For many Asian Americans, our communities cope with unique issues such as perceived foreignness or the “model minority” myth, along with fighting racism and microaggressions. These challenges can, at times, make being a multicultural Asian American difficult and frustrating. Despite these setbacks, however, there are in fact many advantages to having a multifaceted identity. Here are four areas that I am grateful for as a Korean American woman.
Many of our favorite dishes from our childhood may be incorporated into mainstream culture, like pho, bulgogi, sushi, and dim sum. However, even those living in big food cities may not know of more obscure dishes like bitter melon soup, miyeokguk, peking duck, or pyanggang. The same can be said about certain Asian ingredients that are used for cooking, such as gochujang, rice paper, hoisin sauce, mung bean sprouts, and more.
I’m fortunate to live in Los Angeles, which has cuisines from all over the world. I can find a Korean BBQ place to dine in with friends with ease. However, there’s more to Korean food than KBBQ, and being Asian American, I have the distinct advantage of simply having a broader database of dishes and ingredients. It’s convenient for me to go to the Korean grocery store, get all the ingredients I need, and before I know it, I’m indulging in jjajangmyeon, a noodle dish made of black bean paste and pork belly, and my personal favorite late night snack. I have access to healthier meals, fast and easy dishes to cook last minute, and a palate that is used to diverse tastes. For example, I’ve never seen black rice sold at my local grocery store, but it’s a type of grain that I’m very familiar with as I grew up eating it. I can find at least 7 different brands of black rice at the Korean grocery store, and I love eating it because it has amazing health benefits, like reducing the risk of cardiovascular conditions, diabetes management, and being high in amino acids.
For those of us who grew up speaking a second language, or were exposed to it, we can draw from words and phrases to express ourselves and our nuanced feelings. In many languages around the world, there are words that exist that can’t be directly translated to English. In Japanese, you can say “boketto” to express “the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking.” The Filipino word “gigil” refers to the feeling when you see something so irresistibly cute that you want to pinch or squeeze it. Unfortunately, these words haven’t made their way into the English language yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them whenever the situation fits.
Being multilingual also allows us to communicate with a portion of the population that are not just English speakers, as is much of the world, even America, which doesn’t have an official language. I am by no means fluent in Korean, but having the knowledge that I do have allows me to connect with other Koreans, navigate Korean dominated areas, better understand a menu at a restaurant, and so much more. Anecdotally, I also have more patience, sympathy, understanding, and ability to understand and resonate with those people who took on learning English as a second or even third language, since English was not my first language as well.
As an added bonus, experts have concluded that being bilingual correlates with being more creative, better at multitasking, and having a better memory.
As a person of color, I believe it’s natural to respect and have a base level of understanding for other cultures and traditions, even if we do not agree or identify with them. We may be more sympathetic to other groups of people because we’ve heard similar stories in our circles, such as being children of immigrants, working several jobs, being translators for our parents and more. These experiences allow us to navigate different spaces because of our ability to code-switch between cultures and settings as it sees fit.
I recently discovered Korean variety shows, which are available with English subtitles. Despite Hardly understanding the language, I’m not discouraged from experiencing the show by hearing it in an unfamiliar language and reading the subtitles. Many Americans however, do have an aversion to this and this leads to missing out on content from the rest of the world.
When Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s film “Parasite” won the 2020 Best Picture at the Oscars, he stated in his acceptance speech: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I can personally attest that I’ve gotten a lot of joy from watching new shows from Korea, especially at a time when I was tired of all my American shows.
This is evident when traveling abroad as well. Whenever I travel, not just to Asian countries, I try my best to adapt to any cultures, everyday behaviors and habits of the country. Even though my ethnicity is Korean, I grew up in America, so my mannerisms, clothes, etc. are all American. When I visited Thailand for the first time, I wanted to respect the culture there, so I wore clothing that covered more skin than I typically would on a hot day here in LA, knowing that it could be perceived as disrespectful to show too much skin. In Korea, some restaurants require that you take off your shoes when you enter, and either provide indoor slippers or allow you to walk in socks/barefoot. Many Asian households preserve the cleanliness and quality of the floor, especially at some restaurants where you sit on the floor on cushions. When I visited Japan, nearly every public toilet was a bidet, and instead of balking at something that would shock and have many Americans turning up their noses, I used every single feature and wondered why they weren’t used worldwide, with their superior hygiene, and eco-friendly features.
Because my own culture has traditions, products, mannerisms that are and have been perceived as “weird”, “odd”, “gross”, and more, it’s especially important to me that I have an open mind to all the cultures of the world and recognize that just because it is unfamiliar to me doesn’t mean it should be viewed negatively but rather an opportunity to learn and experience new things.
At times it can certainly feel like society is against Asian Americans and it can be hard to have pride and joy in our multicultural identity. I have definitely gone through periods of time when I felt dejected for having a hyphenated identity, being Korean-American instead of just American. But then I remember that I had exposure to amazing things throughout my life that I now consider a privilege and unique to my Asian American experience. I hope the above reasons remind you of all that we have to offer as Asian Americans and the great advantages we have.