February Issue: A Biracial Korean American Takes a Trip Through Korea
KoreAm
Author: KoreAm
Posted: February 7th, 2013
Filed Under: Back Issues , BLOG , February 2013
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The writer, far right in the first row, with her fellow KEEP activists in Korea.

A young biracial Korean American woman learns about the activist past—and present—of South Korea.

by HAEWON ASFAW

On the day of departure for my first trip to South Korea, I got to the airport and immediately began to panic. I broke down into uncontrollable tears. Will they know I am Korean?  How will I communicate? What if they hate me?

As a biracial Ethiopian and Korean woman, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, I had minimal communication with my extended Korean family growing up. My Korean grandparents disapproved of my mother’s marriage to my black father, and disapproved of us, their three biracial children.

Once I got to grade school, Korean classmates called me names like “a disgrace to my race” and the n-word. I coped by withdrawing from anything that reminded me I was Korean. To me, Korea was just another country on the map, a piece of land that was far away, filled with people that were nothing like me.

When I was in the fourth grade, my Korean grandmother met my sisters and me for the first time at my aunt’s wedding in Boston. She began working to reconnect with my family, and visited us in California. She was good to my father, got along well with my Ethiopian grandmother, and was kind to my sisters and me, spending most of her visit curling our hair with rollers, reading us our favorite books and cooking all types of delicious Korean food every night. It was nice being able to spend time with her, but it was as if she had popped up out of nowhere.

I was 15 when my aunt called to tell us that my grandmother’s body had been found in a river near her home in New York. She had committed suicide, leaving behind a brief note apologizing to the family. We did not spend much time talking about what happened. I struggled with feelings of shock and confusion, but I had only seen my grandmother twice in my life, so I made myself believe I didn’t have the right to feel too much pain. I coped by peppering my mom with questions late into the night, trying to find answers.  She shared stories of her family’s immigration to the United States, discrimination, abuse within the home, alcoholism, and trauma that was met, as always, with silence.

Sparked by my grandmother’s death, I became interested in looking deeper into things playing out in the world around me. I started to get involved in the community by doing volunteer service as a way to change some of the struggles that I knew extended beyond that of my family. But it didn’t feel like enough. I needed something that would take my questions to the next level and wanted to see my investment have a deeper impact. As a junior in high school, I was introduced to the Bus Riders Union, an organization that came to prominence in 1994 for successfully suing Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its bus service, which was bad enough to count as a civil rights violation against the ridership, mostly low-income people of color. Coincidentally, BRU includes many progressive Korean Americans, including Hee Pok “Grandma” Kim, a 90-year-old organizer with the group. This countered my longtime assumption that Koreans are not vocal and are for the most part an apolitical and privileged class.

The writer, with her parents and two sisters. The one at the bottom right is of her two grandmothers.

The Korean organizers began talking to me about the history of Korea, current issues, and introduced me to the Korea Education and Exposure Program (KEEP), a two-week trip to South Korea that immerses a delegation of young people into the activist culture of the peninsula. My mother, aunt and fellow activists encouraged me to apply, and I was accepted to embark on my first trip to South Korea this past summer. In participating, I was actively seeking to break the silence within my family, and to connect with unresolved parts of myself.

But once I was at the airport, I felt unprepared for the magnitude of my first journey to the homeland. I doubted I had the strength to enter the very place I held responsible for my feelings of exclusion, self-hate and isolation.  After breaking down, though, I took a deep breath and made the decision that I would not take any of my painful experiences with me. This would be a new chapter. As I boarded the plane, I built up the strength to pick up my bags, and leave behind all of my judgment, self-criticism and assumptions.

During a whirlwind two weeks, our delegation learned about the struggles of survivors of torture under autocratic Korean regimes, unwed mothers, adoptees, LBGTQ people, migrant workers, labor unions and organizations doing anti-militarism and reunification work. We learned about Korea’s history of movement dance and songs of liberation.  We went to Gwangju and visited the graves of the thousands of freedom fighters who were murdered, tortured and imprisoned in the fight for South Korean democracy during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. I was even given the honor of speaking at the 1,034th “comfort women” rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding justice for the survivors of rape and sexual violence. I looked deeply into the halmeonis’ eyes, telling them it is our duty as Koreans to pass down the stories of our elders and not let their struggles be forgotten.

The highlight of our trip was a three-day stay in Gangjeong Village, on Jeju Island, where activists have been fighting against the construction of a naval base there. We participated in a peace march with children, students, religious figures, workers and the elderly from all over the peninsula and abroad.  As the blazing sun beat down on our skin, we marched for eight hours. The march culminated in a festive celebration of theatrical performances, traditional Korean folk dance and powerful speeches that reflected the beauty and resilience of Korea’s long tradition of protest.

