I Belong

Posted by christinejaylee
2018. 4. 4. 22:09 EDITORIAL/문화 & 예술 :: Culture & Art

I Belong | English Columnist Sydney Lee

I belong.

Your next thought may be, “To where? Why is the writer’s sentence incomplete?”

However, it is not incomplete.

I’m here to tell you that I belong, whether it is with the general Korean community, the Korean-American community, or the native-born Korean community, I simply belong.

By the fact that I proudly embrace, represent, and respect my culture and country,

I belong.

You Don’t Belong

“Are you like “Korean Korean” or are you actually a KA (shortened acronym for Korean American)?”

For the past 3 years on this college campus and for the past 13 years in California, I have gotten this question more than I’d like to count. I speak both Korean and English fluently, but have often been considered too “Americanized” for the Korean international community and too “Korean” for the Korean Americans who were born here. I embrace both languages and possess a great amount of admiration for both cultures, but why is it that I am unfitting for either group? I am Korean and I am American, but society tells me I am not quite either and that I am also not a Korean American; and so I tell myself, that it does not matter what racial label is pasted upon my forehead, for I am me, and this “me” is both Korean and American, because the only person that can define “me” is myself.

My Story

I was born in South Korea in 1997 and I came to California, United States in 2005. Hence, I spent 8 years in Korea and 13 years in America. Now I want to ask you, what does that make me? How should I be labeled so that it is most acceptable by society’s terms?  I read and write both languages and speak both languages fluently, although lacking in professional-level  Korean. My parents made sure that I was constantly receiving lessons in Korean even after I moved to California to make sure that I did not forget the language. I didn’t want to forget it either; I knew I was Korean, and I worked extremely hard to not forget the language of my roots. As I was learning Korean daily, I was also struggling to learn English as I attended an elementary school full of kids who only spoke English. Of course, I was a loner, often bullied and racially excluded. There were 0 Koreans in my initial elementary school when I first came to California and all I could think was how I missed my Korean-speaking friends back in Korea.

I grew up, loving the Korean culture, food, music, fashion, and more. But I also grew up, loving the American culture, food, music, and fashion. However, I was often told, “but Sydney, you can’t love/prefer both equally. Be honest. Are you more Korean or more American?” I never answered this question, because I never understood why I had to make a choice. I still do not understand the reason as to why I must have a preference, for I do not wish to have a preference for the two countries that have made me into the person I am today, and I know for a fact, that is okay.

Beauty Standards

South Korea’s definition of beauty equates to one’s youthful, pale, and dewy complexion with precise double eyelids; such complexions make one look feminine, intelligent, and truly beautiful within Korean standards. My facial features do not exemplify a typical “Korean,” and I have often been told that I look exotic or “unclear.” Many do not believe that I look like a “Korean” when they first see me, but I have often been perplexed by What is a “Korean”  supposed to look like when I myself have seen so many different Korean faces throughout my life? To make this uncertainty only worse, I have often been told that I do my make-up in an “American” way. The ideal Korean makeup would highlight one’s femininity and natural-looking pale beauty. Hence, my makeup which does not incorporate much glitter or natural colors, is considered “too edgy” or not “feminine” enough. However, ultimately, make-up does not hold any racial notion for me; it is a simple means of self-expression, as I explore the best products and techniques that highlight the beauty I see within my own face. I do not stare at the mirror in the morning and decide whether I will be conforming to a Korean or American beauty standard, because I do not seek to look like a “pretty Korean” or a “pretty American.” Rather, I merely want to be a pretty version of myself as an individual.

[2] Korean-American Child Model Ella Gross

There are exceptions, however, for as a society, we are constantly progressing. Take the rising Korean American child model for example, Ella Gross. With an American father and Korean mother, Ella lives in Los Angeles, modeling for famous clothing brands such as Zara and Levi. Whether her social media viewers are Korean or American or even another race, it can be agreed upon that she is absolutely exquisite. Her universal beauty is undeniable as she can be described as having a mixture of Korean beauty and American beauty characteristics. As according to Korean beauty standards, her eyes are large and clear with light eyebrows that are strictly defined as a shape; also according to American beauty standards, she has a sharp nose and often wears bold color lipsticks that bring out an exotic beauty within her. The reason I bring this model up is because of the comments that are often left upon her social media. At times, it is debated whether she received her beautiful physical genes from her American father or Korean mother; to this debate, many people answer that she has the “eyes” of an ideally beautiful Korean girl. In other words, rather than commenting that her eyes are beautiful, people comment that she has beautiful Korean eyes. Again, we are left to question, why the beauty associated with this young girl’s eyes is considered a racial characteristic.

