Being Half Asian in Korea
Half-Asians have a spider sense for other half-Asians.
It’s hard to describe what, exactly, makes someone “look” half-Asian. I’ve met halfies with pale skin and dark skin, straight black hair and curly light-brown hair and everything in between. Yet, somehow, we can always find each other in a crowd.
That’s why, when a skinny girl with long brown hair sat in the first row of my third-grade English class during my first week as a teacher, I knew she was like me.
I did my introduction lesson, explaining that I was half American and half Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but easy enough for the kids to grasp). In every class, without fail, this part of my presentation was met with astonished interjections and expressions of disbelief (“OOOAAAAA, TEACHER!!! SO COOL!!”) When I explained that I was American, the girl in the front nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.
At the end of the class, she ran up to me.
“My dad’s American too!” she said in perfect albeit high-pitched English.
“That’s so cool!” I said, bending down slightly so I was at her height. It occurred to me that this little girl was the only person in school I didn’t have to water-down my words for. My Korean co-teachers often went on about how clearly I spoke English (“Just like our textbook CD’s!”) and I wondered if they knew that that wasn’t how I normally spoke.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name’s Hailey,” she said.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hailey,” I said. She smiled and waved, then bowed for good measure, before running off to her friends.
She was the only biracial kid I’d seen in the school. She seemed well-adjusted enough, talking easily in Korean with the other kids.
I realized that I might have been the only other half-white-half-Asian person she’d ever met. This seemed even more likely when my co-teacher came up to me a few days later and said:
“Hailey is always very excited to see you. I can understand her feelings.”
“I’m excited too,” I said, sweating a little when I realized that I’d inevitably and involuntarily become somewhat of a biracial role model for this girl. I just wasn’t sure if:
a) she needed one in the first place
b) I was good enough to be the kind of role model she deserved
But, while I still had a lot to figure out, I’d definitely learned a thing or two about being half-white-half-Asian in my 22 (23 in Korean age, kill me now) years of life. Now that I was in Korea, I was gaining a more nuanced understanding of my race every day.
Top Things I’ve Learned About Being Biracial in Korea
People don’t stare at you
“People will stare at you,” they told me. My Korean teacher told me. My interviewer told me. My friends told me.
Except… no one really does.
I live in an area of Seoul with very few foreigners, so foreigners are kind of like unicorns. But most of the time it seems like the Koreans here could not care less about my foreigner status.
Even when I twisted my ankle while trying to cross a stream and nearly tumbled three feet down into wet water and rocks, letting out an undignified squeal, none of the Koreans around me so much as glanced in my direction.
After years of being told how white I looked by other Asian people, this is still surprising to me. I hadn’t been worried, because I’d never really fit in anywhere my entire life. People in America never actually stared at me in the street, but I’d heard more than once at school from a near-stranger “Oh, I’ve seen you around campus. You look very… unique.”
I know that I do. Even among half-white-half-Asian people, there’s no one who really looks like me. But I got over my angst about that somewhere in high school. It’s a part of my reality and my identity. Being different is nothing new for me, so I was ready for the stares.
But they never came.
Maybe I look “Asian enough” from a distance. Whatever it is, I’ll admit that, at times, it’s nice to blend in.
2. People overestimate your Asian-ness
It was 7pm on a Tuesday. My friends and I had stopped by a bakery that smelled like literal heaven. I was with two people: Veronica (who is white) and Nadea (who is black). None of us are particularly good at Korean. I have two semesters of college Korean under my belt, while Nadea has a year of self-study and Veronica has been diligently working through the Korean alphabet for a month.
Nadea approached the vendor and tried to ask if the bread on the menu was sweet.
The woman blinked slowly and stared at Nadea, expression unchanged. The classic Korean I-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying-so-I-will-stare-at-you-until-you-do-something-else look. Nadea repeated the question with slightly different wording, only to be met with the same look.
Then, the woman turned to me.