As the trip came to an end, I reflected on how it had begun. Our first stop had been the Demilitarized Zone. I thought back to stories I’d heard of my grandfather, fleeing from the north at the outbreak of the Korean War, and of his family, who had died during the bombing.  I also thought about my still living Korean relatives, whom I will never know nor ever be able to connect with.

I understood that I was in a war zone, but I was surrounded by enthusiastic foreigners who sensationalized the DMZ as they took pictures of North Korea and posed, with their thumbs up, next to South Korean soldiers who were forbidden to move from their military stance. I was enraged. But this anger was a turning point in my journey. It was the first time I felt strong emotions towards Korea, making me realize that I am Korean, and I, too, am affected by the issues happening on the peninsula.

My grandfather is my last surviving grandparent, and he refuses to talk about his experiences during the war.  The remarkable leaders I met during my trip, however, openly addressed painful issues. I left the peninsula with the stories that make up our history as Korean people. And, I became a proud part of Korea’s tradition of organizing and movement. I re-entered the U.S.  with a deep sense of respect for the people I had met, and the warmth with which they embraced me.

Before Korea, I thought that once my grandfather passes, a part of my family’s history will leave with him. But now, I understand that we have a shared collective history that unites us all.

Anyone interested in learning more about KEEP, or more about the activist work of KEEP alums, is encouraged to contact the author at hasfaw14@gmail.com.

This article was published in the February 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)

  • Sunspot

    I wish KoreAm would publish more articles like this that cover the journey of the Korean Diaspora of diverse fronts. This was beautifully shared and I deeply thank Haewon for sharing such an intimate story of her life. It takes guts and sense of groundedness to share what you shared. There’s a lot to counter because of the racist system we live in where US empire benefits greatly by driving wedges of conflict between Black, Brown, API, Indigenous folks–there are real tensions we have to embrace and others where we just have to call out the bull on. But Haewon’s story is more than about these tensions but understanding each of our history of struggle that’s going to help us make systemic change in corporate driven white america. Good work and look forward to more articles written by you in the future.

  • Gonji

    Thank you for taking the courage to share your story. I know it must never be easy to take these very personal parts of our lives and share it with the world. As someone who grew up in LA, I have witnessed how the tensions between Black and Corean communities have been intentionally constructed in order to divert our people’s attentions away from the real problems of a racist society – one that revolves around the maintenance of White Supremacy. There’s a SOCIAL and POLITICAL reason that so many Black and Corean biracial people have a shared experience, and I think it is so important for those stories to be shared in order to expose what the contradictions of a racist and patriarchal society looks like. So thank you, Haewon, for telling your story. You did a great job of demonstrating that our racial and ethnic identities are not merely about biology, blood, or culture. Through your KEEP experience, I felt like you showed that our ethnic and racial identities can be political identities that revolve around a shared history, shared trauma and shared resilience. I’m excited to see what other writings you produce, I’m sure your story itself could be retold ten times over, each in a different light. And I can’t wait to see how your unfaltering work in Black, Latin@ and Corean communities will change the world to be a better place to live in for all of our people. Presente to your grandmothers, I will keep them in my heart.

  • Hyejin

    Haewon, thanks for sharing your insights and story. Proud and grateful to have experienced KEEP 2012 with you… lots of love and respect.

    Hyejin

  • auntie

    Powerful and beautiful.

  • http://www.blackgold.com blackgold

    Hey mnm, why you repeaten yourself? you retarded? I understand the point exactly . I’ve read many stories from “blasians” like this before and all of that shit from Haewon is no different its all B.S. when you get right down to it. I can see right through it so I’ am far from ignorant. It is you that is the fool son.

  • mnm

    After reading these comments, I just want to say BLACKGOLD, you are very ignorant. You have completely missed the whole point of this article. For anyone who is offended by this person’s comments, just remember that there is no point in arguing with a fool.

  • mnm

    After reading these comment, I just want to say BLACKGOLD, you are very ignorant. You have completely missed the whole point of this article. For anyone who is offended by this person’s comments, just remember that there is no point in arguing with a fool.

  • http://www.blackgold.com blackgold

    Oh, and one more thing I want to address Brook Teferi. Are you Ethiopian? that name sounds kinda like it. So she has “done more for blacks than black people”? How the hell would you know???? What has she done and what have you done, for you to make that kind of statement?

