I say this all with part amusement, part exasperation, and complete seriousness.
What does it mean to be Half-Korean? See more at The Halfie Project. But for now, a brief introduction into what you should avoid saying to half-Koreans.
1. All half-Korean girls are the prettiest.
Now, this is one that is odd to begin with. First of all, it makes me appear surly and also like I’m bringing down my people and their beauty. It is true that half-Koreans are beautiful; I proudly admit it and have seen so many beautiful halfies it’s hard to deny there is some special mix of hereditary traits. That being said, I have seen half-Mexican girls, half-Japanese girls, half-black girls, all sorts of halfies who are gorgeous and unique. However, it is also true that there are some people who say this to me with a lecherous gleam in their eye. Ah the subtle signs of yellow fever remain apparent to those who look for it; or rather, to those who are resigned to deal with it every day. Also, let’s be frank; not EVERY half-Korean girl is an exotic beauty. You have now forced me to either agree with you and your salacious comment or awkwardly denounce half-koreans and their looks. It would be like I said, “All black boys are the funniest!” or “All Mexican girls are the loudest!” Blanket statements rarely leave room for discussion; let’s lay them aside shall we?
2. Why did your parents get married?
I shall rebound with an equally poignant question; why did YOUR parents get married? It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with mutual attraction, falling in love and walking down the aisle together? Some people happen to meet and happen to like each other. Sometimes these people get married. Sometimes they have kids. Nearly in all of those cases, their children look somewhat like both of the parents. I am not sure what kind of answer you are expecting, but I doubt it was anything as ordinary as ‘they met and fell in love.’ I recognize that it might be disappointing, but my father did not marry my mother in order to gain an enormous dowry.
3. Korean women should marry only Korean men.
While riding in a taxi in Seoul one night, the driver took one look at me and asked rather suspiciously, “Are you Korean?” I nodded and looked out the window. He took this to mean ‘please continue telling me your forceful opinions’ and proceeded to do just so. “Korean women belong to Korean men!” he said, swiveling the steering wheel dramatically as only a taxi driver can do. “They are betraying their country by running off with white men!” I noticed that black men or other races did not exist in his mind. Mmm, I said in response. I was an abomination to him and his country, apparently. For the rest of the ride home, he ranted and raged against the Japanese who had stolen our women, the American soldiers who had stolen our women, the foreigners working here who were stealing our women, and of course, the traffic. No matter how racist you are, some things are the same for everyone.
4. Hey, Mulan!
I like Disney. I like Disney princesses. When I was little, I imagined myself to be Pocahontas running through the forest, leaves swirling around me as I painted the colors of the wind. I wanted to have a pet raccoon that was cheeky and caused trouble. I hoped to meet a handsome, adventurous stranger until we were forced to part due to his gunshot wound to the side, I sadly watching his ship sail away to England. Pocahontas had long, beautiful black hair and went everywhere barefoot. That to me was the dream. However, I was often reminded by my classmates that I was actually Chinese and resigned to save the dynasty from the Huns all the while dressed as a man. I couldn’t possibly identify with any other princess, such as Belle who was intelligent, or Cinderella who was kind, or Snow White who could sing to an unnaturally high range. After all, Mulan encompasses all Asians, right?
5. I saved this tea for you! It’s from China.
This happened to me while visiting an old high school teacher. We had always felt in high school that this teacher was a bit close-minded to the Korean students, but never really had any evidence as she didn’t treat us wildly different from anyone else. The revelation of just how she viewed me was made apparent one day when I went to her house with another friend. To my friend, who is white, the teacher offered her a whole range of teas and a mug. She then turned to me, positively writhing with excitement, and said, “I saved this tea for you!” She whipped out a tea bag and flourished it before us before delicately dropping it into a red teapot with Chinese lettering printed on it. “And I just knew you’d love this tea pot!” She proceeded to tell us that she had been looking for new teapots and when she saw this one, ‘made in CHINA’ she just knew it would be perfect for me. Thank you, I said politely, while my friend watched in horror over her oolong tea. We also don’t use phones in South Korea, I also added, and bubble tea is our national drink.
