It’s not always easy growing up Mash-Up. Our Korean-American Mash-Up Crystal Kim lays out some of the brutal truths of her childhood — and what she’s done to make herself whole. We’re proud of you, Crystal!
I stood out growing up. Maybe because of something besides my race, but in a town that is 95% White and 0.1% Asian, you’re often times a rare sighting for your neighbors. I thought I handled it well growing up, but time revealed that I took it rather poorly. I cracked Asian jokes at my own expense to safeguard against the possibility that someone would crack the joke for me. Better me than them, right? Being an anomaly made me embarrassed and I decided at the age of 12 that I simply didn’t want to be Korean. I tried my best to distance myself from my culture and instead assimilate as a white teenager.
Fortunately, I’ve mended my relationship to my culture and now engage with it in a positive and enriching light. But my journey to this point was not an easy one.
For the ones who identify as Other, let my stories be a warning. Growing up in the minority when you are a minority can sour your childhood and quite frankly, be traumatizing. Be strong, know your worth and shine bright.
1. I stopped speaking Korean
Cruel, I know. My grandparents still don’t speak a lick of English, so imagine how difficult it must have been to communicate with me. I simply refused to speak Korean. I would repeat phrases in English over and over again, emphasizing different parts of the phrase in an attempt to communicate. By the time we reached max frustration, I had already escalated my voice and would scream what I was trying to say in Korean. Growing up was hard y’all.
2. Where’s my burger?
Korean food is amazing. It makes me feel connected to the Earth in a way no other food does. I didn’t realize how special I was to be served delicious meals growing up and I traded that in for American burger joints and cheap junk food. I would complain through most of my meals and put up a fit whenever we went out to a Korean restaurant.
3. I yawned at Korean holidays and traditions
Celebrating the Korean New Year as a kid is pretty spectacular. All you know is that if you bow down to your elders, they hand you cash. This was maybe the only holiday I got down with as a kid. All other Korean traditions my family celebrated included a blasé expression from moi and a yawn or two to punctuate my boredom. Making dumplings and rice cake soup before the New Year, eating seaweed soup on birthdays and dressing up in beautiful hanbok dresses? Much more exciting now as an appreciative adult.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t have my own rebellion outside the house.
4. I blamed my parents
I grew up in a house that is rooted in showing respect towards your elders. If I disobeyed my parents’ orders or did something out of line, I wouldn’t be let off easy. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t have my own rebellion outside the house. I would dole out digs about my parents to anyone who would listen and whenever it was appropriate. My teachers would hear about some problem I had with the way I was being raised at least once a week. They got so callous to it that they responded with, “Your parents are amazing and wonderful” every time to try and help me view them a different way.
5. Do I smell like garlic?
Koreans always have gum in their cars. Garlic is in everything and oh my, it is delicious. But your breath will be rank, no doubt. I would always check my breath, oddly enough, only before meeting up with my white friends after I had eaten a meal.
6. Saying No
Okay, I didn’t go into full rebel mode, there was no room for that in my house. But I did gain more confidence in defying my parents’ ways as I got older. Enough to make me feel as badass as my friends who would engage in open screaming fights publicly with their parents and suffer no consequences. I broke curfews without notice, constantly twisted the truth and even lied to go on a trip to Peru when the PowerPoint outlining my argument wasn’t strong enough.
7. Body Dysmorphia
A sea of white European faces surrounded me and I literally went through a Tarzan phase where I thought I was who I was surrounded by because I wanted to belong so badly. I thought I had long legs, plump lips, wide eyes, a large nose and pleasing curves. It wasn’t until I opened up a magazine at the dentist’s office when I spotted an Asian-American model that I had an epiphany. I flipped through pages comparing her to other models in the magazine and realized that they didn’t look anything alike. Smaller, flatter features, pencil-straight body, almond eyes…this is my body.
I thought I had long legs, plump lips, wide eyes, a large nose and pleasing curves.
8. Eye Shadow Fit For a Clown
The realization that I was physically different from my peers didn’t translate into an immediate revival of my closet or makeup box overnight. I still tried to follow along to makeup YouTube videos by white YouTubers and refused to confront the reality of why it looked different on my flatter eyelids. It looked like I had just raided my mom’s makeup box and ran three greasy fingers across my eyelids. I always wiped off my makeup after a video flustered, upset and defeated.
9. I donated a substantial part of my closet to Goodwill
Yes, I also tricked myself into thinking that I was as tall and as cut as my white friends. I thought I could rock Free People dresses, hi-waist skinny jeans, and big chunky earrings. Nope. There’s a reason why my mom always wears heels. We are shorter and have different lines. I get that now. My closet is still a work in progress.
10. I’m trying to heal relationships with my family
I’ve been on a path to correcting my wrongs from my youth for awhile now. I reassure my parents and grandparents that I still care about practicing our traditions and that I appreciate where I come from now more than ever. They have about a decade’s worth of evidence to the contrary, but we’re making progress. I want them to know I respect them and owe everything to them and my ancestors.