4 trials and tribulations of growing up mixed-race

For those who don’t know/can’t tell, I am of mixed-race heritage.  Half-Asian, to be exact.  My mother hails from the Czech Republic, while my father is Korean (yes, South Korea. I would definitely not exist if he was from North Korea).  Thus, I look like some strange hybrid of a human being, and many seem unsure of what to do with me – are racist jokes appropriate, or not?  The turmoil folks must feel upon meeting me!

Having lived this mixed-race life for over 21 years now, there are a handful of observations I have made that I would like to share with the general public.  Of course, my experiences will differ from those of other mixed-race individuals (even other half-Asians), so this is by no means an all-encompassing Guide to the Lives of Mixed People.  But, without further ado, I present my own personal list:

1. People have a hard time believing our mom is our mom.

I’ll start the list with something that is more amusing than anything. Our mom does not look like our mom. She is white, and the other 5/6 of the family is decidedly not white, which has resulted in much general confusion over the years. My favourite story took place when I was a baby. I looked like this:

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Rockin’ the hair bows since ’93.

While my mother looked something like this:

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Rockin’…whatever one would call this outfit.

So, in light of this, some lady made her assumptions and approached my mother during a sans-father Baby Sam outing. The lady asked my mother about the process of adopting a child from another country, as she was looking to do the same. Having birthed me from her own loins, young Lida did not know the answer to this question, and awkwardly explained the situation to the presumably embarrassed inquirer.

My other favourite thing about having a white mother is the confusion it causes during family outings. We recently went on a cruise, and everywhere we went, whenever my father stated that there were six in our party, bemused servicepeople would be peeking around for the sixth Asian. If a child was under 16, said child was supposed to be accompanied by a guardian whenever leaving the ship. My youngest sister, who was 13 at the time, was stopped multiple times as she attempted to leave the ship, and often needed to hastily explain that the thoroughly white lady who had just passed was, in fact, her mother. I don’t think the ship people ever fully believed her.

2. Both sides of my family seem to have expectations of me, and I fail at most of them.

I have had the privilege of visiting both of my parents’ native countries; Korea in 2010 for three weeks, and Czech this past May for a short-but-jam-packed three days. On both occasions, I was able to meet the extended family that resided in their respective locations.

In Korea, at least in Seoul, most of the younger generation (and some of the older) speaks at least a little bit of English.  My grandparents translated a lot, and luckily I had my sister, so we didn’t spend the entire time in silence.  However, the family seemed mildly disappointed that my Korean was (and still is) restricted to “hello”, “thank you”, and “turtle” (KOH-boo-ghee, for those wondering.  Now you know how to say “turtle” in Korean.  You’re welcome).  They were also surprised to find that neither me nor my sister had boyfriends.  It’s a status thing; in Korea, people think higher of you if you have a significant other.  All in all, I think they were disappointed by our lack of Korean-ness, but became very excited whenever we tried to speak Korean.  In response, they would say “Ohhh!” and clap their hands in appreciation of my butchered pronunciation.

I travelled to the Czech Republic with my mother for our short visit; having already gotten in touch with my Korean roots, I was hoping to do the same for my mother’s side of the family.  Both Prague and my mother’s home-town of Litomyšl are beautiful and historical in a way that Seoul was not (Seoul is very developed and metropolitan, like a Korean Toronto; of course, the more rural areas had their own historical charm).  Unfortunately, English is far less commonly spoken.  We visited some relatives, who were very friendly and made us delicious food, but almost none of them spoke English.  The few that did were too uncertain of their skills to attempt to speak it much.  If I only know three-ish words in Korean, I know even less Czech.  It is an extremely difficult language for non-natives to learn, as it requires tongue dexterity unlike anything I knew to be possible.  My mother tried to teach me a few words, but to no avail.  For some reason, some of the relatives seemed to believe that if they spoke Czech to me very slowly, I might be able to glean a meaning.  Unfortunately, that is not how language comprehension works.  So, I made friends with the dog, as one tends to do in awkward social situations.  I don’t blame my family, not in the slightest. It’s not unreasonable to assume that I understand at least some of my half-mother tongue, and I disappointed them by not taking a more active interest in my heritage. I don’t think they knew exactly what to do with me, this strange girl who spoke a language alien to them and who looked wholly unrelated. But, they were very kind, and made every effort to ensure my comfort, and for that, I am grateful.

3. People seem to think it is within their right to dictate how I identify myself.

Anyone who has spoken to me for more than five collective minutes will tell you that I make a lot of racist Asian jokes about myself. It’s pretty much all I have, humour-wise; that, and always answering “no” to questions when the answer is actually “yes” (e.g. “Can I have a glass of water?” “No! Ha ha ha!”  Hilarious, I tell you).  Meaning, I blame my questionable driving skills on my Asian heritage, lament my lack of math prowess (surely it should be in my blood!), attribute my interest in nail art to my lineage, that sort of thing.  My conversational partners are all too keen to agree, often participating in my jokes.  I’m OK with this; I invited them to, and it’s all in good fun.  However, whenever I refer to myself as Asian in a casual or positive way, the same people who laughed at me the time my eyes, in their words, “looked all chinky*”, tell me, “You’re not actually Asian, though, you’re white.”  Sure, I may be quite white-washed, and yes, I grew up in a largely white/Western environment, but I still had to check “Mixed Race – Asian/Caucasian” on my university application form.  My last name is still Kim, the most common surname in Korea.  I still experience racism to some degree, because visually, I am clearly not fully white.  Kids used to say “ching-chong, ling-long” to me, because it was “my language”.  A guy at a bar once asked me if my vagina was sideways**.  Hot tip: not only is it generally considered rude to ask about someone’s genital orientation within the first ten seconds of meeting them, but it is also probably not a good idea to be racist to a girl at a table full of chicks you might be looking to pick up.

