Mixed Race in America

Busan, South Korea (5/4/2015)

Writer’s Note: This article was originally posted as a series on Nov. 26, 2019.

“You’re a Halfie”

The words sounded pretty simple. “You’re a halfie too I guess.”

It was at music school but it was the first time I had ever heard myself referred to with that word. It wasn’t a feeling as though someone had called me a bad word. Instead, it was met with a feeling of surprising belonging. It fit me. It sounded right to my ears. I guess I had been waiting to hear a cool word for what I am.

You see, my racial background is well, unique. My mother is Korean (Asian), and my father is white, most likely with his family being from Britain and Germany. So I am two races, not one. The fact that I decided to explain it lets you know that I’ve been explaining this to people for quite a while now.

You may ask, well, why do you explain it to people? Don’t you just look like one race or the other? Well, no. No, I don’t look like a race at all. I don’t look Asian, nor do I really look Caucasian. I look and feel somewhere caught in the middle of both of these races. I’d like to explain what this means to me and how it has made me who I am.

From an early age, my mom made it very clear to us that we should be proud that we were Korean. She cooked us Korean food, she had us do our doljabi (the ceremonial first birthday game in Korean culture) in our hanboks (korean traditional clothes), and we all had Korean middle names to go along with our English names. Mine is Hyun and I know exactly what it means. My mom told me that it means “wisdom”. My older sister’s is Misun, which means “beauty and virtue.” My oldest brother actually first got a English middle name but my mom had it changed to Hyun when he got older.

In school, I remember having both white and Asian friends from an early age. I remember my best friend was Korean and I would go over to his house often. However, there is one moment that stuck with me as a little kid.

You see, I didn’t know how to speak Korean. I knew the word “맛있어”, which means “Is it delicious?” because my grandma wouldn’t ask us that question in English when she cooked for us. But that was the only word I knew. I was over at my Korean best friend’s house and I learned another new word. I learned “oppa”, which means “older brother”. His little sisters always called him that and I thought it was so funny and interesting. I somewhat wished I knew how to call my siblings the right Korean terms, hyung and nuna (though I never asked him to teach me). Even secretly, I wished there was a younger sibling to call me “oppa”. If only I had a younger sister….(I’ll get to why it has to be a younger sister later).

I don’t remember ever facing racism at any time as a child. This is definitely white privilege. Because I looked white enough, I’m sure no one felt it necessary to bring race into their insults of me. Instead, I just got called a weird music nerd. Pretty tame. However, recently my mother randomly shared one of the microaggressions she was subjected to by one of my teachers at school. It was casually over dinner that this came up.

She said that she had once complained to my principal about a teacher not giving her my homework because that teacher thought she was my housekeeper or nanny or whatever. She said she went straight to the principal after she had told off that teacher and said she was my mother. That’s racist if you think about it. My white teacher assumed that an Asian woman asking for my homework could not be my mother.

Anyway, I was very lucky not to ever feel as though other students were bullying or taunting me based on racial terms. But it didn’t mean that I found it easy to be a halfie. I remember not knowing any other halfie Asians in my town growing up. Our town in New Jersey was a predominantly white and Jewish suburb of New York City. I definitely had a lot of Asian friends, but they were not halfies. Thankfully, all my cousins on my mom’s side are halfie too, but I always wished I had more friends exactly like me. I still gravitate towards other halfies immediately when I meet them.

It was actually music that introduced me to other halfies. My cello studio (all the kids that studied with my cello teacher) had another halfie student that was a lot younger than me. I thought that was really cool. And then in high school, I met a girl at music school that taught me the term “halfie”. It sounded cool and it immediately made me proud. I didn’t have to tell people I was “half-Korean” anymore. I could just say I was a “halfie.” It was this girl, a half-Korean, who taught me that I should call her and my sister “nuna”, which is what a younger brother calls his older sister. She taught me that if I wanted to, I could call my older brother “hyung.” And yes, of course she would always say “halfies are beautiful” because she was beautiful. Of course I had a huge crush on her.

Anyway, now that I finally had found halfie friends in music school, I found out that I was really proud of being halfie but also of being Korean/Asian. In high school, most of my friends were Asian and I began to see myself more and more as Asian.

However, applying to college was a little weird. College applications didn’t have a box for me. I could say that I was “Caucasian”or “Asian/Pacific Islander”, but not both. There wasn’t really an option for what I was. Some applications had “Other”, which made me feel weird. Others maybe did say “multiethnic” or “biracial”. However, I distinctly remember that I hated standardized tests and applications like this because I didn’t like the race options presented me in the bubbles. I didn’t like being forced to choose one or the other.

Where am I going with this exactly? I can’t really tell you. I think I just want to share what kind of feelings and experiences I had as a biracial child. I wanted badly to know how to speak Korean. I wished that I looked more Korean because, well, I knew I didn’t look as Asian as my friends. I knew I was different from all the other kids at school. But somewhere, deep inside, I was proud of what I was. I just was waiting for a word to express that pride. That word was “halfie”.

