I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the term “Korean-American.” I grew up in a traditional Korean household with two parents who spoke the language fluently, but I would also receive the lowest grades in my Korean language classes at church. I loved watching K-dramas, but I could never fully comprehend what was happening without the English subtitles for guidance. At school, I automatically didn’t fit in with my white peers, but I was also excluded by the Korean students, who spoke exclusively in Korean. 

I distinctly remember having my cousin over at my house one day when I was in middle school. She’d brought her four-year-old daughter along. As I was showing her my very old – and very dusty – doctor’s play kit, she turned to her mother and asked, “Why isn’t she speaking Korean if she is Korean?” Part of me wished I hadn’t understood what she had said, but at that moment, I knew I was faced with an inherent truth: I was too American to be Korean. But, I was also too Korean to be American.

By middle school, I decided that if I couldn’t fully connect with my Korean identity, then I would just have to try to connect more with my American one. So, I opted to take Spanish as a second language instead of Korean. I insisted on only eating Western food at school – I even refused to tell people my middle name solely because I thought it would be too difficult for a non-Korean person to pronounce. 

Making these changes felt liberating, at first. For a long time, I viewed my Korean identity as something that was holding me back. From what, I’m still not entirely sure, but I finally felt like I belonged. When my grandparents visited for two weeks in the summer, though, I recognized that trying to gain Americanism caused me to lose my connection with my Korean heritage.

I already came to terms with the fact that our language barriers would cause a bit of a struggle, but when my grandparents tried to ask my parents about my interests, we had no common ground. The more they tried to talk with me about Korean culture, the more frustrated I became with myself. In prioritizing my Americanism, I realized that I was completely disconnecting myself from generations of culture and tradition. No matter how hard I tried, being Korean was something I could never change. So, what point was there in being ashamed of that part of myself when I could choose to embrace it instead?

From then on, I started making conscious efforts to reconnect with my Korean roots. I practiced speaking Korean with my grandparents over the phone, I took pride in having my kimbap or kimchi fried rice stand out amongst a sea of sandwiches and reheated pizzas, and when senior graduation rolled around and I was asked how to properly pronounce my full name, I took the time to teach my vice-principal the phonetics of my middle name. Not only was it a written reminder of my origins, but it made up one-third of my actual name – if it was going to be said in front of my entire graduating class, it was going to be said right.

I still find myself struggling with my Korean-American identity. Even now, writing about being Korean is a challenge in and of itself. Growing up, I always used to feel like I had to choose between being Korean or being American. Now that I’m older, I understand that I can find value in both cultures. Rather than throwing myself into my Korean or American sides, I’ve learned to find a healthy middle ground: one that captures the unique and individual identity of Joanne Jaekyung Lee.

Joanne Lee is on staff for the Podcast desk, serving as a lead producer for Silhouette. She is a sophomore in Silliman College majoring in the Humanities on the general track.