“Guess what guys, I’m a minority!” My reaction to one of the first Wheaton emails I received shows how naive I was to what my first year of college would look like. On July 1, 2014 I got an email from the Office of Multicultural Development welcoming me to Wheaton and inviting me to be a part of the 1-2-1 Program, which is designed for students with minority backgrounds. As a Korean-American student, receiving this email shouldn’t have been a surprise. But to me, being addressed as a minority initially seemed more amusing than realistic.
I was born in Seattle, Washington and raised in the surrounding suburbs for the first eighteen years of my life. Unlike the Midwest, the area I grew up in was very diverse; some of my closest friends were Filipino, Indian, Caucasian, Pakistani, Korean and Chinese. In this setting, I often felt like part of the majority rather than the minority – I “belonged” with both my white and Asian friends. Furthermore, my parents both emigrated from Korea to the United States at young ages, and as a result they are much more comfortable with English than with Korean. I identified with being Korean, but my cultural experience was predominantly influenced by my upbringing in the U.S.
When I decided to come to Wheaton College, I knew that the student diversity would look very different than it did in the Pacific Northwest. I knew that there would be a predominately white population. I knew that there would be relatively few Asian students. And now I also knew that there were groups made specifically for these individuals. What I didn’t know was exactly how my
set of multicultural experiences and background would adjust to this environment.
I did, however, have expectations. Because I knew there wouldn’t be as many multicultural students as I was used to, I assumed that I would easily make friends with other Asians – I had Asian friends back at home, so wouldn’t I naturally connect with other minority students at Wheaton? I valued the natural connection I have often felt with other Asian people, and I anticipated that this connection would become even stronger in college. This was my expectation. Upon arriving at Wheaton, however, I quickly realized that making friends with other Asian students was not only difficult, but also eye opening. While I look Korean, I don’t speak the language and have only been in Korea for a two-hour layover. The more I realized the effect of my lack of “Korean-experience,” the more I felt the connection with my heritage fading.
Throughout this time I struggled with sharing physical features and heritage with one group while sharing culture and experiences with another. Having resolved that I didn’t fit in with many other Korean people, I subconsciously began to disassociate myself from the culture. For example, I became overly concerned about what people would think if I ate Asian food or reinforced Asian stereotypes by studying excessively. I didn’t want people to assume things about me based on my appearance, so I did what I could to dispel the dreaded notion that “she is like that because she’s Asian.”
I didn’t talk about my experiences or thoughts as an Asian-American student, and for the most part, nobody asked. But a part of me wanted them to. However, as the year progressed and I formed relationships with both Asian and non-Asian students, I was better able to reflect on my struggle with identity, and I learned several lessons throughout this process. One of the big lessons I learned last year was the value of communication. My Caucasian roommate one day asked me some honest questions she had about what it’s like to be an Asian student on campus. Simply being able to talk about myself in this way and add voice to my experience probably did more for me than it did for her.
I also saw firsthand how broad of a term “minority” is. Regardless of race, everyone has a different experience; therefore making assumptions about a person based on their hometown or race can often lead to an inaccurate picture of that person. Another important lesson I learned was the difference between race and heritage and how to navigate and respect both. I made the mistake of pulling away from my Korean culture out of fear of being misunderstood, but without these pieces – the traditions, pieces of the language and food – I wasn’t being completely honest about myself.
The new Korean-American version of the Hulk and the use of Japanese characters in the movie Big Hero Six are examples of the increase in awareness and attention to Asian-American groups. As minority equality becomes an increasingly popular topic, it’s also important to make an effort to understand people based on their individual experiences. I have just started to open up this conversation, and it is my hope that this process will help people to understand how both my Korean heritage and my upbringing in America have shaped me. Race may affect a person’s appearance, but it doesn’t define them.