I Was Korean Before It Was Cool

Photographer: Julia Faragher

There are many words to describe what I am. Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua describes a “mestiza consciousness”, drawing on the term “mestizo”, which refers to a mixed race person; specifically a person of mixed Spanish and American-Indian heritage in Latin America. Child of the 90s and devoted Potterhead that I am, I began to relate with the much-maligned Muggleborns of the series. I am a Mudblood; I take your neat post-colonial racial theories and throw them out the window. I am not supposed to exist and people are hellbent on reminding me of that.

When you tell a child, over and over, that they are neither a ‘real Chinese’, nor a ‘real Korean’, nor a ‘real Australian’, they start to doubt whether they are actually real at all.

As the child of a Korean father and an ethnically Cantonese-Hainanese Singaporean mother, my racial identity pushes the limits of your average Australian’s knowledge of Asian geography; and white Australians, you learn very quickly, don’t like being told that there’s shit they don’t know.  Growing up Mudblood was a profoundly isolated, lonely experience – at school, at Chinese school, in Australia, in Singapore, in Korea, there were always cultural and linguistic barriers put up to keep me out. Like many children growing up in a mixed-heritage household, English was our only common language; but most Asians expect all other Asians to speak a bare minimum of two languages, and my monolingualism was always taken as a disqualifying factor. In Asia I am too dark and too fat; in Australia I am too short and my eyes are too small. When you tell a child, over and over, that they are neither a ‘real Chinese’, nor a ‘real Korean’, nor a ‘real Australian’, they start to doubt whether they are actually real at all.

Culturally, geographically and linguistically isolated from my ethnic roots, I have found other ways to connect and belong. I have fond memories of running around Singapore during Chinese New Year in shiny cheongsams. Like all Korean children, I learned how to bow to elders and to ancestors whilst wearing a hanbok (which is no easy feat in a skirt wider than most doorframes). Food and communal eating is of extreme importance in many Asian families, and became our common language. My mother, grandmother and maternal aunts wear jade bracelets – tight-fitting bangles that are never taken off, sometimes even after death – that have become a rather ubiquitous signifier of Chinese femininity. I always wanted one, but as a half-Chinese kid, I never quite felt like I could own such a tradition. A few years ago, I decided to get one, anyway. I wear it to feel connected to my heritage, and to remind myself that you can’t be half-Chinese any more than you can be half-human.

For many mixed-heritage and second-generation people of colour, these elements of culture that transcend language and geography are sacred. I used to love wearing hanboks and cheongsams for the same reason I love my jade bracelet now; it is the only way of saying that I am here, I am real, my experience is authentic, and I belong. Implicit to the power of these symbols is the knowledge that only certain people are entitled to wear them; only certain people will understand the history and significance.

Cultural appropriation is when things are taken out of context by people who are not entitled to a cultural heritage because it is not theirs. It creates an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility around sacred, ancient traditions – instead of someone wearing a hanbok simply meaning “I am also a Korean”, it can now also mean “I know fuck all about Korea but hey isn’t this exotic?” In a piece for Racked titled ‘Who Gets to Wear a Cheongsam?’, Gina Mei pointed out that the hostility of suspicious people of colour and self-righteous white people is often aimed at people of mixed-heritage, with people questioning their right to things that are quite literally birthright. What was once a way to stop people from questioning our racial heritage has now put mixed heritage people in the firing line. It is deeply uncomfortable to know that people are constantly assessing your body and making snap judgements as to whether you pass as whatever you’re claiming to be; it is difficult to explain the anxiety manufactured by the constant hostility and suspicion caused by my ambiguous ethnicity. Performing my cultural heritage used to be a way of accessing the safety of belonging, which I so rarely get to experience; but now I wonder how many people look at my bracelet and wonder who I’m trying to fool.

The hardest part for me to accept was how much this cultural appropriation – the majority of which was perpetrated by other East Asians – erased what little of Korean culture I could claim as my own.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the extent to which people of colour are complicit in cultural appropriation. I grew up in a time when Korea was largely unknown in Australia; being Korean meant that people tried to lump you in with other Asians that they knew and then got frustrated when they realised Asians are not interchangeable. In my teens, however, the K-Wave exploded into the mainstream and suddenly every Asian was pretending to be Korean – copying Korean fashion and makeup trends, memorising K-Pop songs, screeching OPPA and SONBAE at the top of their voice. The University of Western Australia has a Korean Cultural Club with hardly any Koreans in it; a few girls from my high school started a K-Pop dance group with no Korean members. Because the only thing the West sees of Korea is its carefully manicured public image, it only reinforced to people that I was insufficiently Korean, because I didn’t look like a K-Pop star. It felt like my culture was being ripped away from me. The hardest part for me to accept was how much this cultural appropriation – the majority of which was perpetrated by other East Asians – erased what little of Korean culture I could claim as my own. I could no longer call my own cousins “oppa” – as I had since childhood – without sounding like a wannabe fangirl. My experience of Korean culture was the authentic one, yet I was always made to feel like I was putting on a charade.

There is a truth that is very self-evident when you are of mixed-heritage that seems to slip under everyone else’s radar; race is such a wonky, nebulous concept because the notion of racial difference is arbitrary and artificial. In the West, Asia is considered as a monolith and therefore racially homogenous; but Singapore and Korea are as far apart as France and Iran. Being a mixed-heritage Asian means not only experiencing marginalisation and othering, but also having that experience dismissed and minimised: “What does it matter, it’s all Asian anyway.” Recently, it’s also meant that cultural appropriation has further destabilised our already shaky grasp on identity and belonging; when people not entitled to a culture perform it anyway, it robs mixed-heritage people from participating in what little ways they can to a cultural heritage they have an unalienable right to. Cultural appropriation is a product of post-colonialism, as am I; but I refuse to be treated like I am the problem.