Call me Hwijung. No, actually, don’t. Call me Daniel. You can also call me DKim, The Asian Sensation, The Big Asian, The Asian One, Wang, Oriental, Ching Chong, etcetera. Call me whatever you want. If the nickname makes you laugh, then go for it. But don’t call me by my actual given name, Hwijung. I go by Daniel now.
I was born and raised in South Korea until I was 10 but spent my teen years in the almost all-white environment of Kirkwood. While living in these two polarizing countries, I developed two identities: one ashamed of my Korean heritage and one who is proud of it.
When I first came to Nipher Middle School in sixth grade, I was hardly able to hold conversations with my peers, much less find a friend to joke around and share stories. I didn’t wanted to be known as “that kid.” I wanted to be funny. I wanted to be well-liked. So I started to make self-deprecating jokes about my race, saying that I am an illegal alien shipped from a box or that my parents scream, “You doctor yet?” More and more people started to listen to what I had to say. I was finally heard. Like a ping pong match, I got to a point where I would give and take deprecating jokes about my race and my self-confidence took a beating each shot, bouncing back and forth and never belonging on either side.
When I was in my eighth grade social studies class at Nipher Middle School, I was presenting a project to the class, when I didn’t have the best grasp of vocabulary. So I went off-script and muttered, “I don’t like it because it makes me feel constipated.” I thought to be constipated meant to be anxious. Mrs. Ruedlin, my teacher, stood up, rushed across the classroom, stood next to me and whispered in my ear, “Daniel, being constipated means that you can’t…poop.”
I love telling that story. People always get a good laugh out of it. It’s a party favorite. But subconsciously, I hate telling that story. It’s a reminder that I am secretly ashamed of the Korean part of me. Stories like these are reminders that maybe if I was born in America, I would fit better in a new society. No more accents. No more cultural barriers. No more substitute teachers trying to pronounce Hwijung.
In public, people see the part of me that isn’t afraid to showcase my Asian background. I’ll be at KHS, sporting a South Korean national soccer team jersey, happy to give a lecture about the Korean War during AP U.S. History class (it was my pleasure, Mrs. Schwalb). However, once school gets out and I leave the campus to a place of my own, I find myself laying on my bed with the lights off and my mind starts to drift into thinking, “If I wasn’t born in a foreign country, maybe I would be easier to talk to. Maybe I’d be funnier. Maybe I’d be more likable. Maybe.”
With my high school experience coming to a close and college applications looming over my head, I’ve started to seriously think my past, my present and what my future has to offer. And the more I thought about it, the more concerned I’ve became with my negative perception of my Korean heritage. I asked myself in the future and adulthood, “Will I be afraid to connect to my own heritage and culture, or can I proudly call myself a Korean-American citizen?”
When my mother and I decided to leave the country for the pursuit of opportunity, My father decided to stay in South Korea. It’s been year and a half since I’ve seen him in person and nothing hurts more than waking up everyday and not being able to say “I love you” to people who matters the most to you face to face. Now that I’m busy with my newfound life, more and more I feel that I’m drifting further away from my dad. It became to a point where I can’t help but to notice that my monthly phone calls with my dad are getting awkward. He is living his life in Korea, while I’m at the other side of the globe, trying to distance myself from it. If I keep the blinders closed to my home culture, I’m afraid that I will lose what’s most important to me: family.
Instead of putting the problem aside, I wanted to finally come forward with it. To face it once and for all. I was reluctant to write about my inner struggles. I was insecure to speak out. But I am writing this because of my love for my mom, my stepdad and my baby sister in our American household in Kirkwood, and because every day I still love and miss my father, my sister and my grandparents who live 6,000 miles away from where I stand. I will love Korea as much as I will ever love America. So being ashamed of part of me that was planted and grew up on Korean soil and wanting to reinvent myself to fit the mold of American culture means that I’m turning my back on the sprout that I carefully watered and kept for 10 years and leaving it to wilt and die in darkness.
So call me Hwijung or Daniel. I don’t mind. They both hold a very important place in my life. But don’t call me anything derogatory or offensive to my background because I expect nothing but respect for my home country, my culture and my family. So if you didn’t know my name (or names) before, well, you know what to call me now.