Now that I’m an adult, I can look back on myself as a child and understand what those thoughts and feelings meant and how they have shaped me into who I am. I am so proud of both sides of my family and so happy to be able to have two distinct cultures in my life. I try to represent them well in all that I do. You’ll notice that Hyun is in my Twitter handle. It didn’t start out like this but eventually I decided it was best that I made sure people actually knew that I wasn’t just a white person. I made sure that they knew the reason I knew so much about Korea wasn’t because I was a Koreaboo; I actually was a Korean.

It’s this subtle distinction that I realize I forcefully make on a regular basis though. I do say that my mother is Korean on a regular basis. I never answer that I am white when asked, because white people do regularly assume that I am just white, which isn’t accurate. It’s just something I feel I have to do because it is my identity to be halfie. It is my identity to let people know that I am half-Korean. It is my identity to know that I am my mother’s son and also my father’s son. I am a halfie.

So if you are a halfie and not sure how to feel about that, I do hope that you become proud of it. I hope that you wrestle with what those two races mean to your identity and find a way to create an identity that fits you. I hope that if other kids call you racist names because of the color of your skin that you learn to be comfortable in your skin and remind yourself every time that the racism you receive isn’t about you. It’s actually about that person and whatever insecurity is inside his or her mind about race. I hope that you begin to look into your skin and see yourself in it. I hope you see the colors that came together to form the beautiful and unique hue of your skin. And I hope that something I have written speaks to your heart and soul.

I hope that my umma and dad know that I am so proud of who they have raised me to be. I hope that my nuna and hyung know what it means when I call them that. And I hope that I can go back to Korea soon and see more 혼혈 (mixed blood) Koreans proud of who they are. Because like my friend said, “We halfies are beautiful.”

“You Look like I Feel”

“You look like I feel.” I had never heard anything like that to describe being a halfie, much less expected it from a close friend.

It was said to me during the summer of my junior year in college in a conversation over GChat. I still think about it.

I met my friend in my freshman year Korean class, where I was placed in the beginner Korean class with other students who had never spoken Korean before. In this class, there was only one Korean classmate that had spoken Korean at home (he got into the beginner’s class on purpose to avoid a harder class). However, in a class filled with other white, Chinese, Vietnamese, and even a Brazilian student, I was closest with the other Korean in the class who had the most similar experience to me.

She was a Korean adoptee from a small town in Michigan who grew up around mostly white people. She did attend some Korean culture camps as a kid but had no experience speaking Korean, just like me. It was a sense of camaraderie of being Korean but having absolutely no idea how to speak the language. We spent the first few weeks of the semester learning how to read and write in Hangul and indulging in our new love of KPop.

We’ve been friends for ten years now and there are two huge lessons I have learned from her. The first lesson was pretty simple but something that I was completely unaware of: there is a huge community of Korean transracial (adopted by a family of a different race) adoptees in the US. As a child, I knew only one adopted person. He was a white classmate who had been adopted from a different state by a white family in town. Because of this, I had a naive understanding of what adoption really was. I thought mostly white and black children from poor backgrounds would get adopted. That was the extent of my knowledge of adoption.

I had no idea that since the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953 through 2008, there have been 162,665 Korean adoptees sent abroad (source: South Korean Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs). What happened was tragic but in the very beginning there were many babies born from American or UN servicemen and Korean mothers. Many of these babies were abandoned after the war and the Korean government worried they would struggle to adapt in the homogeneous Korean society. It was because of these babies that the Korean government began an international adoption program that sent Korean adoptees to North America and Europe at an unprecedented rate.

However, the second lesson I learned was far more important. I learned about what it was like to feel like a certain race. I remembered hearing growing up from Asians that I was “whitewashed” because I wasn’t fully Asian. I also remember hearing my Asian friends self-deprecating comments about how they were like “Twinkies” or “bananas”: yellow on the outside but white on the inside (since we lived in such a white and privileged town). However, I had never heard what my friend said to me. She said once during a summer conversation over Gchat that she had always envied that I was half-Korean. “You look like I feel,” she said.

It’s a complex thought but what she was saying was that she looks like a Korean but she doesn’t feel like one. She had grown up around white people and knew almost nothing about what it was like to be Korean. For me, I could straddle both worlds and be able to feel and look like both a white and Korean person. I also would never be expected by Korean people to actually act like a Korean person because I wasn’t one. She didn’t have this luxury. She would always get looks as the Korean person with a white family. And Korean people would always expect her to be something she wasn’t.

Another adoptee friend told me about his first trip back to Korean as a young adult. He was at a restaurant with a native Korean friend trying to order food. Since he didn’t speak Korean yet, his friend did all the ordering, but not before the waiter got his two cents in. “Why doesn’t your friend speak Korean? He’s Korean, isn’t he?” It is that sort of comment that adoptees will get all the time that I would never experience. I will never be made to feel as though I am less that what I really am. I will always be a halfie and I will always have a connection to the Koreans who “feel” as though they are halfies in their own skin.