Beauty standards may be different amongst cultures, but the concept of beauty itself is universal. We use the word “beautiful” to signify someone’s physical or non-physical attractiveness; however due to the cultural difference, someone who may be called beautiful in Korea may not be described as such in America. This is not foreign to us; rather, it seems natural and normal. But what is rather questionable is pinpointing  a certain feature and generalizing it to be a very specific l beauty standard that must be met by all individuals within the race; for example, generalizing that in order for an individual to be a “beautiful Korean,” he or she must have large, double-eyelid eyes can be rather problematic. Simply put, we must all remember that beauty is universally unique.


Since when does the language you are most comfortable with also determine which racial identity you are more of? Is that not a construct of society itself? When one claims that he or she is more comfortable speaking in English over Korean, we as society also automatically conclude that he or she is more American than Korean. But language is not all there is to a race or a culture; however, we often allow language to determine a person’s racial identity.

[3] Common Konglish Words

A lot of Koreans who have lived in America for quite some time, whether they were born in Korea or America, are sometimes comfortable speaking a mixture of both languages, or as we call it, Konglish (Korean + English). Now, English is taught as a secondary language in Korean schools, as many deem it as a significant skill to possess. Hence, as students learn English, they have developed many different vocabulary terms in Konglish. It is quite ironic that the concept of Konglish, which has been borne out of the value Koreans hold for English, is a representation of how well one knows about the Korean language. Technically, Konglish consists of many words that have been borne out of English vocabulary; but the truth is Konglish is actually a mechanism that is sometimes used to signal how “Korean” someone is. Those who have lived in the U.S. for a long time, such as Korean Americans, may not be knowledgeable in Konglish terms such as a “hand phone” used to describe a mobile phone. Ultimately, Konglish should not be used as a determining factor of how accustomed one is to the Korean linguistics or slang, but rather a mixed language to be treasured. Overall, there is an art to Konglish, a creation by those who embrace the beauty of both languages, that both the Korean Americans and native Koreans can appreciate.

The Concept of a “We”

     [4] First Korean-American Presbyterian Church

At the end of the day, whatever we label ourselves, we hold some admiration or respect for the Korean culture, feeling connected to it in some way. With all labels and stereotypes aside, we are still a “we.” In American history, we, as a race were confused and stereotyped with the Japanese, as the country whose “Forgotten War” left them deeply divided at the 38th parallel. That is all that is portrayed in the American history textbooks within K-12 schools in regards to Koreans.

We are both in a white man’s country and our home country remains deeply divided as two separate regions. A sense of division is everywhere, and here I am left questioning, why this additional division amongst the Korean-born Koreans and the Korean Americans is necessary. There is an invisible glass that divides us from each other despite the fact that we are all Koreans in America. Unity based upon our culture ceases to exist and what we are only left with are these labels.

“We” are still a racial minority in America, at times excluded based on our different physique and our identity as a non-white/Asian. “We” have faced a history of oppression in this country as we struggle to be accepted into a white-dominant society. “We” are united by our love for the country that we are proud to be a part of at heart despite our temporary or permanent separation in physical space. Hence, still today in our American society, there is a need for a “we,” but no need for a “us” and “them.”


[1] https://thevarsity.ca/2017/03/05/for-many-south-koreans-beauty-standards-represent-a-cultural-struggle/

[2] https://blogs.transparent.com/korean/what-is-%EC%BD%A9%EA%B8%80%EB%A6%AC%EC%8B%9C-konglish/

[3] http://www.hellokpop.com/news/meet-korean-american-ella-gross/

[4] https://brown.digication.com/aapc/Christianity_and_Korean_Immigrants

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