“What is she saying?” she asked me in Korean.
I froze. “Ummm… she…. uhhh….”
I fumbled for words, making another attempt at phrasing Nadea’s question differently, only to be hit with more questions in Korean, still directed at me. I wanted to scream “What makes you think I have any idea how to say this?!”
We got the bread eventually. Nadea was satisfied. I was a bit flustered.
3. People Underestimate Your Asian-ness
“You’re very good at using chopsticks,” my co-teacher, Seung-Jin, said at lunch. “Did you practice a lot?”
“Umm…” I covered my mouth and finished chewing my jap-chae, “I didn’t really… practice?”
“So you tried for the first time in Korea?” she gasped.
“No, I mean, I used chopsticks in America.”
“I mean, not for like, pizza and stuff. Just for Asian food. My grandmother taught me.”
I remembered sitting at a table in my grandmother’s house with a cup of dried beans on my left and an empty cup on my right. My grandmother put a pair of chopsticks in front of me and told me to move all the beans to the empty cup. While excruciating at the time, I’m forever grateful to her for this lesson.
“My grandmother is Japanese,” I reminded Seung-Jin.
“Ah, right,” she said. Because it was easy to forget that about me, I supposed.
4. People Make Weird Comments About You
I don’t mean offensive, I just mean… weird. Such as:
Is that your real hair color? Umm, yes. But it’s so dark. … I’m sorry about that?
Are you wearing colored lenses? No. Your eyes are so interesting. They’re brown. Yes yes but a lighter brown.
My favorite comment came when sitting at a restaurant with a Korean guy who quickly made his way to my “blocked numbers” list:
“Your nose is beautiful,” he said.
I paused before the ddeokbokki on my chopsticks could reach my lips.
“My nose?” I said, conscious of how oily my nose probably was and uncomfortable with him scrutinizing it so intensely.
“Yes. Many Korean people want your nose.”
“It’s my mom’s nose,” I said slowly. “It’s a Chinese nose.” Had he really never seen a Chinese person before? Maybe it was different seeing the nose slapped on a face with “white” bone structure.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. He brought up my nose seemingly every ten minutes. I started to wonder if he had a nose fetish. I didn’t meet him again.
5. Some People Will Never Accept You
“And who knows a word starting with ‘D’?” I asked my third-graders.
Hailey raised her hand and stood up. “Doll,” she said confidently.
The boys behind her started snickering. “Oeguk-in” they said. Foreigner.
She looked down at the floor and said nothing. My co-teacher looked at the boys disapprovingly and handed them extra sheets of homework as punishment. For the next few minutes, Hailey stared at her desk, shoulders hunched over.
I wanted to yell at the boys, to tell them that Hailey was just as Korean as them, that insulting her was insulting me.
More than that, I wanted to tell Hailey not to listen to them.
I wanted to tell her that for years, wherever I went, people on both sides of my heritage also told me I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t welcome. I wanted to tell her that I’d spent nights crying because I thought I’d never be “enough” for anyone.
But I’d learned, day by day, that no one else could tell me who I was. I’d learned that being an outsider is a privilege because belonging nowhere is also belonging everywhere once you stop caring what people think. I’d learned how special and beautiful I was, how blessed I was to be part of two worlds, to be unique, to have this kind of empathy for outcasts and willingness to explore new cultures.
But, in the end I said nothing.
It wasn’t my place to discipline the kids in a language I could barely speak, and I couldn’t embarrass Hailey in the middle of class.
Class ended and the kids ran out. I saw Hailey eating lunch with her friends, laughing and looking like nothing had happened.
But I knew that she hadn’t forgotten what the boys said and she probably never would. I knew that she’d save every one of those comments somewhere dark and deep inside of her. I knew that her life was going to get harder as she got older, but I also knew that she would be okay, that she would love herself and find people who loved her not as Korean or American but as Hailey.
I hoped that one day, with or without me in her life, she would understand the words I never said.