Female Korean-American Teenager
Hi, I’m Caroline, and as the title states, I’m a female Korean-American teen currently living in a town that’s 80% white. The majority of East Asians living here are Japanese, and over the years, there have been a few sprinklings of new Korean or Chinese families moving in. For the most part, however, my family was the only Korean family in town when we first came here. This heavily impacted my childhood - made me ashamed of my culture and ethnicity - and of course, the racism that I constantly faced from classmates, parents, teachers, and sometimes even friends, was exhausting.
It means so much to me to see Korean-American characters - or any person of color, really - be represented in today’s books, TV shows, movies, etc. For once, I’d like to see fully-fleshed out, complex characters who are people of color - not just the 2D stereotypes that too many forms of media put them out to be. So if a few more writers out there become less ignorant due to this post, I’ll be forever grateful.
So. Let’s do this thing!
Most East Asians represented in today’s media have extremely straight, practically black hair. And while it’s true that straight, black hair is the most common trait regarding hair amongst Koreans, there are (*gasp*) a few of us with curly hair, too. (Moi.) To the Koreans I knew, anyways, my hair was always an object of envy. I’d frequently be asked if I got the perm, and whenever I said I had naturally curly hair, there’d be a lot of “oh, how lucky"s going around. That made me feel pretty special, only it’d last for a short while before the reality of living in a mostly-white neighborhood kicked in, where my curly hair was usually made fun of. (Usually saying that Asians don’t have curly hair. Whatever. On the whole scale of racist comments I’ve been sent, the one about my hair is the least bothersome. When I was a kid, it bothered me a lot, though, and I think to some extent, it still bothers me at least a teeny bit - I actually started to straighten my hair when I went into eighth grade. Yup, give me the Hypocrite of the Year Award. I still need some adjustments.)
Amongst Koreans, there’s also a lot of emphasis on having a small face, long and skinny legs, a fairly short torso…essentially, Koreans thrive for the typical European figure. Koreans, however, have pretty round faces, short and stalky legs, and long torsos for the most part. (With the exception of a few - and of course, the option for plastic surgery is always out there. I shit you not, almost every Korean woman I know have at least either (a) known someone who went through plastic surgery or (b) have been in plastic surgery myself. It’s a big deal in South Korea. My grandma had surgery done to her eyes twice, my mom’s friend had surgery done to her nose and her eyes, and my aunt’s brother is actually a plastic surgeon who does operations a number of times a day.)
Growing up, I wore the typical American clothing - except for on special occasions, like my first birthday or New Year’s. On those days, I’d wear a hanbok, which is a traditional Korean gown with lots of colors and embroidery. The men would wear traditional clothing as well, and it’s customary for Koreans to wear these especially on New Year’s. Now, since my brothers and I have outgrown our hanboks, we just stick to American clothes on New Year’s.
Though I tell all my white friends and classmates that my first language is English, my first language was actually Korean. I don’t say that my first language is Korean anymore because firstly, I don’t want people to think of me as someone who only speaks Korean and secondly, I don’t know how to speak Korean anymore. It’s sad, really, because I can understand Korean much better than my siblings and my cousins, and there are moments when I can almost remember a phrase, but as of now, speaking the language is an extreme difficulty and embarrassment to me, especially when I’m surrounded by elders. (And usually, the only things I can say to them are ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.) It’s frustrating to speak to older Koreans and know exactly what they’re saying but only being able to respond in English.
That being said, growing up, I often had to translate - more specifically, re-translate - for my mother, who didn’t know English at all when I was a child. She used to feel incredibly lonely for it, and often times, she’d feel frustrated and cry about how all of the white mothers acted like she was an idiot for not knowing English. As an extreme social butterfly, this really hurt my mother, and it hurt her even more when her own children were starting to distance themselves because of the language barrier. I remember having to sit with my mother on the couch and help her learn English - and it was, to be honest, one of the saddest experiences I’ve ever had to go through. She’d grow frustrated with herself, and she’d hate every bit of it, I could tell, but she kept going because she wanted to be there for her kids. (She eventually got her American citizenship, too, but by doing so, she had to give up her Korean citizenship. Most East Asian countries don’t allow dual citizenships.) And though I don’t speak Korean anymore, I actually continue to re-translate things for my mother - in other words, I just have to simplify the English a little bit to get her to understand what someone else is saying. (This method works for anyone else who is struggling with English. Simplify the words, that’s all - but don’t treat the person with disrespect.)
And, of course, there’s the very exhausting series of questions that come with being Korean. The most annoying and frustrating are (but not limited to) -
- “Oh, so are you South Korean or North Korean?” (Bruh. If I was North Korean, there’s a VERY slim chance I’d be in America right now. I’d still be stuck in North Korea, wouldn’t I?)
