But I don’t even like Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

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But I don’t even like Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

Rebekah Choi, Writer

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Recalling the short but possibly the best care-free years of my life, I can only grasp vague memories up until the age of three, of crawling on an unnecessarily large yellow rug, attacking my older brother, and memories of the persistent lingering of the Korean language and culture in the air which surrounded me. In my home, my parents only spoke in Korean, we ate Korean food almost every day, we watched Korean shows to enhance my abilities in my Korean capabilities, and so on. I was exposed to the American culture as well, both inside and outside my home, but the existing Korean culture was definitely a big factor that made my house feel like my home. I never knew the world was so big, but at the time, I was limited to the walls of infancy and a lack of understanding. That was life as I knew it.

My mother and father are both immigrants from South Korea where they were born and lived most of their lives. My parents spoke no English when they arrived in the States. My mother, in particular, had no family here, no immediate job she could jump into, and no realistic plans. I’m sure she had many dreams, but looking at the circumstances, she was alone. My father did not have it easy either, for he too could not speak English well, he could maybe say a couple of basic words at first. I use to frustrate myself because my parents did not speak English well. Sometimes I urged myself to ask them questions about the book I was reading for school or something I read in the news, but they never really knew. They told me they wished they could help. What they did do was instill the importance of my heritage in me. They signed me up for Korean school which was an after-school program that met every Friday, my parents made Korean food all the time (actually, my mother, my dad can’t cook), and my grandmother often, who lived in Korea at the time, sent Korean gifts from the Seoul area where she resided. We also celebrated almost every Korean holiday in the U.S. Despite the cultural outreach I received I struggled to accept the idea that I was Korean American.

When I was a small three-year-old child, going to preschool for the first time was exciting but a bit nerve-wracking, for it was an entirely new experience for me. But, it was not until the first day of preschool that I realized I did not look like most of my peers. I clearly looked “Asian” to them, and they were right because I was a Korean American just born and raised here in the states. But, even at that young age, the difference in the majority of my peers and I overwhelmed me so much to the point in which I felt as though I was drowning in everything that I alone learned to recognize as things that were essentially “wrong” with me. Whenever I was outside of my house, specifically at school, I grew quieter, I was desperate to conform, I lost my sense of bravery, and the heritage I carried within my heart began to deteriorate. Remember, that I was only three.

I went to a public elementary school that lacked the presence of my race. But anyway, most kids brought their lunch to school. I remember one time in elementary school I had brought my pink lunch box as usual. My mom had packed some food for lunchtime, but I was not sure what she had packed that day. I meticulously unzipped my lunchbox to uncover rice that my mom had packed for me. For a split second, I was eager to eat it because I loved rice. But I soon realized that probably no one else in that cafeteria had rice for their lunch, and so I quickly zipped my lunchbox up, and I acted as though the rice was simply an illusion to my eyes. The rice was just not “American” enough and was too “Asian,” and I would only enjoy it at home away from reality. Instead, I grabbed some mangoes I had already taken out of my lunchbox and ate those as I conversed with my friends. As I did this, I scanned the territory around me. I concluded that most of the students in the cafeteria were eating sandwiches, and to be specific, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That was the moment I knew what I wanted to ask my mom.

I arrived home that afternoon. I rushed to my mom’s side as she stood in the kitchen, and I started to beg her to buy me peanut butter and jelly in order to make sandwiches for lunch. Before replying, she questioned why my rice was still left in my lunchbox and I lied that I was not really hungry or in the mood for rice. Secretly, the only reason I wanted peanut butter and jelly were to “fit in” and conform to the population presented to me, and I did not even like peanut butter and jelly. So, who was I to reject a part of myself and heritage but take in a part of society’s so-called norm or standard I never associated myself with?

It is okay to question whether you are part of this culture or that culture or multiple cultures because to question part of your identity is just another part of being human. But for me, I found myself battling to embrace my Korean culture. It was a daily struggle, especially at school. Even having been born in the U.S. and living here all my life, in the country built on the backs of immigrants, the country had proved itself weaker than I had ever imagined.

And as I grew in my cognitive abilities I understood that there were stereotypical traits of Asians portrayed in so many movies and television shows. There was always the “nerdy Asian” or the “weird Asian” or the “weak Asian,” and this was the “America” I saw being portrayed on the big screens. Wrongfully, as a young, maybe 7 or 8-year-old, I sat in silence taking all of these images in and applying these stereotypical traits to an entire heritage and culture I no longer wanted to be a part of.

When you are living your life essentially in two worlds at the same time, I think it is safe to say that it is difficult to manage the two. My Korean heritage and my American nationality constantly counteracted one another in a never-ending battle psychologically. I did not know how to stop it. I consistently noticed my skin was more “yellow” than the others, my eyes were of a different shape, and my parents could not converse easily with other students’ parents who were native to this country. And taking you all back to a “school setting,” as the observant person that I was and I consider myself still to be, I found a peculiar sort of environment developed at school. I noticed when there were events for parents at school, even the adults and parents native to this country grouped themselves, never reaching out to people like my parents who were immigrants and spoke broken English. The native adults of this country conversed among themselves alone. I acknowledge the fact that not every person exhibits such behavior, or sometimes people do feel comfortable among people that share their nationality and language, but when such occasions at school did occur I could heavily sense a feeling the adults were deliberately ignoring “broken-English” speakers. Why were the adults in our country, that I was to respect and learn from, contributing to the battle I was fighting within my head, the clashing of two cultures and the fight to embrace my roots? I want you all to know that my parents did not leave so many possessions, people, and the comfort of their homeland, to voluntarily arrive in the states to experience this sort of discrimination.

Through the experiences I have mentioned, I realized I was wrong all along. I had consistently rejected and resented so many of the factors that make me who I am today. And the formations of cliques that unraveled before me as a young child, even among adults, to solely exclude a certain ethnic group or a number of “broken-English speakers” in general, hurt me a lot. Though this is the sad truth even in our country today, such discrimination against my ethnic group and heritage has given me the cornerstone in validating my reasons as to why I was able to change from resenting my Korean heritage to embracing my Korean heritage and my American culture simultaneously.

Each heritage is unique in its own way which makes the world ever so much special. I wanted to share my story with you because I think it can be applied to certain people if not all people in some ways. You may have felt discriminated against because of your heritage or you may have felt a bit “out of place” at times in life like I felt for a while. But I can tell you this. I had always tried to mold myself into something I was not and tried to conform to the expectations of some of my peers, but only was I able to truly “find myself” when I observed the world around me and learned to grow my understanding of my heritage. I am so proud to be a part of my heritage today.

My advice to anyone is to never feel as though you need to conform. I firmly believe the world was made intentionally to house individuals of varying heritages. It is okay to feel a little “out of the norm,” because in reality, the true norm is being different. As Americans, even as diverse as we are, sometimes we fail to see the beauty of diversity that extensively continues to grow in our country. My Korean parents are not living here to feel “broken.” Asian actors in the United States do not always want to be portrayed as some “nerdy Asian” on screen all the time or told to act deliberately using their native “accent” only.  I do not want to continue to see the resenting nature of humans including adults against my heritage or your heritage. I do want to visit South Korea again and eat even more rice. So, at last, I will leave you all with this, embrace your heritage wherever you may be, and hold onto it. It will not always be easy, but treasure it. You don’t even have to like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to do so. Thank you.

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