I cannot deny that, as a Korean girl, I face many stereotypes about my race and gender. Such stereotypes are exacerbated by the fact that I juggle two different cultural environments; I live in a Korean neighborhood, but I go to a predominantly white private school. Thus, Koreans taunt me by calling me “whitewashed” and “spoiled,” while whites ask me if “I really eat dogs” and mock my language.
I can’t help but remember an incident from five years ago, when I was eleven years old. Bubbling with happy naiveté and vowing to study English at Yale no matter what – of course, eleven-year-old Audrey couldn’t possibly have been aware of its 6.3% acceptance rate. I was volunteering at a soup kitchen when a white elderly woman called me over and asked me a question. I asked her to clarify because I couldn’t hear her. Suddenly exasperated, she asked, “Do you even speak English?”
I relayed this story to my English class, and unsurprisingly, everyone was outraged. My white classmates listened closely, nodded sadly when I said that that moment was my loss of innocence, the moment my childhood fantasies of a harmonious world free of hate and violence were shattered.
Could they ever truly understand, though?
I am privileged to attend an open-minded school where social issues pervade class discussions and conversations at lunch tables, where I can open my lunch box around my friends and allow the faint sour smell of kimchi to permeate the air so I can eat my kimchi fried rice in peace. However, because my school is dominated by whites, there have been multiple instances where I have had to face the ugly truth of my white schoolmates still resistant to discussions of race.
Mind you, I am not calling them racist. I have white friends who recognize their white privilege and educate themselves in order to fight for racial equality. But we all must be mindful of white people whose hands fidget and who refuse to make eye contact with me whenever I bring up cultural appropriation and racism.
I don’t remember what specifically made me upset, but it was something about racism perpetuated by whites in America. “Gosh, white people are the worst,” I commented, and I was met with strange looks and varying degrees of nervous laughter in my predominantly white class. My white friend then muttered, “Well… not all of them…”
This was the moment I realized how huge the gap is between whites and me. How my white friends will never be able to understand my experiences with racism. How I will never be able to understand what it is like to never face discrimination because of my skin color.
And suddenly, I felt invisible and powerless, a flickering yellow beacon of light in a raging white sea.
So much for attending a progressive school. Each time white girls leapt to their feet to rant about the male gaze and to praise the Bechdel Test but picked at their nails when the subject of Asian American representation in Hollywood arose, I felt discouraged for being Asian.
However, the same feeling of isolation at school came about at church as well. I go to a predominantly Korean church, where everyone in my high school ministry goes to mostly Korean public schools and roam the streets of Koreatown in their free time. I sit with the Korean boys and girls there who chatter excitedly to each other in mixed Korean and English about popular Korean dramas and music, unable to join in because both my Korean and my knowledge of Korean media are very limited.
So, where do I stand in the middle of this? I want to belong somewhere. Everyone does. The feeling of not fitting in is frustrating because being able to fit in is… Well, comfortable.
How do I deal with this isolation? Do I reject one group to join with the other? Do I submit to the idea that fitting into both places is impossible because I will always feel somehow isolated?
Neither, in my opinion. Instead of submitting to that idea, I accept it. It is a painful truth to swallow, but it is something I can easily digest once I allow myself to embrace unclear situations. It’s the grey area.