (Notes on Being a Bad Korean American)

I don’t like to boast about my own talents because praise always seems more legit when it comes from an outside source, but not enough people have appreciated this skill, so I’m just going to spotlight it myself. My box taping skills are pretty incredible. If you receive a package from me in the future, please take a minute to notice the crisp end cuts and the crisscross pattern I use for extra security.

Moving something like 20 times in 33 years has allowed me to hone this talent. These moves include 2 continents, 5 states, and 12 different cities. I’m not including the cities I briefly called “home” during my time as a runaway. Whenever possible, I like to set boundaries to keep the chaos in my life to a minimum. As I started adding up all the pieces of my previously nomadic life, I decided that the defining mark for officially claiming a residence as “mine” was whether or not I received mail there.

People ask most about my childhood in Texas. “Were you the only Asian kid in your school?” “Did you experience a lot of racism?” “Does everyone own a pair of cowboy boots in Texas?” “How come you don’t have a drawl?”

Everything else is easy to answer, but the racism question always stumps me. The truth is, I experienced almost no grief from my predominantly white community as I was growing up. But I’ve experienced a lot of it. From other Korean Americans.

And because my answer isn’t something that people expect or even want to hear, I just shake my head and say nothing at all. I’ve been too afraid to talk about the grief I’ve encountered from my own people, because all of my poor life choices already make me a Bad Korean. My biggest fear is that by speaking out about my disillusionment, I’ll travel to the place of no return- Really Bad Traitor Korean.

I’m finally okay with that. The truth is not always pretty, but lies are much uglier than an imperfect truth.

If I had to pick one word to sum up my experience as a Korean American woman, it would be this: Side-eye.

As openminded and modernized as Koreans like to think we’ve become, it’s still a culture of longstanding traditions and molds. And anyone who doesn’t follow these unspoken rules is shamed, vilified, and ostracized. They get the side-eye for bringing shame to their family and for not living up to their potential.

The few times I’ve tried to bring up these negative feelings with my Korean friends, I pretty much get the same response, “But, Elizabeth, how can you be so racist against your own kind. You need to have a more forgiving heart.” In the world of comebacks, if that’s the strongest argument against a stereotype, it means the stereotype wins.

Supposedly, I think this way because I’m a “whitewashed banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). I have “too many” non-Korean friends, and I don’t go to a Korean church because I’m “too good for that.” Fellow Koreans want to know if my mother has “gotten over” the fact that I married a Chinese man. “It must be hard for your mom not to be able to communicate freely with your husband.” They also want to know if my family has forgiven me for my reckless youth and the teen pregnancy, multiple drug addictions, and college drop-out status that resulted from years of rebellion.

I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what qualifies as banana-esque white people attributes because I’m too busy trying to embrace and accept myself, and I don’t want to define a quality as Korean or Other. That’s stupid as fuck, because at the end of the day, I’m trying to own ALL of me despite the category each piece fits into. I will NOT be shamed for who I am.

I don’t pick friends based on skin color. And I don’t go to a Korean church because the last time I did, the pastor’s wife told me to think about leaving my daughter at home because I was setting a Bad Korean example for the youth group kids as an unmarried mom. When I joined a fellowship group for another Korean church earlier this year, I was told that the way I dress reveals too much cleavage. I paid for these bitches. I will show them off if I choose.

And my “poor, shamed” family is relieved that I found anyone at all to marry me. They’re still working through my colorful past, but I’ve set the bar so low that these days, any small victory is, like, a big fucking deal to them.

I hope my daughter isn’t seen as a Bad Korean through association. But I’m not holding my breath on that one. I’d be giving credit where credit simply isn’t due. Just because my own experiences have not been positive also doesn’t mean I’m actively poisoning Cal’s mind either. It’s still our blood and history and heritage, and for that, I try to honor it. Even if I don’t like it.

P.S. I didn’t even get a chance to touch on Korean men. Like my ex-boyfriend who became enraged because I loved my daughter more than I loved him. Or because I didn’t offer to wash the dishes at his parent’s house. And asked me to wear long sleeves so his family wouldn’t see my “slutty tattoos.” I guess I’ll have to write another post about being a Bad Korean in the future.

P.P.S. Well, this transition is awkward, but on a bright note: There were so many amazing Six-Word Memoirs in last week’s giveaway post that I resorted to using names in a hat and Cal’s Winner Picking Hands to choose. Missljk, please email me at flourishinprogress at gmail with your mailing address and the state you’d like.

