Names have been changed.
I was content using spoons and forks until 2nd grade, when my Korean aunt came to visit. My parents, my younger brother, my grandmother, other relatives, and I were eating yakisoba, a noodle stir-fry, at our kitchen table when my aunt noticed that I wasn’t using chopsticks like everyone else.
“Hold this one like a pencil,” she told me in rapid-fire Korean. “Then stick the other one in between your thumb and middle finger so that the chopsticks can move up and down.”
I tried to follow her directions, but my noodles kept slipping out of the bamboo sticks and back into my bowl. I couldn’t grasp why anyone would go through the immense effort of learning to use chopsticks when they could easily twirl noodles around the tines of a fork.
I’d spent the last five hours playing volleyball with my older cousins, and I was too hungry to worry about sliding-noodle nonsense.
“Why can’t I just eat my yakisobaaaaa?” I whined, frustrated.
“Yunah, every Korean should know how to use chopsticks!” I winced at the caustic tone she took when she said my Korean name. Only my parents called me that.
My aunt often reminded me how “not Korean” I was.
“Yunah, how come you can’t handle sriracha sauce? It barely burns!” “Yunah, stop smiling and nodding when I speak to you in Korean! You’re in 2nd grade, aigu!” I recoiled at the word, which means “ugh” or “oh, no!” It was the same thing I heard when I got bad marks on my social studies exams.
The next day, embarrassed that I could hardly speak my parents’ native language, I asked my father why he hadn’t bothered to teach me and my brother Korean.
“It’s useless,” he said. “Here, the white people make up the rules.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. We live in Floral Park, Queens, a neighborhood that is mostly South Asian, and where the smell of curry wafts out of small brick houses. My mother and I shop at a grocery store that is filled with the aroma of Indian incense.
My elementary school had some white students, but they mostly lived on the edge of town, where the rich people’s houses were. In my neighborhood, everyone knew that the kids from the Pursnani family were the coolest 5th graders on the block and they made up the rules. And they weren’t white, they were Indian!
“Even if you were able to talk Korean, you won’t use it.” My dad pushed his glasses up over his nose and assumed an authoritative tone. “It’s a white man’s land, Yunah. Tread carefully.”
I left the room confused. I thought about all the scary things my dad had told me about growing up as an immigrant teenager in 1970s Koreatown, near 34th Street.
He’d learned tae kwon do to protect himself from racist gangsters who picked on him for being “squinty-eyed.” Maybe that’s why he tried so hard to assimilate, speaking English at home, cooking me and my brother burgers and delicious angel hair spaghetti rather than kimchi and rice.
Though our neighborhood wasn’t majority white, he wanted to prepare us to be successful in a culture that’s still dominated by white people.
Not “Korean Enough?”
I wasn’t bullied for my race growing up, but I was in the minority. Most of the kids were Asian, sure, but not East Asian like me. In fact, it was so rare to see someone else of East Asian descent in Floral Park that when we did, my brother and I would often point it out: “Whoa, a Korean/Chinese/Japanese person!”
My parents had grown up in South Korea, where they were surrounded almost exclusively by people who looked like them. When they immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers, they focused on fitting in and learning a new language and culture.
When they started a family, they needed a daughter who was proficient in English. As early as 3rd grade, I was helping them fill out forms I could barely understand, like healthcare questionnaires and passport applications.
Unlike my dad, I wanted to be proud of my race, but I didn’t think I had a right to because I didn’t feel “Korean enough.” At extended family gatherings, it felt like I was the butt of every joke about Americans and their “unsophisticated” ways. My younger brother saw how I was scorned by our relatives, so he taught himself to use chopsticks and speak Korean.
Then I got into Stuyvesant High School, which is 74% Asian-American. I knew most kids at Stuyvesant were East Asian, but I didn’t expect to see so many Koreans.
Being around so many kids who shared my background transformed my world. Suddenly, people got my jokes about adoring Gudetama plushies and becoming a bubble tea fanatic.
They understood what it was like to have parents who pushed me to become a doctor or lawyer, despite the fact that I had no interest in medicine or law.
While we mostly spoke English together, my Korean friends would sometimes gossip in Korean so that other students wouldn’t be able to understand. When I joined in, they jeered at my heavy American accent and dubbed me a “banana”—white on the inside, yellow on the outside. I felt like I wasn’t a true Korean. I never spoke the language in public after that.
