Some days, especially right when she wakes up or when she has a laughing attack, I notice that my seven-month-old daughter’s eyes have more of an almond shape than usual. That makes me happy because she’s only a quarter Korean, and sometimes this feature is overshadowed by her bright blue eyes, light brown hair and fair skin (traits she got from her half-Canadian father).
On the days that she does look more Asian, I take pride in this because I’m seeing my Korean heritage, and that’s a reflection of my mother, the strongest woman I have ever known.
I have to admit that I didn’t always take pride in my Korean heritage, and I never thought that one day I would have a daughter who might go through my similar life experiences. I have some not-so-fond memories that stem from my mixed-race heritage. Many of them are because I look more Asian than white, but a few are because I wasn’t Asian-looking enough. Most of them are because of my mother, who I resented for the longest time because is Korean.
Here is some background information: my father is a country boy from Oklahoma who met my mother in Korea when he was stationed there during the Vietnam War. They got married and then he brought mom to the States. My brother and I were then born in Colorado Springs, but shortly after that my dad got stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany. We lived there for a while, and then moved to Pusan, Korea. After a few years in Korea we finally settled in Newport News, Virginia.
It was in Korea that I had my first negative experience because of my mixed identity. I clearly remember a bunch of Korean girls pointing and laughing at me because they could tell that I was only half Korean. I pretended that I didn’t see them, but inside I felt like I was an ugly alien because I looked so different.
Moving to Newport News, Virginia was actually a good thing because it’s a culturally diverse city with a pretty big Korean population. However, it was here that I had an opposite experience of the one in Pusan. A girl in my middle school chorus class would laugh and call me Kristi Yamaguchi whenever I walked into the room.
I was too shy and afraid to say anything, so I just laughed along with her. But once again, I felt awkward and alone because of my Asian features.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was in middle school that my parents got a divorce. My father wasn’t in the picture, so my brother and I were left to be raised by my mother. But she wasn’t like a typical American mother who helps her kids with homework, or bakes them cookies, or is a part of the PTA. She was a single Korean mother who was too busy working two or three jobs to do any of those things.
At the time, I resented her because of how ultra Korean she was. I hated the fact that she couldn’t help me with my homework because of the language barrier. I couldn’t stand that she would make me help her sell fake Starter jackets at her flea market store on the weekends. I got sick and tired of eating rice and kimchi every day. I was embarrassed that sometimes on the weekends she would clean people’s houses for extra money.
In my eyes, being Korean meant being just like my mom, and that meant living a life full of hard labor with nothing to show for it. We didn’t have a big house or take vacations every year. We just managed to get by with what he had. I didn’t think it was enough.
All of these feelings changed when I finally went off into the real world after college. Once I started managing my own money and paying bills, I realized just how hard my mother had worked for so many years. I had no clue how she had managed to pay utility bills, a car payment and a mortgage and raise two children with her minimum-wage jobs. She later told me it was because she was very frugal and never used credit cards. I also finally understood how she could work such long hours every day, and then come home, cook dinner, do laundry and finish whatever other chores she had to do. She told me it was because she didn’t believe in being lazy, and she wanted to earn everything on her own.
All of these traits that my mother possesses are typical of most immigrants who come to this country. They want to make a better life for their children and give them the opportunities they didn’t have. What makes my mother unique is that she was a single Korean woman doing this all on her own. That’s what makes me so proud of her, and proud of my heritage.
I now love my Asian eyes and I’m not ashamed to say that my mother works at a dry cleaners.
What used to make me so ashamed is now the first thing I bring up when I meet new people.
I hope that my daughter will start to look more Asian as she continues to grow and change in these beginning years. I want to make sure that something that took me so long to accept as a young woman can be embraced by her early as a child. I hope that she will not only gain my mother’s features, but also her character as a strong, hard-working and independent woman.
If all else fails and she can’t pass for part Asian at all, I pray that she will love kimchi, because that’s the sign of a true Korean.