Part 1: I Want to Be in America

by KJ Roelke | Published December 31, 2020
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“Good morning!” Life said. “Welcome to the world. Good luck figuring it out.”

No one ever told me what it meant to be Asian American. Growing up, I can remember only a handful of Asian American peers, and I only knew one of them was Asian because he said so. He was my best friend in public school. There were probably more in those days, but unless they were East Asian I didn’t realize they were Asian, too. I just lumped them into the same mental grouping as the other “brown kids:” the Mexicans, Indians, and lighter-skinned black kids.

A child of the 90s, I remember watching shows like:

  • Jackie Chan Adventures
  • DragonBall Z
  • Pokemon
  • Yu-Gi-Oh
  • Yu Yu Hakasho
  • Rorouni Kenshin

I knew Jackie Chan was Asian, but at that age, I had never heard of “anime” before—I just knew that the animation style was different. My parents did a lot to help me celebrate my Korean identity. I remember a baby picture of me in a 한복 (among a gallery wall of the more “traditional” family photos) and reading some chapter books by Linda Sue Park. But in those days, I only knew I was different, and there wasn’t anyone else who was like me. I never even thought of my sister (whom my parents adopted a few years after me) as Asian, even though she is from Siberia and many people told us we “looked so alike” in our early years.

As I grew up, language and food became more important to me. The only Korean spoken in my house was often by my older brother—my parents’ biological child and 11 years my senior—calling out “준태야!” goading me to attack as we wrestled together. I thought “야” was a way to start a fight, so I always bristled when my mom or older sister (also my parents’ biological child) called me 준태야. I took Spanish in Middle and High School, used it in my daily life in Texas, and told my parents I wanted to learn Korean, too. They found me a tutor, and my Korean language education began (and ended shortly thereafter as my life became busier). It was enough—I learned 한글 well enough to sound out words. It became a secret language for me. As my hands wrote the characters, my heart filled with pride; as my mouth spoke the sounds, I became more Korean.

When I transferred from public education back to private education I went from many minorities to very few. I went from one-of-a-few Asians in a sea of minorities to one-of-a-few minorities in a sea of whiteness. I met my first Korean American peer and immediately asked him to help me be more Korean. If I was going to feel different, I wanted to be different. He asked me, “Did you know that 김밥 means rice punch?” We were in middle school, what can you expect? (That’s also probably really only accurate from a very niche Korean American POV.) That’s where my journey to becoming more Korean ended—for a while.

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