Whether it be because I am a middle child or a Gemini, I often credit myself for starting trends. I was the first in my elementary school to publicly read “Twilight” (2005). In high school, I bought a clear backpack, and a month after I began spotting girls with the same clear backpack. And, frankly, I was Korean before it was cool. However, this is the only trend I don’t and can’t give myself credit for starting. Before Vogue was obsessed with 10-step Korean skincare routines, I had Korean skin. The pronunciations of foods I grew up eating at family dinners are now being butchered by self-described foodies. But for me to portray this growing tendency of neo-Orientalism as harmful to me personally would be disingenuous.
As a member of the Korean diaspora, several generations removed from immigration, very few touchstones of the Korean American experience apply to me. Being from a city that was around 30% ethnically Asian, there are many microaggressions that I haven’t experienced as a function of this somewhat lack of racialization. I wasn’t ever asked questions like “Where are you really from?” or faced the more vitriolic “Go back to your country.” Both the emotional and physical separation I have from the country of my great-grandparents has allowed for my proximity to Korean culture to be fluid.
One moment, I can be braggadocious about my status as a rare third-generation Korean American, which functions to distance myself from the peninsula, and the next moment I’m listening to “Boy with Luv” (2019) by BTS. While K-pop is still not part of my regular music repertoire, the increased visibility of people who even slightly resemble me has made popular culture seem more personal. Amber Liu, a Taiwanese American member of f(x), recently said that a black man who was handcuffed on a subway platform for eating a sandwich “deserved it” because he was “super disrespectful.” Pop culture can sometimes be interpreted as inconsequential silliness, but the comment, which has since been retracted, crystallized the serious issue of anti-blackness within the Asian and Asian diasporic communities. The discourse regarding her comments brought forth topics to mainstream attention that I’ve interacted with for the duration of my social consciousness in a way that rarely happens.
The nexus of my privilege as a non-immigrant, the unique experience of basically being surrounded by Korean Americans for the duration of my formative years and America’s fascination with the homeland of my grandparents has catalyzed some uncomfortable thoughts. One of the most troubling is this question of whether I consume Korean culture in the same way as the white “koreaboos” who I so frequently make fun of. The answer is yes — being so removed from Korea has made me a definite outsider to its culture, but its culture will always be inside of me.
Regardless of my American nationality is the fundamental fact that I will never be able to erase my Korean ethnicity. I could bleach my hair or get a spray tan, but I am always going to be Korean. This realization has, in many ways, absolved me of guilt that should have never been mine.