Friendzoning my Asian Heritage, journey, self-esteem, Uncategorized

Friendzoning my Asian Heritage Part 3:  Asians…they really do look the same

10900121_10206171513272886_6090044855332663958_oI had walked past the stores many times before. I was fresh off my LDS mission, feeling like an alien in the endless cityscape of Gangnam. Huge buildings blocked out the hazy sky, orange taxis ran red lights and millions of South Koreans were folding away receipts and selfie-stick-ing. What I wore in Korea a year and half earlier was now horribly outdated and needed to be mourned, cremated and scattered in the River Han. Shops were endless and if you wanted to find authentic, true love you would, in the form of deep fried swirly donuts and ttokbukki spicy rice cakes. Love at first sight it was.

Mina and I’s lunch date had turned into a shopping trip, and after an attempt to try a discount outlet store, we headed to the main street where the real shopping could begin. There was no guilt, because this was Korea! Swipe your credit card, breathe in. Grab your purchases, breathe out. Phew.

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“How do we get to those shops up there?” I asked Mina, pointing over to the multi-storey shops with flashing signs. I thought I had visited every store in Gangnam, but had failed to open my eyes just a little bit wider and see that most of the buildings had several levels.

“They aren’t shops, I’m pretty sure most of them are plastic surgery clinics. Do you want to get it Kelly? Maybe for your eyes?”

As a 21 year old this question was getting quite old. But at 10 years old it made me want to projectile vomit at whoever was talking to me. Volunteering to have a middle-aged man in a white coat snip my eye lids and sew them up like it’s Year Seven soft tech?  I can see quite fine, thank you very much.  My eyes do not need any kind of correcting.

However, that didn’t mean I was void of insecurities. And at 4 years old these seemed to bubble to the surface. My peers ensured that I was aware of how different my face was by pulling their eyes, (or for a redundant effect, pulling mine) and blurting out incoherent supposed Chinese.  “I spy with my little eye” had snarky, under-the-breath connotations whenever we played it. But I had looked at myself in a mirror, told myself I was a solid 5 and eventually they got used to seeing a face that didn’t look like theirs.

But it wasn’t just the eyes that were different.

I could see that some people were like Coco Pops, some like the color of my cereal milk Pre-Coco Pops and some like speckled sandpaper. Examining my own body, I looked like my unvarnished wooden fence. A little yellow, a little white, a little dry and flaky. Probably suitable for burning.

But this would not do. No way. I needed to research this more and find out why my looks had so impacted on the quality of my 4 years of life.

My go-to source of all truth and knowledge was my kindergarten teacher. If anyone knew whether chocolate chips or chocolate buttons would taste better in cookies, if there really was a God or whether the universe’s expansion was accelerating… it would be Cris. I studied her face, wondering how in the world did Cris’ nose connect to her eye brows and if this was necessary, why didn’t I have it? No matter how hard I tried to tell lies to all my friends my nose wouldn’t grow and I had to revert back to my honest, God-fearing self.

Eventually my fascination with the differences between my facial features and their facial features became deeply rooted in the ventricles of my heart. It accompanied the thousands of comments I received the next years of growing up about how my body didn’t meet people’s expectations:

 

Age: 4-10 Theme : weight

“You face is too chubby. You look like an onion. You have to eat less if you want to peel those layers off.” (props to whichever Korean person said this to me, it is both rhetorically sound and cutting edge)

Age 12-15 Theme: the woes of puberty

“Those pimples are there because you touch your face. See?” *old woman touches the pimple*

Age 15-16 Theme: weight

“I’m on a plastic cup diet. You should try it. Basically you fill this little cup half with rice, half with something else and that’s what you can eat in one day.”

Age 16-17 Theme: eyes

“If you stretch your left eye with your left hand, and stick your tongue in the side of your right cheek, your eyes will get bigger.”

Age 18 Theme: weight

“I’m sending you a video with a 10 minute daily routine that gets your legs in the ratio of 5:3:2, thigh: calf: ankle. Tiffany from Girls Generation does it.”

It wasn’t too long before I was poking plastic rods into the crevices of my eyes and carefully patting down double-sided strips of tape that increased my eye size by 1 meagre millimeter. Only an all-seeing eye, a fellow Asian eye would notice the tiny sliver of tape holding together two folds of eye lid skin like its life depended on it.

But I got tired of that pretty quick. Purposefully forming an over glorified wrinkle on a face is a lot harder than you think.

And the exercise, all of the space-age routines just weren’t giving me the shape of legs that I was supposed to have by now.

