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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Violence IS the answer

ejlemptyMe, back in my thuglet days
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Even though violence is a lot easier, I still try to use my words. But that rule only applies to me. Words Before Shoving is the exact opposite of what I’ve been teaching my daughter. We’ve had multiple conversations about what bullying looks like and why it’s unacceptable for anyone to shame, violate, or exert pressure over another person with words or actions. When Cal asked for an action plan to defend herself, I told her to punch that motherfucker in the face and then run to the nearest adult. If the bully is a tall adult, her reach could be an issue, so I offered other options like a shin or a kneecap.

Cal didn’t thank me for my tips. Obviously, our next serious conversation is going to address her appreciation skills. Instead, she asked if adults really bullied kids. “Come on, mommy, be real.”

“Adults bully everybody.”

That totally didn’t sound right. I can’t use my fists and, clearly, words aren’t really my thing, so I’ve been thinking a lot about relocating. To a cave. “Wait, back up. What I meant is that you shouldn’t accept cruelty or abuse from an adult just because they are an adult. Some adults aren’t nice to anyone, including kids.”

“If I hit, doesn’t that make me a bully too?”




“I don’t think that counts as an answer.”

When a situation becomes too confrontational, I take a moment to step back and gain clarity. I have to do that a lot with Cal because children who ask too many questions make parenting extremely difficult. You know what? I’m not giving up because I’m not a quitter. Also, I’ve already put in fourteen years, so I might as well just go the distance. The more time you put in, the more money your kids have to give you when you’re old. I’m not going to stop shopping at Whole Foods just because I turn 80 and/or Harv dies, so I let the eventual cash reward be my motivator.

The more I thought about Cal’s questions, the more I realized how difficult it is to explain the intricacies of conflict and reaction. I wish I could write resolution instead of reaction, but I reserve resolution for matters that have a clear ending, a solution that either brings peace of mind or, at the very least, enough closure to move away from the situation.

Sometimes, when we are faced with a bully, all we can do is react.

I am very familiar with conflict. Someone once told me that I am to blame for all of the conflict in my life. That every single badness I have ever crossed paths with is my own doing. That I have experienced more pain and drama than most people my age because I allow broken people into my sphere and tether them to my own darkness. I do not disagree.

Those words affected me deeply, but I understand now that bullies are paralyzed by their own brokenness. The density of their self-hate makes it impossible for them to shine, so they don’t want anyone else to sparkle either. He wanted to keep me dull and jagged and rough…I ain’t about that life. Checkmate, bitch.

As a kid, I didn’t question adult bullies because I thought that adults could do whatever they wanted and it was, like, totally legit. I didn’t use my fists OR my words with kid bullies when they threw gum in my hair or ching-chonged their way past me. Bullies always seem to know who to target because water seeks its own level. Weakness can always spot weakness.

My weakness turned into rage. I overreacted to everything and everyone because I was never, ever, ever going to let anyone fuck me over again. And…I became a bully. I just want to take this opportunity to apologize to the barista at Starbucks on Beverly Dr. for that time I lost my shit cuz it was dairy instead of soy. I’m so sorry.

I couldn’t condense all of these thoughts and experiences into one simple answer, so I sat with Cal and shared the unedited version.

I repeated over and over again that violence is never the answer. Except for those times when it is. “So I’m pushing them away with my hands more for a boundary than to give them a black eye?”

“YES. And if you did give them a black eye, at least it would match the color of their soul.” I didn’t say that last part even though I really wanted to. Part of using your words is knowing when to shut up.

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