White Person in USA: “Wow, Sahn is so beautiful! He looks just like his mother. You know, mixed children usually look like the (insert non-white descriptor) parent.”
Korean person in Korea: “He is so cute! Very good looking… he looks just like his dad.”
This is the majority of reactions when people in Korea or in the US meet Sahn for the first time. They generally comment on his good looks and then immediately declare how much closer he resembles either Hyeyoung or me. About 90% of the time anyone in the US made this remark, especially if the person remarking was white, they declared Sahn more closely resembled Hyeyoung. About 95% of the time in Korea, Koreans will declare that he looks like me (and to Hyeyoung’s dismay they sometimes add “That’s why he is so handsome.”). This experience reminded me how much we are conditioned to ignore the same old kind of thing we see everyday (facial features); whereas, differences jump out to us, and may even dominate our interpretation of reality. I feel the same way when I drive down the same street everyday to school or work, and eventually take little to no notice of the same old buildings and people I pass by. However, when one new business with a new sign pops up, I immediately notice and may also define that drive experience by the revelation of a new store or restaurant. So, US Americans mostly notice the features that resemble Hyeyoung’s Korean face, while Koreans mostly notice the features that relate to my white-euro face; each declaring Sahn mostly resembles the other ethnicity.
After we found out Hyeyoung was expecting a child back in the summer of 2012, we started talking and thinking more about what his experience will be like having a mostly white-euro-ancestry father and a Korean mother. While I worked with a project focusing on leadership among Asian Americans, I heard countless stories of 1.5, 2nd, and more generation immigrants dealing with the feeling of “forever between – neither here nor there.” They have grown up in the US and speak mostly English and maybe none of their parents’ native language at all. Their parents’ home country is almost completely foreign to them having grown up in US schools, with US pop culture, music, arts, and fashion.
Yet they constantly received questions from other US Americans such as, “Where are you from?” “Chicago.” “No, where are you really from?” “I was born in Chicago, but I lived mostly in Oak Park, a suburb.” “No, you know what I mean. Where are you really from from?” Sahn will have to bear the burden of others’ assumption: as he does not resemble the normative image for US American white-euro-ancestry, then he must not truly be from the US, implying that he does not actually belong.
Korean children also bolster the notion that Sahn may never be accepted as Korean in Korea, as they constantly remark, “He looks like a US American.” We often respond, “But because his mother is Korean and his father is US American, then he is both a Korean citizen and American citizen. He even has both passports!” “Yes, but he looks like he is a US American.”
The most outlandish moment Sahn and Hyeyoung came across happened while out with our YAVs. Hyeyoung and Quantisha entered a pharmacy together, and despite the fact Hyeyoung was holding Sahn, the shopkeeper turned to Quantisha and asked, “Is he yours?”
We hope to be present with Sahn on his journey through identity as helpfully as possible. He must claim his identity for himself even if it ends up being “neither.” We hope to be able to equip him with the skills to engage all the various ways people in both Korea and the US might treat him for better or for worse. We will affirm all the feelings that might arise when dealing with questions and situations as mentioned above: confusion, anger, pity, isolation, and whatever else may come. We hope he develops a firm connection and understanding of all those feelings. We will struggle to transform the world into a more welcoming community. We also know that much of his choices, how he engages the world, will be up to him in the end.
If you want to explore more about what life is like for children of various ethnic backgrounds or for 1.5 immigrants and beyond, I suggest picking up Bruce Reyes Chow’s book, But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations About Race. We are also using it to think about Sahn’s future journey with race, ethnicity, and identity.