Later in my freshman year, I became close friends with a Chinese-American girl in my biology class. Kareena and I both adored the bingsoo (Korean shaved ice cream) we bought on Mott Street.
We had the same goals: to pass chemistry, to become best friends with our beloved English teachers, and to live up to our parents’ impossibly high standards by attending an elite college.
Want a Fork?
One May afternoon, Kareena and I went out for ramen after doing a class project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I tore apart the wooden chopsticks placed next to my bowl, I sighed, anticipating the sliding-noodle ordeal to come. Kareena seemed calm as she opened her own utensils, like she knew exactly what she was doing.
“Oh, jeez,” I said, laughing nervously. “I’m kind of terrible at using chopsticks.”
“Me, too!” she laughed. “I always pretend to use them but I actually have no clue how. My noodles always slide off, and it takes me 10 years to eat.”
“Right?” I felt a little less anxious. I didn’t think she’d admit to being an outsider to her own culture.
“Wanna ask for forks?” she asked.
The waiter gave us a patronizing look—if you’re Asian, they assume you can use chopsticks—but it didn’t feel as embarrassing as it did when I was out eating noodles with family. At least I wasn’t the only whitewashed Asian person at the table, and I could finally eat my ramen without having to worry about aching fingers or slipping noodles.
“I wish I knew how to use chopsticks, though,” I said.
“Yeah, I feel you,” Kareena answered. The waiter arrived with two large ramen bowls. “But doesn’t it feel like we’ve got the best of both worlds as Asian-Americans?”
“What do you mean?” I said, slurping up my noodles.
“Aren’t there some things about your parents’ culture that you hate?”
I thought about it. “I hate how my parents compare me to all my friends.”
“I’m insecure,” I added, taking a sudden interest in my ramen bowl. “And I can’t talk to my parents about, like, anything. The only time I talk to my mom is when I get 100s on my tests.”
Kareena told me she also felt a ton of pressure from her parents to succeed academically. But she pointed out that our parents were raising us how they had been brought up themselves; they didn’t know any other way.
I thought about the downsides of my parents’ mindset: They are fiercely traditional and have a tendency to look down on other races and cultures.
I can understand my father’s suspicion of whites due to being bullied, but I believe it’s made him more sheltered and introverted. My mother also likes to remind me and my brother that she’s “OK with gay people in general,” but not with us being attracted to someone of the same gender.
People of any ethnic background can be homophobic or otherwise prejudiced. But I do think growing up around people who were similar to her has given my mother negative views towards those who are different.
On the other hand, I’ve spent my Saturdays pigging out on ceviche and flan at my Peruvian friend’s home, and letting talented artists decorate my hands with henna for my elementary school’s annual Eid celebration. Being exposed to diverse cultures from an early age made it much easier for me to realize we are all equal.
However, I can also see the good things I’ve taken from my parents’ culture. My mother’s constant lectures taught me that hard work yields results. I appreciate every hour my parents worked to send me and my brother to prep classes so we could succeed in school and gain a better life than they had.
Not Korean or American, But Korean-American
Thanks in part to my conversations with Kareena, I know that being Asian is about so much more than being able to handle spice or use chopsticks. No matter how sensitive my taste buds are to capsaicin, the part of chili peppers that makes them spicy, or how inefficient I am at using traditionally Asian eating utensils, I have every right to claim my Korean heritage and be proud of it.
Last week, my extended family gathered to celebrate my grandmother’s return from South Korea. The table was stacked high with food my grandmother, a professional chef, had made herself: porcelain bowls filled with kimchi, sashimi, vegetables from our garden, escargot, Spam, sesame chicken, kalbi, roasted pork chops, jalapeños, and miso soup.
The table fell silent as we all began to eat. I noticed my six-year-old cousin from Korea, Dong-min, already skillfully wielding his chopsticks and eating all his rice with kimchi.
“Dong-min uses his chopsticks so well, yet you still like using forks?” jeered my other cousin in Korean. I just laughed. Now, I’m too secure to let these jokes get under my skin.
“Huh,” my cousin said. “I thought you’d get offended, like you usually do.”
I flashed a grin at him as a noodle slid between my metal chopsticks and onto my lap.
- Race & Ethnicity