And the weight, it just didn’t seem to budge no matter how hard I restricted my diet and counted my calories.

Maybe, a permanent solution didn’t seem that extreme.

“So what do you think? Are you going to get it?”

 

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Friendzoning my Asian Heritage, journey, Uncategorized

Friendzoning my Asian Heritage: When you can’t speak your own language

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This is Part 2 of Friendzoning my Asian Heritage. You can read Part 1 here.


When I was in kindergarten I became fascinated with Legos. At home my brothers had a huge red bucket full of them and I loved to build and make stuff when they weren’t. I picked up some clear neon Lego blocks and assembled them into a crescent, holding it up to my ear and speaking into it like a telephone. I gave it to my mum and asked her to speak into it.

But mid-question I paused.

I realised I didn’t know how to say telephone in Korean. My mouth opened but the word only came out as telephone.

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I ran a command prompt but the word could not be found. It had been deleted from my vocabulary several days before. It was gone. Poof. Goodbye.

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Words have a profound effect on me. But more than the words used is the delivery. What do your eyes say when your mouth says, “I’m sorry, I’m not really interested in you”? Can you feel your hands curl into fists by your side when you want to Make A Point? Do you scan their body first and see if they’re in shape or not? Perhaps this is what got me through being Korean and being illiterate because body language was how I communicated when my words could not.

Being illiterate was something I never addressed until earlier this year. But in terms of most of my speaking life I tried my best to avoid all forms of the Korean language. But life has its funny way of constantly booking me in for tests of language that I didn’t sign up for.

Answering the phone in Korean was probably my worst nightmare. It would start by gauging whether the person calling was Korean before the phone even rang. If I had the courage to pick it up and it was indeed a Korean, I would reply “Ah…yoboseyo!” (and then make a mad dash in my house to find my mum to hear the rest of whatever they had to say. Equally when my uncle or aunty would make their usual once-every-two- years phone call I would struggle to tell them exactly how old I was and make a guestimate. My favourite number and only number I could remember very well was 9, so I was always some derivative of 9.

Sometimes it came in handy. The Jehovah’s Witnesses knew we were a Korean family and for some reason would always send Korean Witnesses to knock on our door after school when my parents were just on their way home from work. I wasn’t allowed to answer the door anyway because I was some derivative of 9 and there were creeps in the neighbourhood. The JWs would knock and I would tell them through the unopened door I couldn’t speak Korean as they stuffed pamphlets through the side window (the irony in this is that this was very similar to what I did on my mission a few years into the future).   

It was only till I started high school when my illiteracy seemed to form an uncomfortable itch on my back where I couldn’t reach.

My first teacher Mrs. Kim in high school was Korean. She was the epitome of what I wanted to be when I was older: beautiful, tall, well-respected, happily married and incredibly intelligent and kind. Like many other Asians I sustained the easiest A in my high school career through my bra size and my teacher told me I had no boobs like her. I had asked her to help me wrap a sarong over my uniform for a luau Youth Dance and she had looked me up and down. From then on she became my mentor, confidante and friend.

But there was something distinctively different between us.

She made spelling mistakes. While she spelled all the elements of the periodic table correctly (she was even named after a scientist) there were elements of her sentences that did not make grammatical sense.

But it didn’t really matter. Everything about her translated well amongst Korean students and English students. I admired that about her, as I had always been the token Asian friend and would play down my ‘Asian’ behaviours rather than be one who celebrated, immersed and blended the cultures and people into one.

One of her responsibilities was to lead the Korean Cultural Night. She put me in the MC/presenter script writing team. I loved writing so this seemed like a great opportunity. They needed Korean and English speakers as the event would attract a non-Korean audience too. But the group texts were always in Korean and at the time my phone was a Nokia brick phone and dealt even worse with receiving Korean messages than I did. All I got was little boxes. I was too embarrassed to admit that a) I had a brick phone in a slide phone era and b) even if I got a new phone I still wouldn’t be able to read the messages. I decided to pull out of the team.

A couple years later I decided to try again, but this time through dance. I was in the dance troupe at school and had always loved contemporary Jazz dance. But I was under the influence of the Hallyu /Korean Wave of K-Pop, Korean dramas and celebrities and the opportunity to do K-Pop dance seemed new and exciting. My friend asked if I could make her trio of dancers into a quad squad for an item for Korean Night 2012 and I gladly accepted. It would be my transition into the Korean community! The girls seemed lovely, and the dance seemed jumpy enough to look cute and outfits edgy enough to look sexy.

