Korean-American Questioned: “What are you?”


Guest article by Jennis Horn. 

For as long as I have been alive, “What are you?” is a question I’ve been asked frequently. As a biracial child of Korean and American descent, my face understandably confuses people when they try to classify me under a specific ethnicity. I have answered this question in a variety of ways over the years, ranging from “human being” to “I’m complicated. What are you?” Of course, I am aware that the intent behind the question is to ascertain my ethnic breakdown which in itself, I don’t find offensive. I’m always proud of my ethnic heritage and happy to share cultural traditions with those who show interest. At the same time, I am also more than just my skin. If we were instead asking each other, “Who are you?” maybe we could understand each other better and correct misconceptions and misunderstandings with grace and respect.

My Korean-American Childhood

Growing up in Colorado Springs in the late 90’s, I was raised in a primarily Caucasian environment with a very close knit Korean community budding in the background. My maternal grandparents immigrated with my mother after she married my biological father. Despite not having the ability to speak English, my grandparents made ends meet by doing odd jobs for other Korean immigrants, working in restaurants, and childcare. I distinctly remember my grandmother having three or four Korean children in her home that I assumed were my playmates and earning myself the nickname, “little momma”.

When I was in third grade, there was a boy in my grandparent’s neighborhood who had nicknamed me “Chinese girl”, but I informed him I was Korean. Because of the friendship we had, I knew in that moment that he had not made the remarks out of malice or with insult. He genuinely did not know better. This is a stark contrast from an encounter I had later as a teenager when I was specifically asked if I was of Korean descent and promptly told to “get off my (his) island”, but with much more colorful words. That was my first encounter with hatred that was taught and affirmed. Since I had to be in class with that person, I did my best to simply be kind and do my work. I eventually befriended that same person, but I also know this is not always the case.

Half-American and Half-Korean Children

I have also experienced Koreans showing prejudice towards me because of my Caucasian half. When I was a toddler, my grandmother was boarding a bus with me in Korea when a school aged girl asked my grandmother if I was a half-breed and specifically used a derogatory Korean term. Now anyone who has met my grandmother will tell you she is a force to be reckoned with, and you certainly do not insult her family. The bus driver immediately condemned the girl for her choice of words and disrespect but my grandmother intervened stating, “So what if she is? You have a problem with that?”

One thing to understand is that after the Korean War, there were a large number of half Korean, half American children born out of prostitution resulting in large scale discrimination against all half Korean children, regardless of their parentage.  Though my biological father was indeed serving in the Army when he met my mother, she was simply a high school graduate looking for better opportunities than what her home country could provide. Overcoming this stigma has taken decades, and although things are better for mixed children in Korea, there is a long way to go.

Our Safety and Response to Racism

With recent events, I have had several conversations with my mother about safety and a proper response. My mother, who herself has been on the receiving end of much more racism than I have, responded by writing poetry about the shootings in Atlanta. She asked me to spread a message of peace to the group of Korean-American moms that I met through Facebook. She also told me for the first time in my life that she was scared. It broke my heart to think that the strongest woman I know felt genuine fear for her safety.

At the same time, we have not let fear of the unknown prevent us from living our lives. Racism is one thing that will always be a factor of our lives just like death or natural disasters. I can’t control if someone is racist towards me, but I can control my awareness of my environment and the people around me. Years ago, our church hosted a situational awareness seminar for women of our church. A former FBI agent spoke to us about being aware of our surroundings and we passed out bookmarks to encourage us to operate in the “yellow” state of awareness. She emphasized the importance of being alert but calm so we could properly gauge our surroundings. My husband and I make it a point to note our surroundings everywhere we go. Not out of fear, but to detect situations that could go wrong and remove ourselves before potential harm can reach us or our son. 

Accepting and Embracing our Cultural Traditions

Our ability to understand each other is limited to the amount of knowledge we possess. Personally, I make a conscious effort to incorporate Korean cultural traditions that are important to me and my family. When my husband and I got married, we performed a traditional Korean ceremony during our reception. We dressed in traditional Korean clothes and paid respect to our elders, primarily my husband’s parents, grandmother, and his aunts and uncles in attendance. All our guests told us it was an unforgettable experience! When our son turned one, we had a traditional Korean celebration for him as well. In this small way, I can acknowledge my heritage and give those who are not Korean an opportunity to understand Korean culture and learn about it in a safe environment. 

We all have a responsibility to future generations to teach each other how to respect our differences, embrace change, and educate ourselves. My hope is that by sharing my story, you gain an understanding of my unique experience, but also know that my experience may not be the same as others. I think there is a risk to assuming one person’s experience is the same as everyone else’s, and it is equally destructive to invalidate someone’s response because it is not the same as others. Yes, I am half Korean and half American. I am also a wife, a mom, a Christian, a baker, a pianist, lover of comedy, avid jigsaw puzzle enthusiast, and an arts and crafts addict. I am first and foremost, a human being and I see you the same. As Mr. Rogers would say, won’t you be my neighbor?

Korean IdentityAbout the Guest Author

Hello friends! My name is Jennis Horn and I live in Northern Virginia with my husband, son, and our senior dog. I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado but have traveled and lived all over the US courtesy of the Air Force. I love music, baking, and spending time with my family. I am obsessed with arts and crafts of all kinds! When I’m not at work or with my favorite people, I’m usually baking cookies or crafting something else like life size movie replicas of Han Solo frozen in carbonite.