How Growing Up In California & Korea Helped Me Embrace Both My Asian & American Roots
I grew up in Danville, California. I was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I was probably one out of five Asian kids in the entire high school. It was something I was aware of, and felt uncomfortable with at the time, because I knew I looked different. The first time I remember consciously aware of this, though, was when I was exposed to makeup. It happened in middle school — My friends and I were playing with eye makeup, and it looked so different on me than it did on them. I felt so insecure about it that I asked my mom why my eyes looked smaller and why my lashes weren't as long as my friends' were. My parents always encouraged me to embrace my differences. They never limited me or put unnecessary pressure on my appearance, so at home, I always felt beautiful. Compared to my classmates, though, I felt like the odd person out.
Looking back, the reason for all of this insecurity probably had something to do with the fact that I also didn’t have any real Asian role models at the time. I was always into pop culture and looked up to pop stars, but in the '90s, American pop stars were predominantly white. A lot of the “ideal” women that I looked up to didn't look like me, so I would tried to take cues from their style as much as I could. I loved Victoria Beckham (and still do), and also went through a strong Britney Spears phase — after all, who didn't?
When I was 10 years old, My family moved from Danville back to Korea for a few years. I thought I'd be accepted there, that I'd finally fit in. Unfortunately, I ended up feeling more out of place. Koreans knew that we were American, because our accents were different and we were slightly more tanned than the average Korean kid. I found that kids would poke fun of us because we looked different to them, and because of that, I felt rejected in the very place I thought I'd feel at home.
Looking back, I realize that my upbringing in both white America and in Korea have shaped me in more ways than one. Even though I used to feel out of my element in both environments, I forced myself to adapt to both cultures, and did so with the help of my parents; it's because of their unwavering support and encouragement that I think beyond appearances. I'm very proud to be Korean-American, and my heritage influences me in everything I do — from how I apply my makeup, like I did all those years ago, down to the food I eat. Now, I feel blessed to be both a Korean-American and an American in Korea, because I've gained the confidence in myself to stand out in either place — and anywhere else I go.
Now, I'm a mother of a 3-year old Korean and Taiwanese-American daughter. Just like my parents did for me, I want to emphasize how beautiful she is, and be as encouraging as I can. As parents, we are teaching her to focus on the things she loves about herself, and that beauty is not just about what she sees on the outside. I will share my struggles with her and through that, I hope that she can find her own confidence through any struggles that she might experience with her physical identity: The part of her that is Korean, the part that is Taiwanese, and the part that is American. And, like I finally do, I hope she feels at home inhabiting all three.
As told to Sara Tan