This is Part 2 of Friendzoning my Asian Heritage. You can read Part 1 here.
When I was in kindergarten I became fascinated with Legos. At home my brothers had a huge red bucket full of them and I loved to build and make stuff when they weren’t. I picked up some clear neon Lego blocks and assembled them into a crescent, holding it up to my ear and speaking into it like a telephone. I gave it to my mum and asked her to speak into it.
But mid-question I paused.
I realised I didn’t know how to say telephone in Korean. My mouth opened but the word only came out as telephone.
I ran a command prompt but the word could not be found. It had been deleted from my vocabulary several days before. It was gone. Poof. Goodbye.
Words have a profound effect on me. But more than the words used is the delivery. What do your eyes say when your mouth says, “I’m sorry, I’m not really interested in you”? Can you feel your hands curl into fists by your side when you want to Make A Point? Do you scan their body first and see if they’re in shape or not? Perhaps this is what got me through being Korean and being illiterate because body language was how I communicated when my words could not.
Being illiterate was something I never addressed until earlier this year. But in terms of most of my speaking life I tried my best to avoid all forms of the Korean language. But life has its funny way of constantly booking me in for tests of language that I didn’t sign up for.
Answering the phone in Korean was probably my worst nightmare. It would start by gauging whether the person calling was Korean before the phone even rang. If I had the courage to pick it up and it was indeed a Korean, I would reply “Ah…yoboseyo!” (and then make a mad dash in my house to find my mum to hear the rest of whatever they had to say. Equally when my uncle or aunty would make their usual once-every-two- years phone call I would struggle to tell them exactly how old I was and make a guestimate. My favourite number and only number I could remember very well was 9, so I was always some derivative of 9.
Sometimes it came in handy. The Jehovah’s Witnesses knew we were a Korean family and for some reason would always send Korean Witnesses to knock on our door after school when my parents were just on their way home from work. I wasn’t allowed to answer the door anyway because I was some derivative of 9 and there were creeps in the neighbourhood. The JWs would knock and I would tell them through the unopened door I couldn’t speak Korean as they stuffed pamphlets through the side window (the irony in this is that this was very similar to what I did on my mission a few years into the future).
It was only till I started high school when my illiteracy seemed to form an uncomfortable itch on my back where I couldn’t reach.
My first teacher Mrs. Kim in high school was Korean. She was the epitome of what I wanted to be when I was older: beautiful, tall, well-respected, happily married and incredibly intelligent and kind. Like many other Asians I sustained the easiest A in my high school career through my bra size and my teacher told me I had no boobs like her. I had asked her to help me wrap a sarong over my uniform for a luau Youth Dance and she had looked me up and down. From then on she became my mentor, confidante and friend.
But there was something distinctively different between us.
She made spelling mistakes. While she spelled all the elements of the periodic table correctly (she was even named after a scientist) there were elements of her sentences that did not make grammatical sense.
But it didn’t really matter. Everything about her translated well amongst Korean students and English students. I admired that about her, as I had always been the token Asian friend and would play down my ‘Asian’ behaviours rather than be one who celebrated, immersed and blended the cultures and people into one.
One of her responsibilities was to lead the Korean Cultural Night. She put me in the MC/presenter script writing team. I loved writing so this seemed like a great opportunity. They needed Korean and English speakers as the event would attract a non-Korean audience too. But the group texts were always in Korean and at the time my phone was a Nokia brick phone and dealt even worse with receiving Korean messages than I did. All I got was little boxes. I was too embarrassed to admit that a) I had a brick phone in a slide phone era and b) even if I got a new phone I still wouldn’t be able to read the messages. I decided to pull out of the team.
A couple years later I decided to try again, but this time through dance. I was in the dance troupe at school and had always loved contemporary Jazz dance. But I was under the influence of the Hallyu /Korean Wave of K-Pop, Korean dramas and celebrities and the opportunity to do K-Pop dance seemed new and exciting. My friend asked if I could make her trio of dancers into a quad squad for an item for Korean Night 2012 and I gladly accepted. It would be my transition into the Korean community! The girls seemed lovely, and the dance seemed jumpy enough to look cute and outfits edgy enough to look sexy.
But our self-appointed dear leader took it upon herself to never speak to me face to face. Whilst there were only four of us, she spoke to me only via our mutual friend and I struggled to take her seriously. Ten minutes before our performance she turned around to me and for the first time directly talked to me. This was it. I said to myself. After all the countless rehearsals where she wouldn’t speak to me, we would finally unite because of this wonderful moment. We would fist bump and dance like this was the most important night of our lives.
“Kelly. Stand behind me. Don’t move. I don’t want anyone see you dance. Okay?”
I decided not to heed her advice and stood so that I could clearly be seen at all times. I also decided from then on that the Korean entertainment industry was not for me. And maybe the Korean community wasn’t really for me either. I never really clicked with those girls anyway. This was my destiny, forever floating in between two cultures, never part of one, never completely comfortable in the other. But If I couldn’t be comfortable in a culture, then where did I belong? What constituted my identity?
I looked back at my biology study guides across my desk, Korean eyeliners and shadows, my hundreds of tabs opened of NCEA past papers, online clothing stores and Korean celebrity gossip. I stared at my used anatomy books on my book shelf. I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision or if this moment was when I was sure I would become the ultimate Asian career stereotype.
Respectable. Prestigious. Difficult. Rewarding.
I will be a doctor.
That’s who I’m supposed to be.