6. I love half-Korean girls. They’re way better than just Korean girls.
It was late one night as I was walking home and I felt the familiar rumbling of a hungry tummy. I decided to stop by the small chicken place set up on my road to my house. This was in Seoul and the two men working inside were both Koreans, born and raised in Korea. “Hello,” I said, expecting to make an order as I commonly do; without people gaping at me in wonder and amazement. Both men gaped at me with wonder and amazement. “Wow,” one said, “are you half-Korean?” “Yes,” I replied, “One chicken, please.” He came closer to me, beaming, “I love half-Korean girls,” he said. “They’re way better than just Korean girls.” He then proceeded to list off why this was true and ended his magnificent monologue with a magnanimous offer to take my phone number and then call me for a date later. “I’ll just take the chicken, thanks.” I said. Sometimes it’s nice to stand out from the crowd; sometimes, it’s better to blend in. This I have realized every time I walk past the chicken place and he waves outside the window at me. I must have been the only half-Korean he has ever met.
7. Wow, your English is so good!
It astounds me how many times people have told this to me while knowing that I am half-Korean and born in the United States. “Yes,” one immigration officer told me at the airport, “but being born in the United States doesn’t mean the same thing as living here.” It’s a true statement, but I also had said “hello, good afternoon, here is my passport” with a perfect American accent and hadn’t need to pull out a Korean-English dictionary when he asked me where I was traveling to. Sometimes men consider it flattery and the very foundations of flirtatious behavior when they sidle up to me in a bar and say, “wow, your English is so good.” My goodness, I reply, fluttering my eyelashes, your English is also really good. Then I promptly turn away and continue speed reading Pride & Prejudice. All in English, too.
8. Foreigners have to pay to get in. You’re okay because you speak Korean.
There are some places in Korea where only locals can get in for free while foreigners are required to pay an entrance fee. It’s a very uncomfortable situation for everyone when I am part of the group. Korean friends are let in without a hitch, my foreigner friends are forced to pay (after this incident, I am sure to never go to those places. It’s a sort of passive-aggressiveness that is encouraged when people continue to pay for no reason besides looking non-korean) and I am always the wild card. Depending on who is taking the entrance fee, I might just slide by due to looking Korean enough. However, once I was asked if I was a foreigner, and replying in perfect Korean, the doorman shrugged and said, “you’re okay because you speak Korean.” All of my foreigner friends with me could speak Korean, too. However, they didn’t look Korean, so that didn’t matter. It seems that speaking the language isn’t as important as looks.
9. Where are you from? No, where are you really from?
I was born in America. I was raised in America. I attended some school in Korea and now work and live here. The question I was asked over and over again growing up was “where are you from?” Um, Colorado? I’d reply, just as quizzically. The asker typically would sheepishly follow up with, “no, but where are you really from?” Ah, my inner Asian would reply wisely, from the depths of the dragon belly from whence all orientals are born. The answer you seek can only be obtained at the sound of the Gong of All Understanding. I kid. But this question has been asked so many times that now when I visit the United States I just tell people I am from Korea. Sometimes it’s followed up with, “oh! North or South?” I just smile.
10. You’re lucky you’re half-white.
This always strikes me as an ominous statement. Lucky as opposed to what? Say I had been born half-Korean, half-black; would I no longer be fortunate? Would my value have been decreased? It appears that I am the lesser of two evils due to my half-white status. I know the mother of two half-black little girls. As I asked her what it’s like to raise half-black half-Korean children in Korea, she told me the saddest thing I have ever heard while researching the lives of half-Koreans. Many mothers will tell their own half-Korean children that they are better because they are half-white, and thus the other children end up looking down on the half-black girls. Being half-Korean is bad enough to some, but if you must be half, at least be half-white.
There are many misconceptions about all countries; we act through stereotypes and stigmas oftentimes out of ignorance, but once we become aware, it is our duty as global citizens to change that mindset and learn to understand about each other. Half-Koreans are still a rather new people group, so it’s easy to forget that we are entirely different. If you’re hoping to learn more about half-Koreans and our lives, I hope you will check out my work The Halfie Project.