Kid's Quill: What Does It Mean to Be an American?

April 1, 2000
Just Another Asian Girl?

By Ju Yon Kim

When I was seven years old I went to the circus with my family and friends. We had a great time. I was amazed by the trapeze artists, the lion trainers, and, best of all, the high-wire balancing act. I wasn’t aware of the other spectators around us, or what they thought of us. It never occurred to me that I was different from them.

My parents took me to the circus again last year, when I was 13. Six years can make a world of difference. This time, I was worried about what the other spectators would think of us. If I seemed rude or too noisy, any Asians around us would think my parents raised me badly, while everyone else would think Asians had no respect for others. This time, I was the one doing the balancing act.

Whenever I am forced to label myself, I say that I am Korean-American. I was born in Korea, but I live in America. However, the little hyphen between Korean and American isn’t there just to be grammatically correct. That tiny mark is a scale. I have to have just enough “Korean” in me to please Koreans, and just enough “American” in me to please Americans. I suppose that is my biggest challenge. I have to please everyone.

My school is more than 60% Asian. Even so, I face stereotypes. I can’t help feeling that, because I am Asian, I have to perform above and beyond to catch a teacher’s attention. I think some teachers see me as just another Asian kid whose parents will make sure she gets good grades. (You know the stereotype: that all Asians are nerds and all Asian parents pressure their kids.) This drives me crazy because it seems to insult both my parents and me.

The Korean part of me is something I’ll never hide or regret. However, it’s difficult to gain respect as both a Korean and an American. I’m sick of people thinking I’m a foreign tourist when I go places with my family. We usually converse in Korean, and people around us assume we can’t speak English.

One evening, my family and I were walking to a restaurant for dinner. As we strolled along, minding our own business, a truck came roaring down the street. The people inside yelled some indistinguishable jabber at us, apparently trying to make Asian-like sounds.

I stopped for a second, rather stunned. I probably spoke English better than they did. My parents didn’t seem to notice, but my brother and I did, and we didn’t like it. I still find it painful to relate. I felt like killing those racist jerks, and I am not a violent person.

I was glad my parents hadn’t heard anything. I didn’t want them to think that Americans were like that. I didn’t want them to start thinking about going back to Korea. I’d be different there, too, because I can’t speak Korean as fluently as English.

I find myself being extremely careful around Korean relatives. There’s a problem when they find an aspect of American culture strange or disgraceful. For instance, I feel embarrassed when my relatives see me relaxing by listening to the radio or reading magazines. I feel as though they are disappointed in me, since Korean students have to follow strict rules. But there’s also a problem when my friends who are not Korean find a part of Korean culture to be weird. As gross as it may seem to Americans, burping after meals is not considered rude in Korea. This has caused a few forgettable moments for me.

I want to show Koreans that Americans are not bad people and to show Americans that Koreans are not bad people. I want to show the bright side of each culture while fully acknowledging the dark side, too. I know that if I just give up and let one half of my life trample on the other half, I’ll only be promoting more stereotypes and more hate.

There may be teens out there thinking, “She’s making a big deal about nothing. Who cares?” Well, I care. Every day I have to be cautious and sensitive. Every day I have to fight stereotypes bombarding me from all sides. I hate the fact that humans judge each other. I hate the fact that when we look at others, sometimes all we see is skin. Most of all, I hate the fact that to Koreans, I’ve been Americanized, and to Americans, I’m just another Asian girl.

© LA Youth, Los Angeles

Red, White, and Blue on Eastern Parkway

By Angela Randolph

Growing up, I always wanted to go to the Caribbean Day Parade on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. I live in a neighborhood that is mostly West Indian, and here the parade is taken seriously. My friends used to tell me how so many people came out and represented their countries with floats, colorful costumes, tasty food, and arts and crafts.

I was born in America, and my family has been here as long as I know about. I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to act once I stepped onto Eastern Parkway. But I went to the parade with my friends, who brought flags representing their Caribbean countries. Half of me wanted to carry one of their flags because I wanted to belong. But later, I felt the urge to carry the red, white and blue, which was nowhere to be found that day. I am American, so I thought I should hold up and wave a flag showing my colors and my pride.

But when I approached a vendor and asked if he had the American flag, he gave me a strange look and replied, “Baby, that is the last thing on my mind.”

I didn’t know whether to take the comment as an insult to me or my country, so I just walked away. Later, when I came across the American flag, I bought it.

My friends made their jokes about it here and there. People stared at me as if I was a plague to avoid, and one man told me that I should have bought an African flag instead of buying garbage. When he said that, I felt disrespected.

I admired the parade and recognized the importance of it to Caribbean people. But as I walked home, I thought to myself, “Where do I belong? Is it wrong for a black girl to have pride in America?”

I never really was confused about that before. I know about my ancestors from Africa, slavery, the way they were treated in this country, right up to the present. I know my roots and history.

Even so, I feel America is the country I know about and feel connected to, despite its history and despite the racism that continues today. But sometimes I hear more about racism than I feel it. I think that half the people of my color who complain about the way they are treated by white people have never experienced any harsh treatment from them.

The looks and comments I got at the parade surprised me, because when I see a person of the same race as me, I tend to feel a close connection. Maybe only because they are black, I often think that we have the same values and goals. It never crossed my mind that somewhere down the line there could be a difference.

In truth, my friends may not have been thinking about whether America’s treatment of blacks is acceptable. Some of my friends do not like America for smaller reasons, like they miss their countries and their culture. They only came over here for the better jobs and educational opportunities America has to offer. A part of them still wishes that they were back in their countries.

But I also think people use race and culture to separate themselves from others too often. No one wants to forget her own culture, but sometimes I think it seems too important to my West Indian friends to stick together, and to have no part in being American. If you identify with just one group of people, then you only know one way, but if you are with others, you discover new ways of seeing the world.

It’s easy for me to accept that my friends of other races might have different views from me. Actually, I expect them to, because I know that they come from a different place and did not have the same upbringing. But it wasn’t until I went to the parade that I realized how my upbringing as an American has given me a different perspective from my West Indian friends. It was surprising to me that I would feel like an outcast among black people, who I consider my own.

© New Youth Connections, New York

Kim, Ju Yon. "Just Another Asian Girl?" Kid's Quill. Youth Today, April 2000, p. 24.

Randolph, Angela. "Red, White, and Blue on Eastern Parkway." Kid's Quill. Youth Today, April 2000, p. 24.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.