Lucas: My name is Lucas Lee, and I'm Korean American.
Eliza: What was your family’s reason for first immigrating to the US?
Lucas: My dad's side of the family is kind of complicated because my grandfather was kicked out of his home in Korea during the Korean War. So he had to survive for himself by doing a lot of jobs and, I believe, ended up working on the U.S. base in Korea. Eventually, he met my grandmother, and they decided to move to America for more opportunities because that's where everyone was going at the time to live the American dream.
They were actually quite successful. My grandfather owned a lot of businesses and restaurants and did really well at one point. Eventually, he used up all his money and blew it, but he definitely was really successful early on. Definitely an entrepreneur. On my mom's side, it’s basically the same story. They moved to the States for a better life. They wanted the best for their family as well.
My parents were born in Korea and moved to the States when they were 7-9 years old. So they were Fresh Off the Boat in the 1970s, 80s. They basically grew up in America their entire lives besides their early childhood, my dad in Texas and my mom in Virginia. They went to college here as U.S. citizens, and I was born in Dallas, Texas.
At the age of eight, I moved to Korea, where my dad was working for a university. There, I went to a Korean school for the first time. It was pretty funny; I only knew about five Korean words. I basically learned everything about Korea there because I was surrounded by no one who spoke English. After those five years, my dad changed schools and started working for the international school I graduated from.
Eliza: Culturally, would you identify more with Korean or American culture?
Lucas: I'd say more with American culture. I speak English. The first half of my life was all in America. The way I think, the way I talk is definitely more American. But I've been exposed to Korean culture a lot more than American culture. So, I'd say I have an equal understanding of both, and there's a lot of stuff about America I still don't understand.
Eliza: You speak English within the home or a little bit of Korean?
Lucas: English, mainly. Korean... only sometimes because it's easier to articulate some things in Korean. But my Korean is not very good.
Eliza: How old were you when you first realized that you were different?
Lucas: I guess for me, the situation is kind of almost the opposite. At my school there's a lot of “Korean Korean” people, even though they're considered international students. So instead of being in America and realizing that I was an Asian American, I had the opposite case of being surrounded by a bunch of Koreans and realizing I was American. I always thought I was Korean because I grew up in Korea. But around the age of 15 or 16, in my middle and early high school years, I realized a lot of my friends and people I was really close with couldn’t connect with me in the same way. They had never lived more than two or three years outside of Korea, so they really didn't understand anything about America. Even though they were my friends, they didn't have the same understanding that I did or the same background. They didn’t think the same way I did. We were a little different in that small way. That's when I kind of realized they were not exactly like me.
Coming from America and Korea, having that understanding of both cultures, is kind of fun because I can take a step back from each of them and look at them in an unbiased way. Korea is a bandwagon culture- Koreans are trendsetters. A trend will die really quickly. People would always be dressing up or do certain things only to just stop in a month.
When I take a step back and ask my friends, “Guys, why do Koreans do blah, blah, blah?” They wouldn't really understand because that's just what they do. None of them ever think, “Koreans act like this.” American people don't think, “Why do Americans think like this?” Because that’s who they are. That's when I realized I was the only one among them that really thought, “Why do Koreans think this way?” I did so because I don't fully see myself as just a “Korean Korean.” And there's a ton of stuff that I just don't understand about America, too.
Eliza: You're able to take a step back and have a bird's eye view and analyze things objectively. So you identify as a Korean American. What does being Korean, or even being Asian in general, mean to you? And has that changed over the years?
Lucas: When I was young, really before I even moved to Korea, my parents and grandfather always rehearsed this to me, “Lucas, you’re Korean American.” I didn't even know what they meant. When people asked me what I was, I would just say, “I'm Korean American.” Then they would ask, “Korean or American?” I would just say, “I'm Korean American.”
It took awhile to figure out what I was, and I guess by the end of that was when I realized, I should stop trying to categorize myself as one or the other because I'm a combination of both.
Eliza: How old were you when you had this realization?
Lucas: I was a junior in high school, so 18.
Eliza: Do you find that when you're in a White context for too long you miss the Korean side of yourself and vice versa?
Lucas: Oh definitely, yeah. Being in Wilmore, I miss Korea and my “Koreanness” so much.
Eliza: Think about a time when you felt the most disconnected from your ethnic group. And tell me about it.
Lucas: It's probably when I was in Korea. After I figured out I am Korean American, not Korean or American, I was in a small convenience store that sold kimbap and ramen. It was a go to place because it was right across the street from school. I was with my friends and speaking English. This older man who was 70 or 80 years old, who lived in the neighborhood, started yelling and cussing at us, “Why aren't you guys Korean? Why are you guys speaking English? If you're not speaking in Korean, you should get out of here.” I didn't say anything. He just left. That incident kind of made me mad because it's not like only Koreans lived there. He lived right across the street from an international school and didn’t expect to hear English? I realized that's just the way some Koreans think who have no exposure to foreigners. At those moments, I would feel really disconnected because those Korean Korean people don't see me as Korean. Even from the way I dress, you could easily pick me out in a crowd walking down the streets of Seoul. Whenever people wanted to find me, they could really easily because I don't dress anything like the Korean kids my age.
Eliza: I'm curious- has being Korean ever been a conversation with your parents- because they're Korean American as well? Culturally would you say they're more American or Korean?
Lucas: They're definitely more American. I feel like they know they're Korean and they're proud of it, but they lived maybe eight years in Korea and then 30 to 40 years, for the rest of their lives, in the States.
Eliza: Has there ever been a point in time you felt discriminated against?
Lucas: It's kind of funny. In Korea, I was discriminated against for being an American. After I came to America, I got discriminated against naturally for just being Asian. I do find it offensive, for sure, and it's annoying, but I don't necessarily get as frustrated anymore unless it gets physical. If people don’t know the difference between North and South Korea, I just think that's funny. So many people asked me that my freshman week.
Eliza: That's good that you don't internalize it.
Lucas: I've definitely been to some states where people were really rude to me flat out. I was in Alabama once trying to get food with my mom, and the lady at the counter would not talk to us for some reason. At first, I was like, “Why is this lady being so rude?” My mom said, “Oh, she was just racist.” “Why is she racist?” “We're in Alabama.” There were just moments when I had to deal with being treated differently for reasons I didn't understand.
Just a couple months ago, my girlfriend and I were at Raising Canes in Nicholasville. The cashier said to us, “Hey, where are you guys from?” I was like, “I’m from Texas.” My girlfriends said, “I'm from Atlanta.” He said, “So what are you guys doing here?” I was like, “I go to school here.” He went, “No, no. Where are you guys from?” I said, “I’m from Korea,” and he said, “China.” I said, “No, Korea.” He said, “China.” “No, Korea.” And obviously I didn't really care because I'm not too sensitive, but he was pretty put off. He was just very ignorant. That happened really recently.
Eliza: Is there anything else you want to add?
Lucas: I feel like being able to accept that I'm both Korean and American gave me more self confidence. I used to get really anxious all the time. But after figuring it out, I was able to gain more confidence.
What really helped me find my place, my identity, was deciding to stop profiling myself. There's so many labels out there. If you want to be satisfied with who you are, you need to learn that you're different from other people. The fact that you're different sets you apart from everyone else. You need to be proud of it rather than hide it.