My Korean American Story: Kimberly So Jin Kim
I was never that type of Asian girl in elementary school, you know, the quiet one that has all the answers to the math problems. But I always felt like I should. Well, my father did, at least. And to my nine-year old self, that meant the same thing. And for everybody else in the classroom, I just had to fit into that mold. Otherwise, where else would I fit in? I can’t be what I’m not. That makes sense. But the Korean American thing is strange. You don’t have a choice. Until you decide that you can.
The dining room was the first place I checked into when I came home from school each day. I’d drop my backpack unto the ground somewhere behind me in the living room as I marched right into the kitchen. The dim light of the room, encasing the warm, aged smell of my mother’s traditional kim-chee stew, and the wooden floors creaking and moaning in welcome to my steps were my security, the one place I could be myself and do what I want. I liked to sing. But I never let my father know that.
My father is a man of very few words, oftentimes harsh and cold, but sometimes touching and deep. Regardless, his words always cut me. It was an unbearably hot summer evening, the kind that gets you irritated and mad for no reason. I thought it strange that my father would stay home that day from work. I wasn’t used to being with him for such an extended period of time. He was always working and so was my mother, ever since I could remember. The awkward tension between us would soon erupt as we sat in silence, eating last night’s kim-chee stew my mother had made. I could feel my father’s eyes watching me in silence for a while and alas he said one word that sent tears down into my rice.
“Mi an ha da.”
“Sorry,” he said in Korean. I didn’t look up to face him or anything but just kept chewing, forcing the food down against the lump in my throat. I didn’t exactly know why he said that then, but somehow didn’t have to and know exactly what he meant by it. My mother came home that night and explained to me that my father had quit his job. I didn’t ask why because if my father stopped working, it was for a good reason that I didn’t need to question. He wasn’t a man that could afford not to work. Because that’s what the Asian man without power of language or money does in the States. Since our immigration to the U.S., my father worked all his life for the family and will do so until the day he dies, laboring those late night shifts at that Japanese restaurant, where the rich and carefree tip the server at the end.
When I realized that, I mean, really realized that, I decided to live the rest of my life as a token of appreciation for my parents’ sacrifice for me. Starting from middle school, I couldn’t miss a homework assignment or flunk a test. I couldn’t treat school as an option like some of the other kids did. I couldn’t skip a day on mere whim, as much as I wanted to because, truthfully, school wasn’t that great. No one noticed me unless we all got our grades back. Straight A’s—yes, my non-Asian friends called it a Korean American thing. Well, it’s not. It’s called I-have-to-be-the-best-I-can-be-because-I-have-parents-who-do-the-same-for-me thing.
I treated school as if it were my entire life, as if my worth was stored in the recognition of being that Korean girl that excelled in everything. But I wasn’t fine with that. As a sophomore in college, I’m still not fine with that. I didn’t want that back then. And I don’t want that now. I couldn’t be honest with myself all these years, but I try now by asking—for whom am I living? Not for me. Well, if not for me, then at least for my parents. Right.
For my father’s “mi an ha da,” for his sorry.
Name: Kimberly So Jin Kim
Current Residence: NYC