Halfie

I used to hate my appearance. When I looked in a mirror, I would try to will away what I saw. I hated my brown hair, and my dark eyes that gave me away as an Asian person every time I grinned. When people began to mention to me how small my eyes got when I smiled, I did my best to stop smiling. I was embarrassed of my Korean grandparents with their imperfect English. I may have been half-white, but it wasn’t enough. I was still branded as Asian by everyone who looked at me, a label that felt seared into my forehead. But to the Asian people, I was white, my pale skin a strong indicator of my difference. It left me in a purgatory where to white people I was clearly Asian and to Asian people I was clearly white. Everyone saw me as a halfie, but only the half that othered me from them. In other words, I was only ever the race that was most convenient for people to see me as, which a majority of the time was the one that they were not.

The first time I really became aware that I was different was when I had just started Kindergarten. I lived in Chester County, which had plenty of white, black, and hispanic people, but had a bizarre lack of Asians (and indeed, after looking into Chester County demographics, Asians do win out as the smallest percentage). It was for that reason that children would take turns coming up to me in the schoolyard, asking me about my ethnicity. Some came up and asked to satisfy their own curiosity, while others had a pack of whispering friends behind them, hiding behind their brave companion who was willing to approach me. But the question was never “Are you Asian?” It was always, “Are you Chinese?” The first time it happened was the first day of school, where I was nervously standing by the swingset, my lack of friends apparent. A boy came up to me while I was drawing lines in the dirt with my black Mary Janes, staring as intently at the ground as if I was looking at the season finale of my favorite show. When he spoke to me, I was as terrified as I was thrilled, excited that someone was finally talking to me. He asked, “Hey, are you Chinese?” I looked at him blankly for a second and then said, “No, I’m Korean! But they’re both in Asia!” He nodded, seemingly satisfied with my answer, and walked away. I let out the breath I had been holding; social interactions had always made me anxious. But I was disappointed too, I thought maybe this would have been my chance to make a new friend. I assumed that would be the end of it, but to my dismay, it continued. Every day for the next week, someone came up to me at the swingset and asked that same question, and then immediately left. My answers grew more annoyed, my default becoming simply, “No, I’m Korean.” But eventually even that patience wore thin, and I began simply answering “Yes,” and walking away.

My mom is 100% Korean, but she never found difficulty in it quite like I did. She was the daughter of two immigrants, and stood out from her peers, but in contrast to me, she liked it. She told me, years later, that when she visited Korea she disliked the way that everyone looked like her. She said translating for her parents was annoying at times, but she brushed off any racism she faced. “People are ignorant,” she said. I couldn’t understand how she so easily ignored the crude words that people threw at her. She mentioned how when her family lived in Japan briefly in the eighties, people would refuse her family service because they were Korean. “America was much better compared to that,” she would say. She saw herself as American first and Korean second. My mom and dad divorced when I was seven, and I lived with my dad from then on. But despite what she said, those seven years were full of Korean tradition. Bulgogi, kim, and rice lined our dinner table. When I snuck into the cabinets in the kitchen, it was to grab shrimp chips and Pepero. My brother and I both had a Doljanchi, a traditional Korean one-year ceremony. As a child, I didn’t understand the difference between Korean and American. For me, they were morphed into one happy concoction that formed my home life.

In third grade, after I finished using the bathroom at school, I carefully stood on a dirty plastic white step-stool and turned on the sputtering faucet. Another girl in my class, Hanna Donohue, was standing at the sink next to mine, washing her hands. Glancing over at her, I was in awe of how pretty she was. A beautiful American girl, Hanna had blonde hair and bright blue eyes. From my angle, I could see her defined nose which created a sharp profile that I couldn’t help but envy. I found myself comparing myself to her. My dull brown hair and dark eyes stared back at me. My flat nose kept close to my face, afraid to stray too far. I wished I had been born with blonde hair and blue eyes. I loved blonde hair, it reminded me of sunshine. My brown hair, in contrast, was mud and dirt. My cousin Lauren was blessed with such features, because both her parents were white. I thought of my Korean mother and lamented my heritage. If only my father had married a white woman! I, too, could have had those blue eyes I so desperately desired. Hanna finished washing her hands, dried them on a crumpled rough brown paper towel, and smiled at me before leaving the bathroom. I watched her leave, and then turned back to the dirty mirror. I felt self-conscious, before I even knew what that meant. I tried to open my eyes as wide as I could, in a futile attempt to make them bigger.

