It wasn't easy being Korean American in a primarily Caucasian community. At age seven, I had moved to Vernon Hills, Illinois. As one of the few Asian Americans in town, I was bombarded with an onslaught of questions: "Where are you actually from?" "You and Joseph Lee have the same last name. Are you related?" "Are you Chinese? Your eyes look Chinese."
It didn't help that Uhmma [mom, in Korean] often packed me
[kimchi fried rice] for lunch; an odoriferous oddity that stood out among the All-American chicken Caesar salads and peanut butter sandwiches that my classmates unwrapped at lunchtime. My
was met with curious disgust by my classmates, and I would bring it home rather than eat it in front of them. Though for most of my childhood, I had identified myself as Korean, it wasn't long before I angrily told my bewildered Uhmma, "I'm American! Don't pack me lunch ever again, okay?!"
Yet, notwithstanding my declaration to Uhmma, I knew that my identity was not as simple as what I ate for lunch. About a year after I told Uhmma that I was an American, there was an incident that underscored just how
American I was perceived to be. Ironically, that day, I was probably wearing an Abercrombie shirt and skinny jeans or whatever was generically American in May 2010. Uhmma and I were in the parking lot of the local post office. While backing out, a woman driving a silver car rammed into the hood of our white Toyota 4Runner.
Uhmma stormed out of the driver's seat. "I want aparlagy," she demanded. "Liddle damegey," she said, pointing to her car's relatively intact hood. "I pay damegey. But you say sorry."
"You chinks always want the same thing! You can take my money, but that's all you'll ever get," the woman screeched. "Go back to China!"
"She just said she's not holding you accountable for the accident. Just freaking apologize," I interjected in a reedy voice. "And for God's sake, we're Korean, you racist ignoramus."
Never had I encountered someone - and an adult at that - as blatantly racist as she was, and never had someone's derogatory comments bothered me as much as hers had. I was fuming. Maybe it was small of me, but I took pleasure in verbally slapping some common sense into her. No one would disrespect Uhmma and get away with it. And it wasn't until a few days later, when I could objectively reflect on my actions, that I realized no one would disrespect my heritage and get away with it either. I had told the woman I was Korean without thinking twice about it. As much as I felt American, and perhaps even chose to be American, I couldn't get away from the truth that I was also Korean.
I am Korean American, with all its complications and contradictions. I do not have to explain to anyone how my identity comes together in daily life, but I also will not tolerate any ignorant, derogatory remarks about any part of my identity. In other words, I'll eat
for lunch if I feel like it.
Seri Lee, a youth participant of ML-SAAF, is a senior at Vernon Hills High School and aspires to study history and psychology at the University of Chicago. Seri also enjoys playing the cello, making stuffed sock animals, and taking silly quizzes on BuzzFeed.