Today, I read an article about Steve Carrell. He described how he tried to fit in while he was growing up. According to Steve, he did what everyone else did, said what they said, and tried to wear what they wore. He “homogenized” himself. Words like homogenize and assimilate…there is something inherently wrong with them. While there is no courage in trying to be like anyone else, when one is a new immigrant, assimilation is the method toward survival.
As a kid with straight black hair, dark eyes, nose missing a bridge, I often felt like an alien. (It probably didn’t help that I had a government-issued Resident Alien card.) I was overlooked, ignored, made fun of for being different. This issue of not being like anyone else on the playground stayed with me throughout the awkward adolescent years.
I didn’t appreciate my biculturalism (technical term for balancing two distinct cultures) until much later in life. And now, I appreciate it so much that I’m pursuing a doctorate on the topic of Asian women and
leadership so I can become the industry expert.
This empathy toward “my people” didn’t happen until 2008. During that year, I read a lovely book entitled Free Food for Millionaires, a novel written by a Korean author. Min Jin Lee portrayed her characters in engaging and beautiful prose. They were complex, motivated, funny, engaging, creative, gorgeous and actually cool.
After reading the book, I felt compelled to contact the author and express my gratitude for showcasing Koreans in the way she did. I also shared with her my desire to stop hiding from my ethnic background and to go out and embrace it.
I received this reply from Min Jin:
My dear Yon:
What a beautiful and generous letter. I am moved by your honesty and integrity in your tone and words.
What a brave and important journey you have been taking, and I am grateful
that I was able to participate even in some minor, minor way. I am so
awed by your complex and thorough reading of the book.
I am so glad, thrilled actually, that you feel more empathy for Koreans,
because you know what? I think it means that you have greater empathy
for yourself, too. I think all the brilliant and wonderful and
complicated Korean American women I know have the hardest time doing
that: being kind and understanding with themselves.
I wish you much success, of course, and happiness, too, but what I wish
more than anything for girls like us, is greater kindness and patience
All my best,
I know it’s ok to be Asian, to be unique and stand out at times. Perhaps now, it’s more than ok, it’s actually cool. In the past, we were coined as the “Model Minority”: obsessed with doing everything the right way. And sometimes we get things right. Other times, we learn from our mistakes…as evidenced by the special occasion attire I donned one Christmas Eve.
Note, this is not a traditional Korean outfit. I am not sure exactly what it is. But hey, I was unique and courageous.