My Korean American Story: Juli Shepherd-Southwell
I was born in 1971 to a Korean mother and an African-American father. My parents met in Germany while my mom was in nursing school. My dad was stationed in Munich as a member of the United States Air Force. My family resided in Germany for four years and my mother visited Korea a few times in between. I spent my first birthday in Korea and returned twice; at the age of two and then three. At the age of four my mother and I moved to the United States, which is where we have been ever since.
While my mother raised me, a big part of my life was spent with my father’s family too. The influence that my father’s family had upon me, weighed just as heavily as my mother’s influence. A lot of my cultural experiences were American, however my Korean background was always lurking. I have fond memories of my mother’s Korean friends throughout my childhood – visiting their homes, being babysat by them, playing in the back rooms of their businesses. I recall the displays of Korean food eaten on traditional Korean furniture. As I grew older I learned of their life struggles in a new country. How they stuck together and helped each other. These were all rich experiences, however they were clouded with my mother’s need to assimilate.
When I came to this country I spoke Korean and German. In my mother’s desire for me to speak English, she stopped speaking both Korean and German to me. Both languages are now lost. She only cooked Korean food if she was having guests over or if a family member requested a dish. My mother typically prepared the same meals, so the variety of Korean cuisine is also lost to me. But, I had my mom and she has been my biggest influence. I took her as the face, image, and the way to all things Korean.
In 2002 I moved to New York City. My hometown in South Florida is pretty metropolitan but it pales in comparison to the diversity of New York City. In Florida the ethnicities kind of mesh together and eventually get sorted by black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. In New York one is allowed to be Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Russian, Italian, Nigerian, South African, and any other ethnicity; along with the ability to self-define that heritage instead of having to follow a prescribed definition.
This, in fact, took some time for me to get used to. Others would identify me as biracial-Korean and African-American before I would, and this was something I welcomed. My Korean heritage was no longer an ignored part of my life. This compounded with the fact that my mother was no longer a part of my everyday life made me question the meaning of being Korean. I missed Korean food with a passion, but I didn’t really know how to cook it. I went to Korea-town to buy frozen items and precooked food, but it wasn’t the same. A trip to a Korean restaurant never quite did it either. Meeting Korean people, talking to Korean shop owners proved to be a melancholy experience because they were welcoming of me, but could only go so deep because of my limited cultural background and the loss of my Korean language.
The majority of my experience, so far, has been a longing for what could have been. Had my mother come to New York City after immigrating to the United States I can say without a doubt that my life would’ve been totally different. My mother’s life would’ve been totally different. It would be an empowering story of a Korean immigrant, instead of what’s typical when you’re isolated and think the American dream can only be if you become American wholeheartedly.
I’ve been looking at things that are “just there” and have started to chip away at why these things are such a big part of who I am, what I’m doing, and even whether I should be thinking and doing certain things anyway.
Which part of me is Korean, is American, is African-American? Why has there always been a tug of war between me and my mom? In my musings I decided to give the book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by Amy Chua a read. Tiger mom is Chinese, but she distinctly makes references to Korean mothers who also parent the way she does. To my surprise, I found a lot of who she is to be a part of me and a part of my mom. In fact, I saw a lot of similarities with my mom. Amy Chua is second generation Chinese-American yet, I was clearly able to read between the parody to see what was at the core of her experiences and identify with it. I think it’s quite ironic that reading a book about a Chinese-American helped me to mend what it is to be Korean-American.
The definition of what it is to be Korean to those with unique circumstances such as being a newly immigrated family, a first generation child of Korean immigrants, a biracial Korean, a multi-cultural Korean, or an adoptee may always be evolving.
As I close, you can see I have no definitive answer. Being Korean for someone like me is like having a constant burning desire within you. Many of my strongly held opinions and views come from my Korean mother’s core values. Being Korean is like a badge of honor. Being Korean sometimes feels like a contradiction. Being Korean is what makes me seek out multiculturalism in my endeavors and interactions. Being Korean is looking at my Asian eyes; looking at the subtle Asian features that reside in my daughter’s face; looking at how my son’s eyes kind of crinkle when he smiles. Being Korean makes the world beautiful for me. Being Korean is what makes the evolution worth it.