There will be a day when you realize just what it means to be Korean-American in this country. Maybe you’ll suddenly feel shy about the seaweed rolls packed in your lunch or rave about how Yakult – the yogurt-flavored drink – tastes way better frozen. A classmate may call you “Asian” because you got a 100 on a test. It might be confusing because you’ll wonder why “Asian” is a backhanded compliment. And since, yes, you are Asian.
Your moment of realization might be confusing and heavy. We should unpack it – Marie-Kondo-style – since this is something you’ll face throughout your life.
See, you’ll run into people who will refer to the idea that you’re a “model minority” — a term that makes it seem OK to stereotype you simply because you’re Asian. It’s a generalized assumption that suggests you’re destined to be smart, wealthy, and capture the American dream in one fell swoop because you are Asian.
Not only is this an unfair assumption that puts intense pressure on the backs of those who fit this label. But, the idea of “model minority” also disregards all of the wonderful, incredible people who fight for success in this country in the face of discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, or color. It reinforces the inaccurate idea that Asian Americans are “good” minorities – lawful, productive, contributing citizens – and that other minority groups are “bad” – skirting the law, engaging in misconduct, and being generally unproductive.
This is extremely unfair. People think calling Asians a model minority is a good thing, but pitting minority groups against each other does not paint a clear picture. The struggles of Asian Americans in this country are very unique, as are those of every other minority group.
The term also doesn’t take into consideration that beyond your being Asian, you’re a complex and dynamic individual. Your almond eyes and slender fingers barely define the wonderful you that will be revealed as you grow. It doesn’t account for the fact that within the Asian distinction, there’s an incredibly diverse group of people with just as many unique cultures. While the stereotype relays a story of the successful asian doctors and lawyers, there are equally many of us who are small business owners, artists, and even stay-at-home moms.
What’s wrong with being seen as outwardly successful, you might ask. But the assumption, even if it sounds good, is that all Asian people are the same and that our road is an easy one. Somehow, we’ll declare the same majors, find the same jobs as each other, and be known as “nice” minority – that is, just as long as we stay in our lanes. But real life doesn’t work this way. And when it doesn’t, you might be left wondering if something is wrong with you — especially when people point out that you’re not like other Asians.
What makes me worried as your mama is that by simply by being you, you’ll feel like you have to live up to a set standard. The complexity of a stereotype is that no matter how much we tell you one thing, the world rushes in to say otherwise. When you look at us and ask, “What’s wrong with being Asian?” It’ll break my heart to say, “Absolutely nothing!” and know, in my heart, that you’re not entirely convinced.
You’ll wonder why people will call you out for being smart or for not being smart enough. Some people may greet you in another Asian dialectic and press you to respond, unaware that Korean is the only language you’re familiar with. You’ll experience the tingling frustration wondering why people draw conclusions about you before knowing who you are as an individual.
What comes with being a minority is a deep awareness of your difference, which is celebrated in our home but exaggerated elsewhere, like when someone asks you more than once where you’re really from. But in the haven of our arms and home, you’ll be an individual first, Wilder Lee, before you’re linked to anything else.
In my perfect world, I’d want you to be exactly who you want to be. You want to become a doctor? Awesome. You want to be a musician? I’ll be front row. Before you assume I want you to go a specific direction, I’ll let you choose. You have freedom to surprise me, challenge me, and think long and hard about the footprint you want to leave here on this earth. More than the dollar bills, status, and perceived prestige — I care about you doing good.
I hope you’re brilliant and fight infectious diseases. I hope you’re a leader and unite people for a purpose. I hope you’re generous and give more than you hold on to. But, even beyond all this, I hope you live for what gives you a spark. Maybe that’s easier said than done. I’ll try to make you understand this, but I’m sure I’ll fail a million times as your mom. Wherever you go or do, I’ll root for you to be happy within yourself.
I’m telling you all of this because I never fit into the “model minority” mold, and as a result, I often felt lost, confused, and as if there was something wrong with me. I avoided musical instruments with a passion, I devoted too many hours to my cheer team, and I saw school more or less as a social club. But my peers assumed I was the “typical” Asian, and I went with the flow. The problem? I was more pleased with the idea of what people thought I was rather than the reality. I hid behind this false reality of who I was suppose to be, convinced it was better than the real me. What took me too long to see was that my understanding of myself is greater than anyone else’s view of me.
I wouldn’t replace my brief stint in pre-medicine, or my few long years of wandering, but I hope you’ll see sooner than later, you can only be the best version of yourself. My parents, your grandparents, love me wholeheartedly. They let me find out who I wanted to be. I’m thankful because that’s how I became the confident and crazy mama you know today.
I want to entrust you with your own journey as well. I hope to provide and bless you with opportunities that will spark your creativity and fill your bright mind. I hope you will boldly tell me what you want to do, even if it changes a dozen times. I want to be with you on this journey because I care so deeply that you find what you are designed to do.
Along the way, when you feel that familiar tingling sensation of not belonging or sticking out like a sore thumb, strive to silence those voices. You do belong wherever you are – even when people, bless their hearts, congratulate you for being the first Asian or the only Asian there. It’ll be hard to always be polite and respond kindly, especially to strangers when they point out the obvious or somehow make your uniqueness seem like a flaw. I won’t always be there to remind you to choose patience rather than offense. But, I trust that you’ll grow to be proud enough to stand confident when others mean to tear down.
As you grow in confidence, I hope you learn to speak out and use your voice to drive against stereotyping in general. Be gentle to correct or remind people that what they may think is not always the reality. Find your voice in order to amplify truth and authenticity. And whenever you feel small because of something you cannot control, let it propel you to create pathways for change. Use moments of shame, frustration, and discouragement to fuel your passion to leave a better footprint in the world.
Wilder, I hope you’ll stand tall wherever you go, without letting the scenery or population dictate whether you belong there. I hope you grow proud of your heritage and treasure the stories brought to life by your family members. You’ll experience the joys of putting your heart and soul into work, as well as the heartbreak that comes along with it. You’ll experience the wrenching pangs of being misunderstood and judged.
That is life. Loving who you are and discovering your purpose is one of the greatest adventures in life. I hope you tether your heart, tight, to the truth – that you are not defined by the what you do, what you look like, or what people think. When things get bumpy, be sure to hold on tight – it’s a wild ride, but it’s a great one.
Whether you follow in the steps of many greats who happen to be Asian – like Dr. Ken Jeong, Yo-Yo Ma, Jeremy Lin, or your own relatives – or completely do your own thing, it won’t be because it’s your Asian. It’ll because of the wonderful traits, talents, and opportunities you have within you. There’s no secret Asian sauce that makes you smart, wise, or a prodigy (though there are many that will make your food more delicious).
The part of you that’s Asian – that’s just the cherry on top of who you really are.