Hi! I’m Joan Gwak and I’m a sophomore studying journalism at Northwestern. I’m 19 years old and am Korean-American. I’m passionate about dance and am involved with the urban and hip-hop dance groups at school. I also enjoy editing videos for fun (I have some pretty ratchet ways of editing on Final Cut but feel free to check out some of my videos on my YouTube channel under my name)!
“The Complexities of an ‘International’ Asian American” started off as a rant. I was struggling with a class called “Introduction to Asian American Studies”, not because of its academic rigor nor the workload, but because of how I felt about it. Writing this rant-turned-into-an-opinion-piece helped me unpack my thoughts and process what I was dealing with, and this piece shows one of the first real internal conflicts I had about my identity as I get to know the world and myself better.
The Complexities of an ‘International’ Asian American
Two weeks into fall quarter as a sophomore, I weirdly felt more lost than I did during my first year on campus.
I enrolled in a class called “Introduction to Asian American Studies” to explore the Asian American side of myself. I knew that a few of my friends took the class last year and said it was a relatively easy distribution class, so I signed up to guarantee myself an “A” for my transcript.
I was in for a surprise. Little did I know that this course would leave me feeling perplexed and quite frustrated by the end of the third class (yes, really. Only the third class.)
The professor asked us to free-write to the prompt, “What does Asian American mean to you?” As I put pen to paper, my hand froze. I had absolutely no clue what it meant to me. Should it have meant something significant? I sat there for four minutes, and in the fifth, scribbled on the page that I feel like I should feel Asian American, but I didn’t. “Asian American” didn’t fit my identity, which struck me as an odd fact because technically, I am Asian American — a Korean with an American citizenship.
With everything we were discussing in class (even just up to the third day), from the history of the formation of Asian American Studies to understanding the importance of the knowledge that the subject brings to us students and the US as a whole, it seemed as if everybody in the class except for me was able to find some strand of an emotional or cultural connection that allowed them to put their foot down, declare that they were Asian American and be proud of it.
After retreating to my room following the class, I lay flat on my bed to process the unsettling, odd mix of feelings.
I was born in Korea, raised in southern California, then moved back to Korea for high school at an international school. It’s funny because when Koreans at college meet other Koreans, they identify others as either “Korean-Korean” or “Korean-American” — the former meaning born, raised and educated in Korean, and the latter signifying a more Western style of upbringing. I’d always say that I was Korean-American because I was somewhat ashamed of having the connotation of being “Korean-Korean,” which was FOBby, cliquey and reserved. Even with extracurricular clubs at Northwestern, KASA (Korean American Student Association) is known for being “more American” whereas KANU (Korean Association at Northwestern University) is labeled as “more Korean.”
If I were to place myself on a spectrum of “Korean” and “American”, I would say that I’m ¼ American and ¾ Korean, arbitrarily speaking. My high school years most definitely put me in a weird place because my education was in English, but the culture I surrounded myself with outside of the academic realm was Korean. But then again, I’m not fluent in Korean (I actually recently took the placement test for Korean and was unable to place out; when I told my parents I still had to take Korean for a quarter, they just laughed at me), but my way of living and family culture was more aligned with the Korean lifestyle. This tug-of-war between Korean and American ideals, language and culture left me wondering, “Well, then, what the heck am I? And why does this class that is supposed to introduce me to Asian American concepts exasperate me more than I feel like it should?”
I then recalled the concept of Third Culture Kids (TCKs). My high school guidance counselor mentioned that everybody in my senior class was a TCK as we prepared to graduate. She said that we all might relate to being a TCK on some level and question our identity once we got to college. I, at that point in time, an impatient senior who was so done and just wanted to get out of high school, quickly dismissed this, only for it to come and bite me years later.
A TCK is “a child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up.” My parents were both raised mainly in Korea, but also spent some of their teenage years abroad, and, as mentioned before, I was educated in an international school. That setting itself became my third culture. Although it was a small community of 130 students per grade, those four years were significant enough to introduce me to people of different ethnicities and backgrounds, ultimately conditioning me to adopt a more “international” mindset (which I’m very thankful for), but at the expense of being unaware of my role and identity in the States.
I naively thought that “TCK” was created to make people like me feel as if they were part of a collective and that it was bogus. I thought that I could switch between “more Korean” and “more American” sides of myself on demand, but this Asian American Studies class proved to me that my racial identity is complex and that regardless of my upbringing, my existence as an Asian is part of the Asian American identity in America.
The multifaceted nature of Asian American-ness is a difficult concept to grasp in itself, but constantly not knowing where to place myself on the plane of Asian Americans, or honestly, if I even belong, is a problem I still struggle with. But I’m learning to embrace the ambiguities of being a TCK and to avoid finding fault with my feelings of frustration. I’ve come to accept that my understanding of my identity will change with the diverse experiences I’ll be a part of, and I’m only eager to get to know myself better.
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