Looking back at that child, I only feel sad. Seven years old and I had already completely submerged myself in traditional American beauty standards. We talk about how the media shapes how we view ourselves, but most of the time I don’t think we really understand how. For me, I only saw white women in my favorite television shows, and they didn’t look like me, so I truly believed the reason behind this was that people like me were inherently ugly. Even in the rare case that an Asian did make an appearance, they were always a side character for humor. In my young mind, I thought I had figured it out. Korean women, and Asian women in general, are revolting, and that’s why they’re hidden. We were not main character material. I am not ashamed to say that I bawled openly in the theater when Crazy Rich Asians came out. It was the first time I had seen Asian women being presented as beautiful in a Hollywood film. Not fetishized or a gag, just amazing, gorgeous women. And not just one, an entire cast of them. For Asian-Americans, that movie broke a lot of barriers. Representation does matter and carries a great influence. I only wish Crazy Rich Asians had come out when I was a kid, still struggling with my identity.

When my Korean grandparents visited, I was disrespectful, to say the least. They would try to teach me Korean, and I would shrug it off, telling them that I knew English and thus had no need to learn Korean. I was resentful that when they tried to say my name, it sounded like “Faisu,” because there was no “th,” sound in Korean. At the time, I didn’t know that there is also no “f,” sound in Korean, so they were already trying to meet me halfway. And so I would incessantly correct them, saying that they were pronouncing my name wrong. My grandfather would sing Christmas Carols around the holidays, one of his favorites being “Deck the Halls,” and his “la’s” would come out sounding more like “ra’s.” I would loudly declare that he was saying it wrong, and that it should sound like “la,” instead. I had absolutely no sense or appreciation for my grandpa studying English and being as fluent as he was. I remember one incident when I was nine years old and I walked into the tiny living room, curiously observing my grandpa as he diligently followed the instructions of a Korean VHS instructional video on Tai Chi. Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that encourages the person to find balance within themselves through slow movement, but it is also practiced in Korea. The coach spoke a monotone Korean, and I understood almost none of the words. My grandpa, in his soft green pajamas, set his feet apart with the instructor. “Why do you move so slow?” I asked him. “It doesn’t make sense. People could attack you like this!” I ran into my grandpa, grabbing his leg and trying to make him lose his balance. He made a short exclamation which sounded like “Ai!” and he pushed me away. “You don’t understand now. When you are older it will make sense.” He told me, still moving measuredly. I huffed and kept trying to make him fall over. He moved quickly to stop me, putting a hand out. “But you just moved quickly! So Tai Chi doesn’t work!” I protested. He shook his head solemnly. “No, I am able to react quickly because of Tai Chi. I have found my center, so I am able to fully control my body.” Like many Korean concepts, I found this beyond my grasp. “That’s really stupid. You should just move fast, like a normal person.” I snapped. But my grandpa, wise and patient, simply pat my head and returned to his Tai Chi as if nothing had transpired. As unfortunate as it is, to pretend that I was a victim only would be false. I was also an instigator, even if it was from a twisted self-hate.

When I started being bullied for my race in middle school, it was what you would expect. Middle schoolers are a certain breed of rabid animals, desperate to hurt to avoid being hurt by others. It was everyday behavior for boys to stretch their eyes back and taunt me, calling me “ching chong.” I was twelve when a classmate, Sylvia Martinez, decided to ask me in front of our entire class, “So, do you eat dogs?” I felt myself burn with anger and shame. My voice rose as I said, “No, of course I don’t.” My hands were fists, but only because I was hoping my nails pressed into my palm could ease my shaking voice. “But Korean people do eat dogs!” One of her friends chimed in. “That doesn’t mean I do. I don’t think any Korean person in America eats dogs.” I almost whispered, staring down at her sparkly Uggs. “I’ll just be sure to keep my dogs away from you,” Sylvia laughed, malevolence emanating from her fake smile. At the time, nobody said anything, watching the scene unfold near the front of the classroom. It seemed as if they were secretly hoping that I would snap and a fight would ensue, but I did nothing and returned to my seat as class began. At the time, it had felt like nobody was on my side. But later, I found out someone had reported them to the guidance counselor for bullying. It was Hanna, the beautiful blonde girl I had admired since elementary school.

