I have a phrase I use to describe myself: proudly Korean, fiercely Canadian. It’s accurate. It’s also telling.
Growing up, I was given two choices for how I should approach my identity: pride or shame. For me, the choice was obvious. I’m proud to be Korean – why shouldn’t I be? My grandparents lived in a nation that was first torn apart by Japanese colonialism, and then by internal division.They lived, first-hand, through a country that went from having one of the lowest GDPs in the world to one of the highest; from a time when hunger, not designer brands, described the average Korean’s appearance. I’m proud to be Korean, because we, as a people, have overcome so much and continue to always strive towards excellence. This pride is by choice. But, in another sense – I have to be proud. Other people – mainly white people – define me primarily by difference. I am Asian, I am Korean, and that makes me different. When difference becomes your distinct and defining characteristic, I think your personal relationship with your difference can manifest in one of two ways – pride to be different, or shame.
Nothing has defined my identity more than my appearance: my flat face and my feminine, delicate body. This isn’t by choice – certainly, not mine. This is how other people have categorized, labeled, and treated me– by judging what I look like and determining my identity based on those judgments. No two words have been used to identify me as much as “Asian girl.” Over the years, the preceding adjectives have changed. Ugly, hot, bitchy, smart, stupid – the list is endless in its cyclic continuity, but fairly short with original content.
If I were not proud, I would be ashamed. I would be ashamed to be seen as the “Other”: the girl with slit eyes, a low-set nose, dark-brown hair. However, when society tries to define me, they often do so by contrasting what they think an “Asian girl” should look like, and what they judge my appearance to be. My physicality either falls within their expectations – or it doesn’t. Compliments are never simple, or truly flattering. “You’re really hot – for an Asian. You have big tits – for an Asian. You have big eyes – for an Asian.” There’s also the flip side, when my appearance falls in line with their preconceived ideas: “I love your beautiful Asian eyes. You’re one of those cute Asian girls. You’re a smart Asian girl.” I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong to point out aspects of me that are inconsistent (or consistent) with some general trend. But it’s wrong when part of my actual identity is reduced to stereotypical social constructs that are contrasted by expectations of my physical appearance and body. It baffles me that I have to say this, but twenty one years of bewildered lived experience have taught me that I do: My race is not the singular causal determinant for my intelligence. I’m not smart because I’m Asian. I’m smart because I inherited my parents’ intelligence, because they raised me with care, because I grew up loving to read, because I’m curious, because I like learning, because I AM smart – me, Ki-eun Peck, not “That Asian Girl.”
The thing about being “Other” is that the preconceived ideas of supposed exotic mystique create room for fantasy. I am the voyeur’s favoured genie, ready to grant personalized wishes from a customized lamp. For those who have a fetish for Asian girls, my physical features represent their Orientalist fantasy. For those that want to see someone ‘unique’ and unconventional, they see me as the Canadianized Asian. Some aspects of the way people see me have become internalized, and I have struggled against letting this affect the way I view myself. I’ve gone through periods of wishing I looked more like Lucy Liu, the solitary Western pinnacle of Asian feminine beauty, with her high cheekbones and trademark almond eyes. I’ve also spent hours staring at the mirror, wishing my nose was higher, my eyes were larger, and my skin had red undertones instead of yellow. However, I will say I’ve escaped relatively unscathed. Like anyone else, I have my insecurities – but this hasn’t resulted in internalized self-hatred or shame. For a long time now, whenever I look at my reflection I’ve seen “Ki-eun” more than stereotypes and (failed) expectations. At the same time, it concerns me when I wonder whether this is because enough of my appearance is relatively consistent with societal expectations of beauty, whether they be from the “East” or the “West”.
What do I define myself as? Proudly Korean – fiercely Canadian. Fiercely, because my Canadianness is doubted. Challenged. Scoffed at. Even if I didn’t embrace my Asianness, my Koreanness, my femininity, that wouldn’t stop people from using it to define me every day. But it’s rare that people define me as Canadian. I’m fiercely Canadian because that is the part of my identity I need to defend. Throughout my life, I’ve been asked the eternal question: “where are you from?” To be frank, it’s usually asked by men – at parties, masking ignorance with alcohol; in cafes, masking interference with interest; on the street, jeering, masking harassment with ‘flattery.’ I am from Port Moody, British Columbia. It’s a quaint little city in metro-Vancouver, notable for its scenic nature and saltwater surroundings. I was born and raised in Canada; my passport says, with clinical certainty, “CANADIAN.” My portrait, next to this word, should be more than enough proof, rather than a cause of doubt. This isn’t an essay about what it means to be Canadian – that’s a whole other can of worms and documents cramped with words. But I will say this: for myself, there is no necessary or inherent mutual exclusion between ‘Canadian’ and ‘Korean’.
What do I define myself as? As a child, English was my strongest subject. Cabinets are filled with report cards, scattered with compliments and phrases like “Ki-eun is a writer!” I was constantly writing, and constantly excelling. English was my strongest subject, and English is still my strongest language. I don’t remember learning English, in the same way I don’t remember learning how to breathe.
I don’t remember learning Korean. Nor do I remember losing it – but I know I have. The longer I am away from home – away from people who can call me 기은, who can switch seamlessly between Korean and English, tongue embracing lips and sounds with the same easy grace as water touching sand at the edge of a beach – the longer I am away from this, the heavier my own tongue grows, and my voice shakes not with excitement but fear.
Language is my most intimate identification. A large part of how I define my Koreanness, my connection to a Korean community and culture, is through language. I do not exaggerate when I say one of my greatest fears is losing my language – because, for me, I would be losing my connection to an important half of me. This connection is rare, and it is precious, because it is one that I conceptualize as internal to myself and untouched by my body and society’s external expectations. This is my personal passport – proof that I am still “authentic,” that I am not a ‘banana,’ that I have not stumbled under the heavy weight of assimilation. I know these conceptions are not right. I know, rationally, that I am Korean as firmly as I know my favourite colour is blue and mint makes me sneeze. I know I will be just as Korean even if my preference switches to red in the next 5 minutes. I have faith that I will never truly lose Korean, that my mind will read my world with 한글 as much as English. But every time I stutter or wait a beat too long when responding in Korean – I am struck by fear. I simply pray that the fear will never overtake my faith.