- “But what’s your nationality?” (American.) “No, I mean your REAL nationality.“
- “What are you? Japanese? Chinese? Vietnamese?” (For some reason, NO ONE GUESSES KOREAN.)
- “Wow, your English is great!” (???)
- “English is your best subject? Wait, then what about math?” (…)
- “I bet you’re super smart!” (…I study hard, yeah, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Korean.)
- “Oh, my God, Koreans are SO hot.” (Ew. Times a thousand.)
Dating and Relationships
My parents are pretty strict about my nonexistent love life. If my dad had it his way, I wouldn’t be allowed to date until I’m out of college. But for real talk, my mom’s actually the one who’s much pickier on who I date. She told me since I was a kid that it’d be best for me to date (and marry) another Korean-American. She means this out of the goodness of her heart - mostly that she wants me to marry someone who I can connect with culturally. (“Regular Koreans will be too grounded into Korea. You need someone with similar experiences.”) My dad just doesn’t want me to date anyone Japanese - and while I find this wrong, it’s mostly due to the bad blood between Korea and Japan. (World War II, the Korean War, comfort women, etc.)
And because of this prejudice against Japanese people, my dad always found it difficult to accept that I had a few Japanese friends. He often wanted me to stray away from other Eastern-Asians in general, American or not. (Unless, of course, it was for dating/marrying.) This was because he didn’t want me to become a part of “THAT Asian group”, which, let me just say, is pretty sad, because when there’s a group of white kids hanging around, no one finds it strange. When there’s a big group of x friends of x race, it’s suddenly SUCH an odd sight.
This is where I try to restrain myself for real.
The most common foods you’ll find at a Korean dinner table are rice, kimchi (which is basically spicy pickled cabbage - lots of Koreans eat it, but I personally never did. And I still don’t. Oops), kim (pronounced keem - basically roasted and dried, slightly salted seaweed strips. Which are really good), along with a number of side-dishes and maybe one big, main dish. (Mostly meat.)
Favorite Korean dishes include
- seolleongtang, a lightly salted broth with oxtail meat, or sometimes some other kind of meat. There’s usually a sprinkling of scallions, and rice or noodles can be served inside.
- kalbi, the famous Korean BBQ. Just imagine meat being prepared directly in front of you served with veggies. Delicious, but be warned - your burps will stink - and I mean stink - afterwards. Its variant, kalbi jim, are slow-cooked short ribs served often with Korean-style steamed potatoes and carrots. Just as good.
- tangsuyuk, sweet and sour (mostly sweet, I think, anyways,) pork. The pork is covered with a batter that is fried and then typically dunked in sweet sauce. Some people like to have the sauce on the side so they can dip it in - and still save the crunch. It’s a personal preference.
- buchimgae, otherwise known as Kimchi Pancakes. Korean pancakes are not your typical breakfast pancakes. They’re made in a pan, like regular breakfast pancakes, but inside, there’s an assortment of seafood, veggies, and in this version, kimchi. (There are spicy and non-spicy versions).
- tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes. Very chewy and again, pretty spicy.
Favorite Korean sweets/desserts/snacks include
- tteok, sweet rice cakes. There are many different kinds of rice cake, usually with flavors of classical red bean or green tea. The favorite of many children is the classical rainbow tteok, where the rice cakes are dyed with strips of green, pink, and yellow. The flavor of plain tteok is actually not too sweet, but it’s still a very classic, very traditional and cultural Korean dessert that cannot be skipped over.
- yakbap, a very special type of sweet rice cake all on its own. This is a favorite amongst many, and the rice is prepared in a way that it’s sticky and brown. Pine nuts, chestnuts, and jujubes as well as raisins are mixed in.
- patbingsu, a frozen dessert. Think of an evolved form of shave ice with toppings like red bean paste, nuts, and fruit. Extremely popular in South Korea, not to mention one of its most iconic desserts.
- saeoosnek, shrimp-flavored crackers. Again, a very popular snack that’s exactly what it sounds like. Crackers. With. Shrimp. Flavoring.
- choco pie, a popular chocolate-marshmallow cake that looks similar to America’s moon pie. Extremely popular amongst children.
In my family, we never celebrated the direct Korean celebrations, but we always celebrated the Korean New Year the traditional way. Again, usually dressed in hanbok, children (and parents) would bow down to the oldest members of the family and pay their respects with a traditional phrase. They also have to perform a special bow three times while saying this phrase. (There are two different bows - one for men, one for women.) Once doing so, the elder usually gives a blessing to the family members and presents them with an envelope of money, very similar to the traditional Chinese red envelope they receive on their New Year’s celebration.
Another traditional Korean celebration my family - and many other Korean families, I’m sure - celebrate is the 100 Days birthday.