P.P.P.S. Not turned off by my Bad Korean ways? Then let’s stay connected until I offend you in another way.
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  • Lynellekw

    I hate terms like “banana”. Where I used to live (central Australia), I’d occasionally hear people described as “coconuts” with much the same sort of logic. That is, if you do/say/think something that WE, the people with roughly the same skin colour as you, don’t approve of (ranging voicing concerns about alcohol/violence issues through to living in town rather than a remote community) it can only mean that you do/say/think it because you’re not really one of us. Everything you do/say/think is therefore suspect. It’s demeaning and invalidates genuine personal experience, builds an “us & them” attitude and demonstrates sheer unwillingness to engage with someone any further than skin-deep. Bleh. People are people. Stupid people.

  • Natasha

    Ah yes, hubs got called a ‘banana’ once. And for this I love his mother to pieces, because that petite Vietnamese women told the name caller off in so many colorful terms, and if that person had a problem with her son, his extremely white blue eyed pasty wife, or their 3 f-ing adorable kids, he could jump off a cliff. So there. Being an ‘ethnically diverse’ couple, we catch a little slack every once in awhile.
    Also, you are so not messing Cal up. From your posts, you and her seem like amazing, amazing people. Stand strong.

  • Jennifer Clark

    My experiences with various Asian cultures have led me to the conclusion they tend to be racist and stiff-necked about living up to traditions. But only to their own. I mean, sure, whilst working for a Japanese company I was subjected to racist, chauvinist bullshit, but I was swimming in their pond, so to speak. I cannot describe the abuse a Chinese boyfriend (ABC, thus second class) was put thru when his father abandoned the family. He mostly dated Caucasians to escape that crap.

    I will adopt you into my English-German American family. “No news is good news, call us if you need us, go live your life how you choose. Love you!”

    I will never give you grief about anything in the past. Moving on…..

  • Lynellekw

    Also – box-taping skills are an accomplishment to be proud of. No-one wants a sloppily-taped box.

  • AgentOtis

    I sympathize. Being black from the suburbs, not viewing whitey as “blue eyed devils”, being willing to date women no matter their race/ethnicity and various other things gets me the black equivalent of the side-eye – the “Mmm Hmm”, the sell-out, the Oreo, occasionally the “Uncle Tom”and any other epithet you can think of.

    It’s amazing how consistently any of us who aren’t white are ostracized or whispered about by our own “people” for not conforming to stereotypes or complying with the unspoken rules.

  • Laura Bezzeg

    You may join my family if you like, I’m New England white bread, married (3rd time) to a hungarian-hispanic, 3 biological children are biracial (2nd hubby black) 2 non-biologic children hispanic. No one can tell which kids are mine and which are not, they are all pretty much the same color. My children have often gotten the coconut treatment from people inside their family because they have beautiful coffe with cream skin and one has “good” hair. A lot of times your own family group is the worst at the racism towards you.

  • Misty

    YOU’RE KOREAN?? I’m sorry, but we can’t be friends any more. My white family would look down on me for having an Asian friend. I’ve gotta keep it redneck over here all the time, y’all.
    You know I think you are amazing. And really, my opinion is all that matters! Not the entire Korean community that you are part of but apparently disappointing. They should be proud to have you in their tribe. If anyone can show what hard work and redemption look like, it’s you. The best way to show all the haters is to keep doing what you’re doing. Did I mention that you are amazing? Because, yeah.

  • belle

    You are a great mom. I would pick you if I can.

  • LC

    As a fellow Korean American, all I can say is I FEEL YOUR PAIN! I think it’s embedded in a lot of old school Koreans to be overly criticizing (at all times), to talk shit about things you could be doing better (again at all times), and to point out all of the fucked up things about you (every time they see you).

    • JeeK


  • kimchi_mom

    *sigh* where to begin?! I grew up in a small rural town in NY state and I resented my parents for it for the longest time for moving us out of New York City in the early 70’s. BUT it was only just recently when I realized that it was probably the best thing my parents ever did. I had a pretty “normal” childhood; some would say boring. I only really hung out with other Korean Americans once I went to college. Talk about a culture shock!

    But frankly, I feel a little more scrutinized by the “newer” influx of Korean immigrants (80’s and after). I find that they have retained more of the traditions and social mores of the motherland. What do you think?

