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Representation heals: How College helped ME rediscover my cultural identity

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Rutgers chapter.

Like many other children of immigrants growing up in a white-centric community, I tried to hide my identity for most of my formative years. The first day of school always haunted me, because every home-room teacher would never fail to mispronounce my full name, “Jeayoung”. I remember my classmates always asking me if I was Chinese. Whenever I revealed that I was Korean-American, they’d shoot back at me with a “North or South?” and some even made references to Kim Jong-un. I remember swallowing a big gulp of spit, biting my tongue, and holding in my tears.

I was the eldest of four children. I couldn’t go running back home to my parents and cry about what had happened at school. Instead, I had built a wall around my Korean identity and continued to hate myself for being Korean. For a young girl in Staten Island, New York, being proud of my heritage was no easy feat. It was easier to create a facade, adopt a palatable Western identity, and completely ignore my cultural background.

I would boldly declare the disgust I had for K-pop and K-dramas in middle school to prove that I didn’t associate with my own culture. It was deemed embarrassing, shameful, and something to hide. On the rare occasion that my friends would visit my house, I would tell my mom to make spaghetti or chicken nuggets instead of the Korean meals and side dishes that my family and I normally ate. I can recall the burning flush of humiliation and resentment I would have for my mother, who was not fluent in English, whenever she tried making conversation with my friends.

That’s how I spent many of my younger years, and now, as a college student, I regret it.

I didn’t have an option but to confront my own Korean identity in college, and that’s when I began to accept it. Over the course of my freshman year, I was able to have many conversations with my Asian American friends (and friends from other ethnic backgrounds) who experienced similar upbringings to my own. Blending in felt like a means of survival in those daunting years. Like me, many of them dissociated from their cultural identity and created a persona that fit into their societal norm.

Reconnecting with my culture is very important to me. As my grandparents get older and I become busier with my college life, I am desperate to feel this connection with them. They sacrificed a lot to move to the U.S., and there is a huge part of their lives before that I’ll never fully understand (and didn’t want to understand as a child). I hope to have a better grasp of my culture as I go through the years, and I hope to use that knowledge as a way to bond with my grandparents and relatives overseas.

I also hope to use what I learn as a way to feel more connected to myself. I want to get in touch with my identity, as a first-generation Korean-American. There were many times when I felt alone growing up. I realize now, I am far from alone.

I’ve made wonderful Asian-American friends with whom I feel solidarity and a special connection. Plus, all it takes is a quick Internet search to see videos and read accounts of other Korean Americans sharing their experiences.

It’s easy to blame yourself for not putting in the work to discover your cultural roots. For a long time, I was upset at myself for rejecting Korean culture, but the thing is—it’s really never too late. With the world becoming more interconnected than ever, there are endless resources and communities online—and in the real world—that can bring your closer to yourself and to others like you.

Jenna Park is a current junior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick double majoring in Journalism & Media Studies and Sociology with a minor in Korean. She enjoys outdoor activities and takes photographs during her free time.