Martinez: Reaffirming my Korean identity

Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor


I’ve dreamed of visiting South Korea since I was 8 years old. But because of money, school and work issues, we were never able to make the trip back to my grandmother’s homeland. She had immigrated to the United States with a 6-month-old baby (my mother) at age 20, unable to return and see her family for 50 years.

So when my mother asked if I wanted to join her side of the family and explore the country for two weeks, I said “yes” before she could finish the question. I paid for my own plane ticket, rented travel books and learned hangul, the relatively easy Korean alphabet.

As I sat on the 14-hour flight, I itched with anxiety. I was concerned with not being able to speak Korean — in fact, besides my fluent grandmother, none of us could say more than 20 words. I had also never met any of my family members who live there, and I was afraid of doing or saying something wrong by accident and offending my grandmother in the process.

But when we landed, all my fears were replaced with excitement. My mother and I navigated the bus and subway system with our limited language skills and met up with the rest of our group with ease. Together, we traveled to some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I grew closer to my younger cousins, who have always been like sisters to me.

While the trip was meant for my family to have fun and learn about our Korean roots, it was also planned so my grandmother could reconnect with her brother and cousins and pay respects at her parents’ graves. My grandmother was my age when she left her village behind to come to America and start a family of her own. While she doesn’t regret it, she did miss important moments in the lives of her relatives, like her younger brother’s marriage and her parents’ deaths. After I witnessed all the tearful reunions and formally bowed in front of my great-grandparents’ graves, my Korean-American heritage somehow made more sense.

Whenever I tell people I’m Korean, I’m met with conditional acceptance: Sure, but have you ever been there before? Can you speak the language? Do you celebrate all the holidays? These questions are asked as though my answering “yes” to them would suddenly make me more validly Asian. None of my other racial identities are picked apart in this manner, even though biologically I’m equal parts of everything. But because of my appearance, I have only been deemed “acceptably” black and Mexican.

It’s true that I didn’t have a stereotypically Korean childhood. I do eat Korean food, attend 100th Day parties, take my shoes off when I get home and partake in an intensive skin-care routine with my aunt. But because my multiracial household is filled with so many other cultures, all of them become minimized by nature.

Being Korean is more than being able to eat spicy food or watch K-dramas for hours — it’s about being able to respect and learn from your elders. I always knew that, but this trip made me believe it more deeply. Seeing my incredibly strong grandmother be vulnerable, reconnect with her little brother and make some peace with her parents deepened my understanding of my family’s struggles. Even 50 years later, the deep bond she and her remaining relatives had was almost tangible. Their unconditional generosity and love for each other taught me to honor and fight for the family I have, no matter the obstacles.

My uncles and aunts accepted me completely and never once made me feel like I wasn’t Korean enough, even though I look different from them. They never questioned my language skills or what holidays we celebrate at home. All they cared about was meeting us and showing us their love for their country.

I had to travel over 10,000 miles to strengthen my Korean identity. Along the way, many laughs, tears and peace signs were shared. Best of all, I gained a stronger sense of my own history that I can take with me back to America.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.