  • alexandra

    This is the truth as you know it. And cultural taboos exist because people don’t like the truth exposed. Making people suffer inside themselves, quiet, running away to avoid the reality, feeling alone and not solidly belonging anywhere. It is difficult, and I am happy and proud, for how you are here, to say you exist… in your own way, and not the way others wish you would. You have accomplished a lot, be very proud. It takes tough character to risk judgment.

  • djchuang

    Thanks for sharing a slice of your story here, very poignant, and racism is alive and well here in the US and around the world.. I find that racism gets addressed more vehemently in the US than other parts of the world, and perhaps having freedom of speech allows us to do that more.. and social media opens things up too.. keep using your voice well

  • Emelie Samuelson

    It amazes me sometimes how rude people can be. You have an amazing husband and a wonderful kid. On top of that, you’re pretty damn awesome. Everything else should be irrelevant.

  • JanaStopMe

    I had exactly the same type of comments when I
    attempted to go back to church again after being ousted for not living up to
    their standards years earlier. I should have learned my lesson the first time.
    I’ve never been told by anyone that I reveal too much cleavage – I’m kind of
    sad about that

  • mommyonthespot

    Awesome post! My favorite part is how you are too busy accepting yourself to be worried about what other are saying about you. And the whole thing about the lies being uglier than than the truth – yes.

  • Angela

    Dear Elizabeth, i’m also Korean and have also felt ostracized and ridiculed at church from fellow Koreans, for not being “Korean” enough and not speaking fluently. You are not alone in trying to figure out who you are in terms of race and ethnicity and culture. At the end of the day I’ve found that my life experiences has shaped who I am, my ethnicity is a part of my identity and will always be who I am. I try not to let other people’s assumptions about my Korean identity put me into a category, no, I am not the supreme authority on all things Korean, I have some opinions and thoughts based on life experiences, but don’t try and label me as only Korean, I am also a mother, wife, professional, sister, daughter and friend. Thank you for always being so honest and open, I’m trying to also do that, but it goes against all the things my mother taught me about being ashamed about talking openly about any family issues or problems, still trying to break that taboo with my own children. Please keep writing and sharing, you help others when you open up about your own life, thank you.

  • RaeAnn

    Elizabeth, I love you for who you are. The colourful past, all and everything. You are who you are today because of them, and I am glad! Because, if otherwise, I would never have ever known such a wonderful person known as Elizabeth!
    And trust me, Cal IS and will be BETTER because of YOU.
    Good luck and lots of love!

  • anastasiaC

    I’m of Greek background and growing up in the Greek
    community in Sydney, Australia was just the same…so much pressure to conform
    and be a ‘good Greek girl’ one that makes her parents proud (in others eyes…eyes
    that have no idea about what they are
    really seeing…)

    It all changed for me when I actually went back to visit the
    ‘homeland’ …my parents birthplace and boy what a wake up call…there is no
    such thing as a ‘Good Greek girl’…we are all the same, good or bad, right or
    wrong… I just discovered your blog – your honest writing is refreshing!

  • Doc

    I just discovered your blog. I appreciate your candor, and I think you are doing a great service to others describing your experiences and discussing the taboo. Hang tough sister!

  • JeeK

    I wish I had seen this post years before (even before it was written). I think it would’ve definitely helped me to accept my own self-identity.

    I know I’m a bad Korean. Not necessarily in the sense that I didn’t understand the traditions and customs or whatnot, but more in the sense that Korean culture is very much about conforming, and if there’s one thing that I had trouble with, it was conforming. I was always the kid that marched to their own drummer, and so to suddenly feel like I had to keep certain parts of me under wraps to please the general public was a bit of a slap across the face for me.

    It’s very formal, which I am not, and very image conscious, which also I am not. I love my culture and my heritage. I love where I come from, but I completely understand the negative aspects that come with it as well. I’ve struggled my whole life to try and find a peaceful balance between my heritage, who I am, and the two different societies I grew up in.

    You’re not a bad Korean American. You’re just doing you. Keep doing that. I’m just glad to know that I’m not alone in how I feel or my struggles, and if you ever need someone to vent to about the pitfalls of Korean culture and society (cause I totally understand the whole thing with Korean church and Korean men and the like), I’d love to talk with you. It’s hard to find someone who understands what your blog entry is trying to say sometimes.