First Prize: 2011 Teens Between Cultures Prose Contest

First Prize 2011 Prose Contest
Picking a Side by Helen, Korea/CA, Age 16

At age five, the only thing that separates you and your seatmate in class is, well, nothing. His sandwich is as good as your packed Korean food, and your handwriting is just as good as his. You play with the same lego blocks and throw around the same rocks during recess, and you even share bits of your lunch.

At age nine, you’ve measured the length of your table and found where the halfway mark is, and then drawn a shaky line across your table. That’s all that separates you from your seatmate that, and that he’s a boy, with cooties. He still reaches across and slaps your arm when he’s feeling manly, and you can still extend your leg to kick his knee in retaliation.

At age thirteen, you learn a new word : racism. You’ve learned it in classrooms before, since a young age, since you can actually remember history class. You’ve learned about the slave trade, and you know the dictionary definition of the word. But you really learn it - see it, hear it, experience it - when you’re thirteen, at the age where adding the ‘F word’ before every word makes you look ‘mature’ and being racist makes you ‘funny.’

Even though you’re not ‘white,’ you successfully avoid being bullied for being Korean, because you were born here and you dress in Hollister and you don’t have such an obvious accent.

Then you hit fourteen, and you become a little more aware of such a thing as ‘popularity.’ You go for the latest trends even when you don’t really like the clothes you’re buying, and your hair looks identical to the girls in your posse: pin-straight hair with side-swept bangs, never mind the hour it takes to iron your hair that way. But something’s a little off, even when you sit with the ‘cool kids’ - you suddenly realize there’s something more than just a pencil line separating you and the rest, when they call you a ‘white-washed Asian.’

You’re louder than the one they nicknamed ‘the loud one,’ and you have more shoes than the girl known for having a lot of shoes, but in the end, you’re still ‘that white-washed Asian.’ Your skin color defines who you are, forget the fact you’re really good at drawing and you can sing really well.

You can read and write Korean and you can speak it, too, and you bring Korean food to lunch. But you think being known for something is better than not being known at all, so you avoid speaking in Korean around your friends, and quietly, without a word, stop bringing lunch to school and buy it instead.

Despite all this, you’re still labeled as ‘Asian.’ Every flaw is ‘because you’re Asian,’ and every talent is ‘because you’re Asian.’ Get a bad grade in English?

“Well duh, you’re Korean!”

Yeah, that, and you were born in Los Angeles, California, and have never set foot in Korea.

Get a good grade in Math?

“Ugh, I hate you, why are you Asians so good at math?”

Maybe because you studied for four hours for that test? Using an American textbook?

Can’t drive that well?

“She’s Korean,” as if that explains everything.

But you smile and nod because amongst your white friends, you consider yourself lucky to not be that other ‘Asian kid,’ who sits by himself during lunch reading a book and munching on rice balls.

For a while, you go through a phase : the ‘wannabe’ phase. You won’t dare let your friends know - your gang of entirely American friends - but you start hating the black of your hair and the brown of your eyes, and you start wanting their pale skin and blonde hair and blue eyes. You give up Korean music entirely and you act annoyed when people talk in Korean around you, and you go as far as to stow away your Korean books when your friends come over.

When your mom drives you and your friend to the mall, she starts off talking in Korean - but you cut her off, answering in English, because you know she understands and you feel oddly embarrassed when your friend, blonde and blue-eyed, turns a confused, amused smile towards you at your mom’s Korean.

Your parents ask you what’s wrong - why you try to act like you’d prefer a salad over kimchee, why you grimace in distaste when a Korean song comes on the radio. You shrug it off, and say, “I’m not a fob.”

Your parents grow irritated, then angry: “You’re a Korean person! Be proud of your heritage!” they say, but you can only feel a slight twang of guilt beneath the desire to fit in. You don’t want to have your merits and flaws accredited to ‘being Asian,’ and you don’t want to be labeled as ‘the Asian.’

You hit fifteen, and when your parents say ‘Happy Birthday’ to you in Korean, you stop being embarrassed. You stop wanting to have golden hair and sapphire eyes, and you grow happy with your own. You realize the term ‘comfortable in your own skin’ means a lot more than the simple meaningless phrase you brushed off years ago.

You listen to a mix of Korean and English songs, and you’ll go back and forth from Korean to English when speaking to your parents, even around your friends. You’ll buy lunch sometimes, and on the days you feel like it, eat your Korean food without the bat of an eye.

You realize your skin will stay the shade it is for the rest of your life - and all that ‘separates’ you from your friends is not that you’re Korean, but that you’re conscious of it.

To the comments ‘Because she’s Asian,’ you reply with a confident “Yeah I am. And I write better English essays than you, so what of it?”

Because you’re a Korean-American, and you don’t have to be American to feel good.

Helen on Life Between Cultures: 

The hardest part is the expectations that come with two cultures - it's hard enough to try to fit into the American culture, but with one's deep-rooted family continually forcing traditions upon you, it feels at times like I have to 'choose.'