A Hyphenated Existence: Being Korean-American.

A few years ago, I discovered a new term for me: “Hyphenated Existence.”  Historically, it seems, this term described any American who was of foreign birth or origin, and/or held allegiances to another country.  “Describe” is too generous of a word. Calling someone a “hyphenated American” was a form of racism; it was a disparaging and derogatory expression.

    The picture to the right was an 1899 cartoon depicting Uncle Sam asking, “Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballot votes when they are only half Americans?”  The linked to Wikipedia article (as trusted and reliable of a source as Wikipedia can be) quotes former president Theodore Roosevelt saying, “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

This hyphenated existence has since evolved and seems to become one that has been embraced by the Asian-American community in particular.  There is even a magazine entitled Hyphen that discusses issues particular to Asian-American living.  One such issue, as expressed so eloquently by Everyday Feminism’s Amy Sun, is how to walk the tightrope between being simultaneously both “Asian” and “American” – two very broad, convoluted, and diverse terms in and of themselves.  To drift too far in either direction is to “pay the price of disowning” the other.  My own personal experiences have also proven to me that it’s impossible to stand wholly on one side of the hyphen.  Around “real Asians,” I feel out of place – not speaking any asian language, not familiar with “real” Asian foods, and being completely unable to relate to Second Generation issues because my dad was adopted as a two year old from South Korea and was given the whitest name possible: Mike.  Around my “real American” friends – aka my white American friends – I have grown up out of place as well, never being fully “one of them” and always living into the caricatures of what it means to be Asian (black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, likes rice, eats ramen, is good at math, on the shorter side, and dealing with jokes that demean asian genitals as “small” for men or “tight” for women).

So why am I sharing this today?  In large part, because I am still learning what it means for me to be biracial.  We are all journeys of self-discovery and living a hyphenated existence as a Korean-American is a significant part of my own journey.  And it will be for my children too.  I think they are two of the biggest reasons why I am continuing to wrestle with my biracial identity, my faith, and the world we live in.  I want to walk with them in their own journeys in hopes of helping them avoid some of the pitfalls I have fallen into.

I write this post also to continue the conversation of race in America.  I write this in hopes that my self-disclosure might invite further questions and curiosity.  I write this as a sort of plea for us to listen to one another.  To set aside our stereotypes, conjectures, preconceived notions, and just listen.  To ask to hear one another’s stories, to respect one another’s stories, to – so to speak – accept one another’s stories.  Isn’t that what we all want?  Isn’t that the cry of the LGBTQ community right now?  Isn’t that the cry of the poor?  Of race discussions?  Isn’t that the cry of the oppressed?  Isn’t that the desire we all long for?  To have a safe space where we can share our personal stories without the fear of judgment, but with the security of knowing that my story won’t be used against me?  Don’t we all just want to be heard and feel empathy from another who cares enough about us that they actually try to “walk a mile in our shoes”?  Don’t we all just want a bit of grace?

The call to listen to one another has been the drum I’ve been beating on for quite sometime now.  May we all be given more grace to do just that.  That’s a road I’d like to walk further down with you.


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