“So your mom is Korean? But your dad isn’t…..”

Most Koreans would ask me this question when they found out that I could speak Korean. I mean, I don’t look that Korean so it was usually a shock if I spoke Korean. They usually had talked to me in English expecting I was just your average white foreigner working in Korea.

I wasn’t what they were expecting; it was fine with me.

I lived in Korea from 2014 to 2016 as a foreign teacher at a preschool and elementary English academy, known in Korea as a hagwon. I hadn’t gone there to become a teacher though. I wasn’t even an education major while I was in college. I just moved to Korea because I wanted to see what it was like.

I have always been pretty curious about where my mom was from and wondered what it would be like to live there. In my sophomore year of college, I spent a semester in Seoul studying Korean and fell in love with the country. I just felt like there was so much I hadn’t seen in that 4 months so I would have to go back. I had a couple of friends apply for the EPIK, the English Program in Korea, and decided I’d apply to be a teacher after graduation. I found a job in Incheon and packed my bags.

My experience straight from the beginning was unique and somewhat different from my other foreign coworkers. Many of my coworkers were British or American expats who had come to Korea knowing none of the language and very little about the culture. I ended up being able to help them with grocery shopping expeditions, ordering food in restaurants, and finding cool excursions for our friends during weekends or vacations. It was quite an experience to be viewed as a helpful guide who knew how to navigate all the ins and outs of a new society.

It’s an interesting phenomenon when you look at it from the perspective of a Korean though. Imagine it like this: I was an American fresh off the plane to a new country and I was fitting right in with them, even though I looked nothing like them? How was I doing it?

Something that is clear to me from my experience in Korea is that homogeneity and conformity is part of the fabric of the society. People are expected to look and act a certain way and those that don’t fit the mold are noticed. I stood out for being a somewhat tall, Caucasian-looking man and I was treated by people in stores and restaurants as someone who wouldn’t speak Korean. And then the surprise would come. “Wait, you can speak Korean?”

It would go from there. I learned how to say that I was mixed-race in Korean, and would explain that my umma is Korean. Then the next question would come quickly.

“So your mother is Korean but your father is not?”, they would ask. “Yup,” I would reply. Depending on how open and accepting this Korean person was, the conversation would continue in certain ways. For example, some Koreans would exclaim, “That’s so cool. What was it like growing up in America? Do you like Korea?”

However, there were definitely a few Koreans who had responses that were frustrating to hear. The worst was probably, “So your mother doesn’t like Korean people?” Well no, that’s clearly not what it is. It’s just she decided that she was in love with my dad, who happened to not be Korean. Does that reflect in any way on whether or not she likes Koreans, or is proud to be one? It shouldn’t, but somehow it felt as though that is what the question was getting at. Your mom had not conformed to what a Korean was expected to be.

Can you guess which types of people responded each way? For the most part, younger Koreans around my age, the Korean coworkers I spoke Korean with or met when hanging out, were the ones who thought it was cool that I’d grown up mixed. It was usually older Koreans who had trouble wrapping their heads around people like me.

Let’s go back to my childhood for a second. My dad actually once had an opportunity to work in Korea and we were considering moving to Korea as a family. My brother and sister, older and more settled in school, were pretty against it so it never actually happened. But now I wonder, what would it have been like if we had moved to Korea? Would we have fit in at school? Would people have thought we were weird?

From what I’ve heard from friends raising mixed race children in Korean, the color of my skin would have meant I could fit in with the Koreans. Overall, mixed race children with a Caucasian parent are accepted and viewed in a positive or neutral manner. Negative and racist behavior is directed more towards mixed race Koreans who have parents who are black or other minorities. That’s where I have heard that parents will tell their child not to play with them or other things like that. I hope it changes soon because we all are Korean.

What I get excited by these days when it comes to being a Korean halfie is the growing representation of us in Korea specifically. I’m sure we’ve always been in the entertainment industry and I just wasn’t paying much attention, but it’s really cool to watch people like Ricky Kim, Yoon Mirae, Jeon Somi, and Daniel Henney have such fame in Korea. Even cooler is the fact that now the show The Return of Supermom, a popular reality show where fathers spend alone time with their young kids, features mixed race families. On the show, Choo Sarang, William and Bentley Hammington, and Park Naeun and Gunhoo are all mixed race. Either their mother or father is Korean and they are adored on the show and out in public. Slowly but surely, the perceptions are changing and it makes me happy to see that. Like I said in Part I, we halfies are beautiful. I’m glad Koreans can agree with us.

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The Political Views and Personal Stories of a 28 year-old Korean-American writer.

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Michael Welch

Michael Welch

The Political Views and Personal Stories of a 28 year-old Korean-American writer.

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