Each time an event like this occurred, it filled me with as much fury as disappointment. I felt I couldn’t speak out against it, because when I tried, people would always say, “it doesn’t count because you’re only half-Asian.” I supposedly have white privilege, but people love to turn it against me and make it into, “because you’re half-white, you can’t get offended by these quips, because you’re not even a real Asian.” That is not to say that I don’t experience white privilege, because I certainly do, but rather to say that I can still experience racism as a half-white person, which surprisingly some people do not believe. For example, my very white name. When people read my resume and college applications, I had no fear of being discriminated against like my mother was. My family was well-off, and I never had to serve as a translator for my parents. But having small boons such as these waned in the amount of harrassment I received for my looks. And unfortunately, the idea of me not being a real Asian has been repeated to me countless times in my relatively short life.

My father recently remarried, and I now have a stepmom. She is a Chinese woman, while my dad is a white man. I love her very much and she has taught me a lot, about both life and about struggle. But when I first confided in her I had been bullied because of my Asian background, at a restaurant by ourselves on vacation, she looked shocked. She said to me, “You don’t even look Asian! Your eyes are huge!” I wasn’t offended by this, but it was a shock to me in a different way. She seriously didn’t think I looked Asian. To her, I was obviously white. Her children, fully Chinese, looked Asian to her. This was reiterated to me by my Korean professor in college. She gave us as assignment to talk to a Korean person and ask about their culture. Several students in the class turned to me, the only Korean in the room besides the professor. Noticing this, she said, “Faith does not count as a Korean person.” The other students turned to me again, some with dropped jaws, and some looking offended on my behalf. I smiled and laughed, not wanting anyone to worry. But when class resumed, I stared at the floor, trying not to be hurt by her blunt statement. She probably meant that because I didn’t grow up in Korea and I was very Americanized, but it seems to sum up quite nicely the general Asian view of me. I am not one of them. I am only half, so how can I understand their struggle? In some ways, I cannot. But other times I feel I have struggled in a different way, by being ostracized from the community.

When I finally opened up to my dad about having been harassed for my race, he didn’t believe me. Throughout my childhood, he had asked if I had been bullied or if people had been racist towards me, and I had always said no. Part of me said no solely because I didn’t want my dad in jail on murder charges. A tough, stout, conservative man, my father threatened to destroy anyone who bothered me in school. He always encouraged me to punch people who “gave me trouble,” in his words (either way, I didn’t have the guts or the manpower for that). However, the main issue was that he couldn’t understand why I would say no all this time but then, once I was in college, change my answer to yes. He told me it sounded as if I was trying to be oppressed now that I was at a private liberal university. But what my dad didn’t understand is that growing up, everyone told me that I couldn’t be angry. That I couldn’t be offended, because I was only half anyway. I had no right to get offended for the fully Asian people. Sometimes I wanted to fit in so badly that I laughed along when they said these things to me, but I feel it still like thorns in my heart. Was I complacent? Did I let it happen? Yes. But am I to blame for that? Is a victim to blame for not fighting back? I still wonder these questions today.