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He was wearing a shirt that looked like this, though, so he was already fighting a losing battle.

Anyway, the point is, try as I might, I will never be white, and I will never experience the full extent of white privilege.  You don’t get to refer to me as Asian when it is convenient/amusing to you, but then “actually” identify me as white.  I am aware that I am not fully Korean, either, and that I do benefit from some aspects of privilege as a result, but I feel quite connected to my Korean roots and I take pride in them. Please don’t tell me I can’t.

*Disclaimer: Please never, ever refer to an Asian person’s anything as “chinky”.  Would you say to a black person, “Hey, your hair looks real n****r-y today”?  Probably only if you were looking for a punch in the face.  Racial slurs don’t make friends, kids.

**For those who don’t know, it is apparently a really stupid old (and very racist) myth that Asian women have sideways vaginas.  As a woman of Asian heritage, I can confirm with some degree of certainty that this assertion is false.  I didn’t even know what the dude was on about at the time, and didn’t find out until much later.

4. I don’t really seem to fit in anywhere.

They say that Toronto is a cultural mixing pot, and it definitely is, especially in comparison to other areas of Canada, and certainly other parts of the world.  And while a great number of different races live within the GTA, they all seem to be fairly segregated.  There’s Chinatown and Koreatown, Little Italy and Little Portugal, you get the gist. Mixed families aren’t incredibly common, at least in comparison to single-race families.  All of my close friends are white, so I’m branded the “Asian friend”.  I have, of course, had a hand in this classification, partially as a defence tactic. As a kid, before I even knew what “being half-Korean” really meant (I just ate the kimchi and bowed to my grandparents for money on New Years Day and didn’t ask questions), kids called me Chinese and made fun of me for playing Pokemon and said “ching-chong ling-long” to me, and I didn’t really understand why.  I supposed I internalized this, and reasoned that if I make the racist jokes first, I won’t feel ostracised by others, because I singled myself out to begin with.

I don’t think I need to extensively explain my not-fitting-in-in-Czech.  I was, like, one of the only non-white non-tourists in the whole country, probably.  Likely the only one in Litomyšl, anyway. Case closed.

However, I think I was rather disappointed in my lack of fitting in in Korea.  I mean, as we have established, I know I am not fully Korean, and I know I never will be.  But, I’d identified myself as “the Asian girl” for so long, I suppose I’d been subconsciously assuming I’d have more of a place in Korea. The thing with Koreans is that they are very proud of their Korean-ness, largely as a result of the whole Japan-trying-to-delete-Korean-culture thing that happened a couple generations ago.  So, even those who are full Korean, if they grew up outside of Korea, they still experience some degree of alienation (they call them “gyopos”).   In light of this, looking back, I understand why I did not fit in.  Firstly, I was probably one of the largest females for miles.  Girls in Korea are rarely taller than 5’3 and rail thin, while I am 5’9 and, well, not rail thin.  Bra and shoe shopping in Korea was out of the question.  All the adorable boutiques with one-size-fits-all clothes were less than accommodating.  Seoul, similar to Toronto, is kind of the multicultural hub in Korea, so our out-of-place-ness was not often highlighted (especially travelling with my still-extremely-Korean-even-though-they’ve-lived-in-Canada-for-45-years grandparents). When we travelled outside of Seoul, though, almost everyone was very Korean, and I felt a change in attitude.  On two occasions, old men attempted to chat me up (and were herded away by my Korean-speaking friends).  An old lady randomly grabbed my upper thigh, saying that I had “long sexy legs”.  My favourite was when we stopped to browse a spice and herb shop, and the lady who owned it told me I was beautiful and that I should wait for her son who spoke English to get home.  Finally, I thought.  I have always wanted to be matchmade with a Korean spice shop owner’s son.  Now is my chance to leave my Canadian life of hardship and strife and run away with a mysterious man from a small town in Korea.

I’m sure the spice shop lady’s son was a perfectly nice person, but, you know.  The point is, she asked me to meet her son, not one of the other perfectly lovely Korean girls I was with.  Everywhere I go, I am exotic.  No matter what country I am in, be it Canada, Korea, Scotland, or Spain, random people stop to ask me what I am.  It’s not really a huge bother, but it does leave me with a certain sense of not belonging.  I don’t fit in because of something I can’t control.

Horribly racist people might interpret this post as a list of reasons why mixed-race couples shouldn’t happen, which is absolutely not the message I’m trying to convey.  My parents just got married and wanted to have some kids, as many married couples do, and because of science, we came out looking like how a swirled ice cream cone tastes.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbled.  (Wow, two food analogies in a row.  I must be hungry.)   We are obsessed with differences, but far too often, people are defined by one singular feature.  Why am I “the Asian friend”?  Why can’t I be “the writer” or “the baker” or “the funny one”?  Those are the things I’d like to define “me”, the things I try to put out into the world (I try really hard to be funny.  Humour me), not the things that others project onto me.  I’m not saying to pretend those things don’t exist; being “colourblind” is actually another form of racism.  My ethnicity is part of who I am, and part of how I experience life.

In the end, I just feel like it kind of sucks to have people make unwarranted “Godzirra” jokes at me (anyway, Godzilla is Japanese, which I am not) and laugh out loud kind of meanly when I say I’m being Pikachu for Halloween (again, Japanese).  I also don’t really understand why it’s so often of immediate importance to strangers to know “what I am”; like, I’m not a zoo animal, ya know? We can celebrate differences without alienating people.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t put y’all off with my ranting, and if you made it all the way through, I thank you.  Good day.

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