What makes you proud about your culture?

By Jean Park, 15, Harvard-Westlake School (North Hollywood)
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Photo by Fiona Hansen, 16,
Marlborough School

A few months ago another student and I were doing homework together and we both had math projects due the next day. He hadn’t started his. He asked me joking around, “Oh you’re Asian, can you finish this project for me?” I was annoyed because I hear jokes all the time about Asians being smart at math.

At school I’ve always had to put up with jokes about my culture. When I was little, the joke boys made was to stretch their eyes to make them smaller. They were making fun of Asian people, Koreans included. Kids would always laugh. I started to believe that being Asian was a bad thing and I didn’t want to be Korean.

I didn’t have pride in my Korean culture because I didn’t know a lot about it. I was born and raised in California and I couldn’t speak Korean that well. When my family had Korean food for dinner, I didn’t know it was part of my culture. I just thought my mom liked really weird food, like octopus in a bowl of spicy soup. We had lots of spicy dishes and seafood. (I was a picky eater and usually only ate the rice.)

When I was 9, the Korean national soccer team placed fourth during the 2002 World Cup. My parents would rush to get home to turn on the TV because a soccer game was on. I watched with my parents and when our team would score my parents would jump up and down and scream. I fed off my parents’ excitement. I even clipped out a picture from a local newspaper of the team in front of the Korean flag and taped it in a binder. I was a little excited but I still didn’t see being Korean as an important part of me. Being Korean was more like a label than part of who I was. I felt like a student in the Harry Potter books. Whatever house I was put in was the house I cheered for.

Even my friends made me feel bad

Throughout middle school, I still didn’t want to be Korean. One time, a friend looked at a guy I said was cute, scoffed, and said, “ew, he’s Asian,” implying she didn’t see him as attractive because he was Asian. That was basically pointing out that all Asians are unattractive. That hurt me the most because she was my good friend.

I even got the feeling that there’s nothing good about being Korean from other Koreans. They would complain that their eyes were too small, implying that they weren’t as pretty as people with bigger eyes. A common Asian feature is the “single eyelid,” which doesn’t fold. I have a double eyelid that folds, making my eyes look bigger than most Koreans.

“You’re Korean? Why are your eyes so big?”

“Did you ever get surgery to make them bigger?”

These were the types of questions I was asked about my eyes. It seemed like such a big deal to the people who asked me, who were mostly Korean. When I visited my cousin in Korea, I tried to squint as much as I could so my cousin wouldn’t comment on the shape of my eyes. It didn’t work. It just made me look weird and hurt my eyes.
In ninth grade, my friend, who is Korean, had surgery to give her a double eyelid. Other kids and I were so shocked that she got surgery. I felt like her wanting bigger eyes didn’t justify the surgery. It felt like she didn’t want to be or look Korean.

I couldn’t find any reason to be proud of my culture. But I understood that I could never change who I am. I tried ignoring the jokes. I still got hurt but I figured it was no use trying to defend myself and my culture because it felt like me against my whole school.

A day for thanks

Later that year, I started learning more about my culture. While I was taking a break from my homework, I got sidetracked. I didn’t have a chance to give my brother a gift for his birthday so I was Googling a holiday when I could give him a late present. I read about a Korean holiday called Chusok, which is like a Korean Thanksgiving. It’s a time when the Korean people thank their ancestors and family. During Chusok, houses are decorated with the mugunghwa, which is a flower representing the strength and perseverance of the Korean people. I was excited to learn about things I never knew. I saw a beautiful side of the Korean culture rather than what other people see, which are jokes to laugh at.

Since the holiday was coming up, I asked my parents if we could celebrate it at our house. They seemed doubtful, but agreed anyway. I bought traditional decorations and really tried to imitate how Chusok was celebrated. I went to Michaels to get bright orange and red paper lanterns and to Pier 1 Imports to get pictures that symbolized Korean history. One was of a Korean battle with soldiers in their uniforms. To learn the dance performed during Chusok, I watched videos on YouTube and practiced the steps. I asked my grandma and my mother’s friends to make dishes to bring to our house.

On Sept. 14, Chusok day, my brother and I hung the lanterns outside. My grandma made perfect rice and we bought 10 bouquets of mugunghwa. Friends and relatives gathered in my family’s living room and everyone in my family dressed in traditional Korean garments—rainbow-colored dresses for the women and colorful pants and shirts for guys. My grandma let me borrow her old traditional Korean dress and my parents dug through closets for theirs. I’m not into dressing up and my grandma’s not either but she told me that when she first put it on she felt like a queen. I felt the same way as her.

To begin the celebration, my parents served soups, rice, a bowl of boiled octopus, kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) and other dishes. I even took one little bite of the octopus because I was so into everything. I thought “hey, why not,” but I couldn’t make myself eat it because it felt squishy and smelled so bad. We danced as my relatives played traditional upbeat Korean music on the drums. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. By midnight, everybody made a wish as each person blew out a candle in the room. Chusok was over, but I will always remember it.

After the holiday, I knew that what people were saying at school wasn’t true. Before I had tried to ignore it even though it still got to me. Now I don’t have to try. I don’t care what they say. Korean culture isn’t how kids at school depict it.

My grandma always told me stories about her childhood, but I would pretend to listen to make her happy, even though I was really thinking of something else. Now I appreciate her stories because they’re about how she grew up in Korea, like celebrating holidays.

My culture seems more personal than it was before. It’s not just a label. When I think about my culture, I’m proud of the little things that we still have even though we’re in America and not Korea, like using chopsticks and Korean BBQ restaurants. It’s more a part of me now. I don’t just have Korean heritage, I am Korean.