A brief history lesson - back when Korea was suffering due to the economy failing, it was a rare occurrence to ever see a child live past one hundred days. Once one hundred days had passed, then the family would rejoice and throw a large celebration, inviting friends, extended family members. There’d be lots of food and laughter and different rituals all dedicated to the child. Now, of course, Korea’s economic situation is not the same as it was back then, but we still hold these celebrations for tradition and cultural reasons.
One of the most important rituals in the 100 Days birthday is sitting the baby down in front of a variety of items - usually a coin, a pen, a length of twine, a book, food, and sometimes other variants of those items. If the child picks up a coin, then it is to be predicted that this child will live a wealthy life. If the child picks up a pen or a book, then it is to be predicted that this child will grow to become a scholar. If the child picks up food, then it is to be predicted that this child will never go hungry. If the child picks up the length of twine (or sometimes string or a spool of thread), then it is to be predicted that this child will live a long life. Some families believe in this, others don’t, but either way, this ritual is performed because hey, tradition! (And besides, it makes for pretty cute pictures.)
Korean families and Korean home-life, I feel, will always have a different atmosphere from white families. Most Korean parents are very reserved when it comes to public displays of affection for their children, though like all families, this can vary. Independence and learning how to grow an outer shell is very important to the Korean lifestyle. This doesn’t mean that Korean parents don’t love their children - of course they do, and again, all Korean families work differently. However, this pattern and discipline is a common thing to find in most Korean families.
There’s a certain emphasis on studying - and no, not all Korean parents are super strict about grades and threaten to beat their children if they get a B on a report card. (At least, my parents didn’t.) However, education is still considered a top priority. Studying is encouraged, and most Korean parents want to see their children secure a good job (ie doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc). Most of the time, Korean parents just want to see their children live a secured life. That’s it. At least, with my parents, everything they ever taught me or told me had something to do with me learning to survive when I become older. I used to resent this when I was a kid, but now that I’ve grown more mature, I actually find myself appreciating everything my parents have ever taught me.
Another note - when a Korean woman marries, she is cut off from her birth family and is considered to only be a part of her husband’s family. This limits her visits to her own birth family - and though this was a common thing before, I believe many Korean families don’t operate the same way anymore. (Some traditions last longer than others.)
Elders are respected. Period. Even if s/he’s getting on your nerves, you ALWAYS RESPECT THE ELDERS.
Shoes are taken off before entering a house. No exceptions to this rule. If you wanna impress your Korean friend, take off your damn shoes. This will be appreciated.
Things I’d like to see less of.
- people thinking that “all Koreans get hot when they’re older”. (FETISHIZATION IS A BIG NO-NO.)
- Koreans being seen as submissive and docile creatures. (Note how I said creatures and not humans. Because that’s how some people treat Koreans and other East Asians. Like we’re creatures, rather than actual human beings.)
- Koreans being seen as kickass ninjas. (It’s either docile creatures or kickass ninjas. There’s never a line between the two, and it’s exhausting.)
- “Koreans are so romantic!” (Sorry, that’s the K-drama binge talking. If anything, Koreans are pretty reserved when it comes to PDA and again, affection in general. Of course, I can’t speak for all Koreans, but at least with my family, PDA was always kept to a minimum. Usually a quick peck on the lips, kisses on the cheek, hand-holding, etc. Never an actual full kiss in public. Forget about make-out sessions.)
- Stone-cold Koreans. (Again, there’s either the romantic Korean or the Terminator Korean. Never an in-between. Yes, keep in mind that due to cultural reasons, Koreans don’t typically display affection. THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE DON’T DISPLAY EMOTIONS.)
- Straight-A Koreans. Typically good at math and science. (While yes, many East Asian countries and families put emphasis on these subjects, not all Koreans happen to be extreme nerds who cry at a B on a report card. Example A - I happen to stink at math. And I know many other Asian-Americans who also stink at math. So.)
- Assuming Korean parents are abusive. (While there are many abusive Korean parents out there, people need to stop assuming that right off the bat. Stop. It’s extremely disrespectful, not to mention just wrong?!)
Things i’d like to see more of.
- complex, well-rounded Korean characters. (Give me a Korean character who hates math but still tries to do well in class. Give me a Korean character who’s bisexual and surrounded by loving family members. Give me a Korean character who likes roller-skating and getting high in the bathroom stalls and sings Jackson 5 all day. Give me a Korean character who goes out to be homecoming queen and buffs her nails while fighting demons. Give me a Korean character who cries, laughs, talks, breathes, LIVES like an actual human being, and you’ll get the respect of hundreds - maybe thousands - of readers and viewers who’ve been waiting for so long to be properly represented.)