  • http://www.blackgold.com blackgold

    Awwwwwww Skim your breakin my heart. Whatever, I don’t care if your her mom, stick with your own people. Oh, so she has a couple of token black friends and that makes everything alright? Grow up, interracial relationships never work out you of all people should know this as much as you people treat blacks over there in your country. Blacks are treated like shit pretty much all over the Far East,(and don’t whine and cry to me about “Sai-gu” because that is totally different from what I’m talking about) but now you think because you married a black dude and got a mute kid that thats supposed to mean something? Theres really nothing wrong with people who are of the same race, wanting to stick together and intermarry with there own its natural! Lions mate with lions, tigers mate with tigers, and so on. Its a natural part of the human species to want to mate with our own and produce. I would not be offended if chinese women only wants to marry chinese men or Korean women wants to marry only Korean men, and so forth and so on. It’s not really “racist” -that word is being used to loosely nowadays. It really doesn’t matter if your child explores both of her heritage and culture, biracial people only identify with ONE culture. Remember that, ONE culture. Thats what I mean when I said that most blasians want nothing to do with blacks in that sense and thats a reality. Everything is POLITICAL. This “Love concurs all”, stuff is an illusion when it comes to these kind of relationships in this racist white supremacist country of America. White supremacy has affected people all over the globe especially in Asian countries, Korea being one of them. You may not see it but it has. Biracial people identify with the people who have the most political and economic influence. They identify with the DOMINATE culture. They have a history of that( and don’t mention Barack Obama because he’s nothing but a puppet but I’ll save that for some other time). So I’m not talking about a couple of black associates that you have on the side where you hang out with and probably listen to hiphop music or whatever, or reciting some african kings or whatever thats cool and all but, I’m talking about culturally and politically. Haewon is an activist she has already joined a Korean-american organization and you know that! She has made her choice understand? . So again, like I said earlier:
    EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL, and They identify with ONE CULTURE.

    So in the end, Haewon is no different. She has that right, but thats what I really meant in my earlier comment. If this comment finds you, Think about it! ( that’s if I’m really addressing her mom here).

    .

  • Brook Teferi

    Lol Blackgold, I’m not sure where exactly Haewon said she hates her Ethiopian heritage or doesn’t want anything to do with it. You just kind of put your foot in your mouth for that one, here is an article where she is exploring her Korean heritage and posting it on a site for the “Korean American Experience”… You obviously have some issues that you need to deal with and I find it pretty ignorant that you would blast your assumptions on someone who is actually not only proud of both sides of here heritage but also has done more for the Black community then most “black people”. It’s cool though, keep being a bigot.

  • skim

    Dear Blackgold, I know Haewon personally.She grew up with a strong traditional Ethiopian/African/African American culture. She can recite the names of her African grandparents going back 8 generations!! Do you know how many years that is? She is also a student of Black history. She has been to Africa two times, the last time was a year ago to bury her African grandmother. She has spent all her life growing up — observing, learning, practicing her African Ethiopian cultural traditions and holidays and rites. her father is a proud Ethiopian who taught his children to be proud of their African heritage. She is also knowledgeable about African American history.She has also warmly embraced African Americans as her closest friends. She even understands Amharic Ethiopian language. Please don’t prejudge her. I am proud that Haewon is brave enough to explore her Korean side, a traditional culture that still frowns in biracial marriage. How do I know Haewon? I’m her Korean mother!!!

  • James Young C. Kim

    Thanks for sharing your story, and what a honest and poignant story it is about the journey to self discovery. In an increasingly Global world, I believe people like you herald the future. So don’t pay the hate no mind. Explore who you are and enjoy your uniqueness throughout life’s journey!

  • http://www.blackgold.com blackgold

    Whatever. You know I’ve read many stories like these in regards to “Blasians” and the stories are essentially the same. Haewon is just another pitiful self-hating biracial “Blasian” girl who wants nothing to do with her black heritage like Amerie, Hines Ward, Yoon MI Rae, James Riley, and many others. The reality is that being half black/asian in any asian country is not beneficial. In fact its worse then being half white/asian. Shes half Ethiopian the Ethiopians have a history of political struggles as well. They have a long glorious history of rulers(kings and queens, etc.). When the Italians invaded Ethiopia they fought bravely and won and Ethiopia became independent. She should explore her other side as well because she has a rich history on her african side. The reality is is that she’s not fully Korean but nooo blacks aren’t good enough for her. To all you “Blasians” out there, there is nothing wrong with being half black and exploring your black heritage. Black people did not just go through slavery and then created Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Soul, R&b, Rock n Roll, and Hip-hop, and then had a civil rights movement. We have a history of rulers, colonization, freedom struggles and liberation movements in Africa as well as America just like your Korean side. Black people are the descendants of those Africans. That black blood that runs through your veins is just as relevant as that Korean blood. I find it funny and a little ignorant that this magazine would print this story on black history month as if its relative simply because the girl is half black. Black history month is not about celebrating black people simply because there black its to celebrate the ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

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