But our self-appointed dear leader took it upon herself to never speak to me face to face. Whilst there were only four of us, she spoke to me only via our mutual friend and I struggled to take her seriously. Ten minutes before our performance she turned around to me and for the first time directly talked to me. This was it. I said to myself. After all the countless rehearsals where she wouldn’t speak to me, we would finally unite because of this wonderful moment. We would fist bump and dance like this was the most important night of our lives.

“Kelly. Stand behind me. Don’t move. I don’t want anyone see you dance. Okay?”

What?

I decided not to heed her advice and stood so that I could clearly be seen at all times. I also decided from then on that the Korean entertainment industry was not for me. And maybe the Korean community wasn’t really for me either. I never really clicked with those girls anyway. This was my destiny, forever floating in between two cultures, never part of one, never completely comfortable in the other. But If I couldn’t be comfortable in a culture, then where did I belong? What constituted my identity?

I looked back at my biology study guides across my desk, Korean eyeliners and shadows, my hundreds of tabs opened of NCEA past papers, online clothing stores and Korean celebrity gossip. I stared at my used anatomy books on my book shelf. I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision or if this moment was when I was sure I would become the ultimate Asian career stereotype.

Respectable. Prestigious. Difficult. Rewarding.

I will be a doctor. 

That’s who I’m supposed to be.

 

 

 

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Friendzoning my Asian Heritage, journey, Uncategorized

Friendzoning my Asian Heritage

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This is my seventeenth attempt at a blog. So before I press delete forever again, I’m determined to think of this as a practise corner of the internet where I can try out different writing styles. You have to start somewhere right? Even if it’s super awkward. Feel free to read and criticise constructively (or not). We’ll see how it goes!

This post is about growing up as a Korean-New Zealander.

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Growing up I got confused with all the different Korean greetings. I’d bow and tell the people who invited me over, “Goodbye, have a good trip” and would bow and tell guests leaving my own home “Hello, stay at your home safely”, pink-faced with embarrassment as they corrected my mistakes. Korean culture was never second nature to me, and at times I just really wanted to friend-zone my cultural heritage. I like you… but not enough to keep you around. Let’s just awkwardly say hello when we bump into each other but not take it any further. Yeah? Sound good to you?

To be honest I largely rejected my Korean heritage as a child and at a ripe age of four, I swapped my kimchi and banchan for crust-less sandwiches and tiny boxes of raisins. I stopped calling my mother “omma” and she became “mum”.

My parents were supportive of me always. Mum spoke to me in Korean, Dad spoke to me in English. Pioneers of their own sort, they traveled extensively and already lived in the United States where my oldest brother was born and where Dad studied and Mum worked. They then moved back to South Korea for a few more years where my other brother was born. Finally, they decided to ride the massive immigration wave of Asians to New Zealand in the 90’s. That’s where I came into the picture.

They had great expectations for all of us kids. Most importantly they wanted me to be Christ-like: honest, kind and faithful.

Buuuut a pretty close second to that was to be smart: highly academic, very involved with extra-curriculars, savvy with money and to put in more effort in my work than other kids. “Rich Kid, Smart Kid” and “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” stared at me over my childhood years on the book shelf and whilst I never read them, the titles were enough for me to get the picture. A bit on the competitive side, my parents challenged me to improve every time I brought home my report. My first teachers would write:

Kelly is a delight to teach and is well-liked by her peers. She contributes well in class and cares for her friends. Kelly often struggles to finish what she has started but has potential to excel if she focuses on her tasks. Kelly also struggles with her hand-eye coordination and running during Physical Education. 

“You need to be in the top 3 Kelly,” Dad would say.

“You need to do maths homework 3 pages a day,” Mum would say in Korean, handing me several work books and a skipping rope.

“Also, you should be careful when you are around Sarah”.

Sarah was my best friend. Also a Korean-New Zealander.

It wasn’t Sarah’s fault really. She had confided in me that her sibling took pictures of her naked to make fun of her. We were six. I was alarmed that maybe Sarah’s sibling would take pictures of me and told my parents. They didn’t jump to any conclusions but advised me to play it safe. But it still scared me. Or maybe it just gave me an excuse.

 So as quickly as I traded my words I traded my friends. For some reason the Korean girls always stuck together so not hanging out with that particular Korean friend pretty much meant social suicide on the Korean front. I disbanded myself from one of my only connections to the Korean community and ran (haphazardly, almost out of breath) across the playground to play tiggy with my pale-skinned, round eyed, nose bridged friends.

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