By Emma Park

October 30, 2022

Five-year-old me was addicted to Barbie. 

I watched the movies. I memorized the songs. I pranced around my basement in full fairy-princess costume, twirling a wand and going on imaginary girl-power adventures. I collected dolls– mostly blonde with shimmery pink dresses, or brunettes with light eyes and kind smiles, but there was one doll that always stood out to me the most. 

She had black hair. Jet black, long and straight. A minor character from one of the movies, not even Barbie herself. She wasn’t my favorite, but she always managed to catch my eye. 

I guess in my five-year-old mind, I’d assumed she was Korean. 

She was the first doll I’d reach for in the pile. I could imagine myself in her place, lithe and graceful in her little satin shoes. I thought, I may not be Barbie, but there is a place for me in her universe. 

Years later, when I’d just entered my freshman year of high school, I was rummaging through my old toys when I encountered my old friend. I was delighted. I smoothed her tangled black hair, unruffled her little red skirt. Peered into those twinkly green eyes–

I frowned, heart already sinking a little. 

“Mom,” I called, “are there Koreans with green eyes?”

My mother came into the room frowning. “What?” Then she noticed the doll in my hands and laughed out loud. “Emma, that Barbie is not Asian.”


It was one of those my-whole-life-has-been-a-lie moments. 

A singular moment of intense disappointment came and went. I couldn’t believe it. For years, I thought I was playing with a Korean doll. Though, looking at it now, her eyes were quite light, and other than the color of her hair, she was pretty much identical to any other Barbie doll I owned. 

Why had young me insisted she looked just like me? 

Perhaps a part of me had found a sense of comfort in the idea. I had imagined her childhood was just like mine. She ate the same foods, called her mother Umma and her grandmother Halmoni, and eventually grew up to become a magic princess. Her straight black hair fell the way mine did. Though I clearly knew nothing about her character, I related to her more than any other doll I owned. 

Back then, there weren’t many positive Asian American characters to relate to in American media, let alone Korean. I suppose I was grasping straws. I tried desperately to love “Ni-hao; Kai-Lan” for the short time it aired on television, but I was mistaken as Chinese rather than Korean at school too many times to feel like I could embrace it without causing misunderstandings. When I got older, there was Lane Kim from “Gilmore Girls,” who I loathed for her flightiness, and her strict mother, and the fact that she seemed to take Korean culture as a resentful joke rather than a part of her. None of them compared to my Korean, not-Korean doll, whose identity was born from my own imagination.

These days, it’s cool to be Korean. It’s trendy. It is K-pop and K-BBQ and synchronized dancing. I’m glad that there’s more representation, more acceptance, although sometimes it feels superficial (i.e., “You’re Korean? I love BTS!”). The push for more representation seems cliche at times, but that doesn’t take away its urgency or legitimacy. Five-year-old me was desperate for representation, to find proof that a Korean American like me could still live out any dream I wanted. That there truly were no limitations. 

I wonder if little Korean girls today are finding that proof.