I went to Ocean City with a group of Asian friends the summer vacation before I left for college. We were having a great time, laughing and sharing overpriced Chickie and Pete’s fries, swiping at the seagulls as they tried to swoop down to get their share. My two friends, Vivi and Sabrina, were walking with me, arm-in-arm as the sun was setting. But Sabrina stiffened when she noticed a laser pointer following our feet. She is a short-tempered girl, and was instantly pissed off by the instigative gesture. I turned around and saw 4 white teenage boys, pointing the laser at us and giggling to themselves. It was obvious they were drunk off the freedom of their moms letting them run around the beach on their own. They wore obnoxious tank tops and snapback hats, the beginnings of muscles just barely peeking out from the non-existent sleeves. “Hey, just ignore them.” Vivi whispered to Sabrina, squeezing her arm. Sabrina wanted to say something, but held her tongue at Vivi’s quiet words. That is, until the boys spoke first. “Hey! Ling-ling! Can you do our nails?” One of the boys shouted, aiming the affront at all three of us. Sabrina whirled around at this, and screamed, “Fuck off!” A white father off to the side of the boardwalk then turned to Sabrina, yelling, “You better stop cursing! There are kids around!” I was shocked that he completely ignored the racist remarks that the teenage boys were directing at us. The only thing he cared about was the fact that Sabrina said “fuck.” He then continued yelling at Sabrina, dropping the f-bomb many times himself, while the teenage boys and his young son looked on and laughed. Sabrina gave all of them the finger before stomping away. Vivi and I glared at all of them before following suit. We were tired now, frustrated and angry. We went back to the car, and we talked about all the horrible things people had said to us because of our Asian backgrounds. Until finally, Vivi announced, “Fuck them. They don’t know anything about us. I’m proud to be Asian. They can’t take that away from me.” We erupted in a chorus of agreement, and I was struck with a feeling of belonging and community. My half-whiteness disappeared in that moment. We were different races under the umbrella of Asian, them being Vietnamese and me being half-Korean. But for that night, in that car, we were all just Asian-Americans who had been wronged by the melting pot. As if she was aware of this, when I was packing up to go home the next day, Vivi handed me a small golden charm with an Asian dragon on it, claws bared. “For you,” she said, “So you never forget that you’re one of us.”

When I went to college, I began studying Korean because I wanted to be able to speak to my grandmother in her first language. My grandfather had passed away a few years prior, and I considered it a small way to honor him, a tiny apology for the years of childishness I had put him through. In the last years of his life, we had talked about going to Korea together, but he died before we had the chance. At his funeral, sipping Barley Tea surrounded by Korean relatives, I vowed to take up the language and travel to Korea one day. I talked to my mom about it, and asked her why she never learned Korean. She told me that she and her sisters had been caught speaking Korean at school while she was in the third grade. The teachers had called her mother and screamed at her, telling her that she should only be teaching her children English. This was the seventies, in Tennessee, so I suppose it isn’t all that surprising. It had apparently really shaken my grandma up, and she stopped teaching them Korean. It shook me up too, that I could so easily see this scenario unfolding. When I first began learning Korean, I frequently called her to check on my pronunciation. She seemed pleased, but in her own way which tended to be very reserved and not showing much emotion. But my mom later told me that my grandma had confided in her that she was secretly thrilled I was learning Korean. That validation from her was enough for me.

I wish I could say that these problems have faded as I have grown and come into my own inner strength, but that isn’t the case. I still face criticism for a large number of things. Some people I have encountered throughout my life have said that I am trying to be oppressed and that I do not understand the Korean-American struggle. I have been accused of “trying too hard” to be Korean, and I am often teased for my terrible Korean pronunciation. It is difficult to pretend that these things don’t hurt me. It is still very hard for me to stand up for myself when people say these things because I still have ingrained in me the thought that I am not allowed to speak out as a half-Asian. But here is exactly what I wish I was brave enough to say: I do feel I am less oppressed than the average Korean-American. I grew up in a decently wealthy home, and I never had to struggle with learning English. Visas, passports, and having to enlist in the Korean army for the mandatory two years were never issues for me. But that doesn’t mean that Americans look at me and think that I am one of them. They look at me and see a Korean, the same way that Koreans look at me and see an American. It is true that I like Korean fashion and think Korean culture is interesting, but I don’t feel I am fetishizing the culture. Personally, I don’t understand how a Korean person can fetishize Korean culture. It is my culture, my background and my upbringing, albeit brief. I have spent years and years becoming comfortable with this identity and unlearning the self-hate that I associated with my Asian side. I don’t think that I am trying too hard to be Korean, when all this time I have been harrassed for that exact same thing. This is not me being trendy. Nor is it me taking advantage of the sudden burst of international Korean affection and attention via Korean singers and beauty products. Truly, I do not believe I am appropriating Korean culture. I am loving myself, and taking pride in this identity, for the very first time.





Faith Roman is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing. She is also a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society. Creative non-fiction is her favorite genre to write, but fantasy novels tend to be her favorite to read. After graduation, she hopes to work as a writer in any way, shape, or form possible. When she's not reading or writing, she can usually be found holed up in her room playing video games.

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