Growing up in Southern California in the early 2000s as a third generation Korean American means that I grew up in the middle of pleasing Korean and mainstream white culture. Though I learned how to move fluidly between cultures, I feel that I lack the cultural qualifications to be identified as a traditional member of one or the other, and so I cling to moderately Asian pop-culture to find balance in my identity as an Asian-American, drawing almost exclusively from my childhood.
Coming to terms with my racial identity has been awkward for not reflecting the archetype of either the all-American girl or the Korean girl. Being third generation means I am the most Americanized generation of my family, and in some ways the “least Korean.” At the same time, my childhood is associated with tension in being Asian among white peers, which made me stop wanting to be Korean in public, and therefore developmentally stunted me in my growth as a Korean person. Further complicating these frustrations is the lack of available cultural definitions of what it looks like to be Asian-American, much less Korean-American.
This body of work explores feelings of inadequacy in both Korean and American contexts, which causes me to strive to find socially acceptable ground for Asian-American identity in pop-culture.
“Are You Korean?” Inkjet print, 24x24” — A yellow Peep with a bite taken out of it, being impaled from above by a pair of red chopsticks. All my life I have lived in the fear of embarrassment from older Koreans (or worse, non-Koreans who speak Korean) asking me the title question or accosting me in Korean, and I won’t be able to respond because I don’t know the language. This is an anxiety of being seen as inauthentic to my heritage because I am too American, and not Korean enough.
“Spongebob Is Not Educational” Inkjet print, 24x36” — A Pikachu figurine being “slimed” as in the 90’s Nickelodeon gag. Growing up through the early 2000s meant that my main visual media role models for identifying as Asian American were Pokémon, martial arts stars, and Mulan. I clung to the Pokémon franchise as my own, though not so proudly when I realized it was looked down upon as nerdy and somewhat foreign. When I wanted to fit in and watch Spongebob like my peers, my mom refused to let me do so because I only watched shows that were educational or morally edifying. Pokémon had a lexicon of trivial knowledge to memorize and moral stories in every episode, while my mother saw Spongebob as dumb and not cooperative.
“The One And Only” Inkjet print, 24x36” — A Mulan figurine covered in gold star stickers. Mulan was my main role model growing up for what a strong Asian woman looks like to the American palate. As the only Asian female character dominating the pop culture scene for almost 20 years, Mulan was the one and only “cool” Asian woman figure I could identify with growing up. The gold star stickers also represent the “model minority myth” that Asians (especially women) are docile, gentle, and sweet with few exceptions. Smothering the image of Mulan in her pre-war phase, the scene of the movie where she lives in preparation of being the perfect bride to please her family, is a negative comment on the oppression of the model minority myth. (Bonus fact: This figurine was actually the figurine on my 2nd birthday cake.)
“Third Gen” Woodblock print triptych, 22x24” — A triptych of three woodblock prints of a red hanbok (traditional Korean dress) that was not re-inked and printed three times. This performative triptych represents the gradual loss of Korean culture over three generations of women in my family, since my grandmothers came to America from Korea in the 1960s. Immigrating to the States was important to them, to set up futures for their children in America, and to find home and success in a country that was developed and not war-torn. However, assimilating was difficult for them as they learned English through living here for the rest of their lives. Both of my parents were born in the United States and learned English as their primary languages, because my grandparents wished them the greatest possible success in assimilating as a natural-born American citizen by prioritizing English. Through speaking perfect English and excelling in school, my parents reached educational and occupational success, while still experiencing the minority ratio and racism in their mostly white elementary and high schools (in Silver Spring, MD and Torrance, CA) and in their workplaces as well. As my parents raised me in the 1990s, I was taught English only, except for Korean food, folk songs, family member titles, and a few conversational phrases. My English skills are as exceptional as any white American student’s skills. And though I have attained educational and occupational success (or as much as one can have as a creative my age,) I have grown up with confusion and insecurity about calling myself Korean American. Though my bloodline and appearance are undoubtedly Korean, my cultural makeup is mostly American.
“Kimchi Fridge” Compact refrigerator and drywall, 3.5x2x6’ — A human-sized refrigerator with hangul children’s magnets scattered on the front, outlined by a piece of red drywall. The refrigerator is a reference to a common Korean American household tradition of having a separate fridge designated for kimchi, which tends to permeate its odor and flavor into everything else in the fridge. The magnets were interactive, and gallery visitors were encouraged to play with them. They represented my infantile grasp of the language, which I could not read whatsoever.
Detail of Kimchi Fridge, including the baking soda in the refrigerator door.
“Acquired” Plastic jars and cabbage kimchi, 6x6x12” — Three nesting air-tight jars enclosing a serving of cabbage kimchi, within the Kimchi Fridge. Kimchi is notorious for its pungent smell and acquired taste. In triple-sealing kimchi within jars, I demonstrate the cultural repression for the benefit of non-Korean palates that I performed on myself so that I could feel more socially accepted. Despite this effort, the fridge still managed to smell like kimchi over the course of the show. Naturally, this piece represents my subconscious by being within the fridge, to be viewed only by curious gallery visitors who opened the fridge. I personally never favored cabbage kimchi as my favorite (I preferred radish and cucumber kimchi,) partially because of the stigma that arose every time I discussed it with non-Koreans and hearing their horrific first experiences with it.