Story by Clementine Evans
Illustration by Isabelle Wong
My grandmother, my halmoni, once told my mom something that she found absolutely ridiculous. She said that if you go to sleep with an electric fan on, it will blow the oxygen away from your face and you will “wake up dead.” With this story, my thoughts about how crazy my halmoni was (and still is) were confirmed. This, however, is also something I thought of the other side of my family, the white side.
I have a white dad and a Korean mom. My Korean side of the family is large and extended. The white side is small and contained. The two sides are a stark contrast to one another. My dad’s side of the family is…white. From the interactions I have had with my dad’s mom and siblings, there are some interesting things that make me think about how I can fit into two very different families while being very different from both of them. This is in no way a judgment or criticism towards any of my family, just observations that have encouraged me to think about my relationships with two families I have never felt like I truly belonged with.
I look nothing like either of my parents. If anything, I have the complexion of my dad and the height of my mom. Those are the only similarities. When I was younger, my mom was mistaken for my nanny several times when we lived in New York. Although I was too young to remember it, the feeling that my mom and I could be treated any differently because we looked nothing alike, still remains inside me.
My grandma, my dad’s mom, would always take me to a Thai restaurant whenever I would visit her in Portland. There, I would use chopsticks — like I have always done. My grandma and her friends would always look at me, in shock that I — a white-presenting child — could fathom the complexities of handling my food with chopsticks. I did not understand what was so spectacular about me simply eating the way that I would. This is one of many examples that have made me feel more and more separated from my own family.
My grandma also once told my mom before I was born that she was excited to have an “Amerasian” grandchild. This, as you can probably imagine, peeved my mom. My grandma was oblivious to the fact that this term was probably not a great word to use. Race and ethnicity should not be the adjectives in front of the word granddaughter. It should just be your granddaughter, not your Amerasian granddaughter, not your chopstick-wielding granddaughter, and certainly not your granddaughter who uses “exotic” Korean words.
Also, I do not speak Korean. I am functionally illiterate. I can read Korean, but I have no idea what I am reading. I can hold a conversation for about 10–15 seconds before I have to call my mom over to translate. My entire Korean side of the family speaks it fluently and often. The conversations that they have in Korean make me feel like the girl left out of Regina George’s conversations. The difference? I am not even able to understand what they might be chattering about. Although I know that none of my Korean relatives judge or look down on me because I do not speak Korean, I still feel a sense of guilt and unworthiness because I do not.
The traditions and myths that I hear from my Korean side of the family are far more interesting than the simple family history from my white side. The Korean legends give me a deeper understanding of half of my culture but, in contrast, my white side plainly describes a boring family tree. I can see where I come from, who my ancestors were, how they came to be in America, but I can never truly understand their culture, and their ways of life, and the stories they were told.
I try not to let my race affect the way I interact with my family but it is an inescapable barrier that everyone sees, on both sides of my family. Even though being biracial should not influence the way my family sees me, it inevitably does. I love my family and I know they love me. But there are times it feels as if I am a separate entity from both sides of them. Sometimes, I feel like I cannot breathe because I am trapped between two worlds. Maybe the electric fans have actually blown the oxygen away from my face.