I am a freak! Sitting on the balcony in my favorite café in Korea, sipping on my warm cup of lavender tea, I am people watching. I see tall, thin, gorgeous Korean women walking gracefully on cushioned sidewalks, so as they walk in high-heels their knees won’t get injured. Looking from the outside, I did not feel comfortable. I felt like an outsider, a freak. For 22 years of my wonderful life, I always thought I was Korean. I look out again and see Korean women with tiny faces, sharp pointy noses, and huge eyes. I think to myself, am I in Korea?
Coming to Korea, I expected to see people like me. I expected Korean women with round faces, flat noses, and small eyes. I thought they were supposed to be short. I always thought I was tall for an Asian! I was lost. I was in deep confusion.
It was January 3, 1988 that I was brought into this world. Born in Chicago, Illinois, as an American citizen. My 22 years of life, however, told me otherwise. Ones appearance plays a huge part in their identity, and for me my identity was difficult to find because of my appearance. I have yellow skin and “Asian” facial and body features. (Well, I thought they were Asian features at the time.) I have a round face with small eyes and a flat nose. I have shorter legs and a longer torso than Caucasians. Because of my outer appearance, people would assume that I was born in Korea. I would be complimented on my English speaking abilities. I was supposedly good at math and had crazy parents who were obsessed with grades. Lastly, I supposedly liked “kimchee” (spicy fermented cabbage). I am a Korean-American, but in America I am Korean.
For one year in college, I studied as an exchange student at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. I desired to expand my knowledge and appreciation for my culture. Ultimately, I wanted to find my identity as a Korean.
Living in Korea for a year, I did not find my identity. Korean people looked at me like an American. My appearance screamed that I was a Korean American. They were surprised by my Korean speaking abilities and that I liked spicy food, even kimchee. They looked at me in awe. I was the American girl. I was liked because I could speak English and Korean, but I was still different. I felt like an animal, surrounded by people gazing at me because I was the yellow girl who spoke English. I was a “Gyopo”. (This Korean word means “Korean-American”.)
In terms of typical facial and body features, I was also different. I was shorter than most Korean girls and chubbier. Not only that, but I looked nothing like Korean women. “Plastics” surrounded me, but since most Korean woman get plastic surgery this has become the norm. Those who do not get plastic surgery are now considered abnormal. I was abnormal. My mind was crashing. The thought of getting plastic surgery never occurred to me, however the thought of becoming stick skinny had. I wanted to fit in, so for about half a year I struggled with my diet because I was trying to become the norm. I was digging my hole because my identity was crashing even more than before. Now I had an eating disorder! I don’t know why, but I felt ugly and unaccepted by Korean society. I felt like I had to become Korean in Korea, whatever that means. I no longer looked Korean.
I was in culture shock. I came to Korea seeking an identity and was instead presented with another puzzle to put together. I was stuck in the middle of these two cultures. If America and Korea were two mountains, I was drowning in the waters filling the gap. Who or what will save me?
Then I realized only I can save myself. I am an outsider in two cultures, but I am an individual. I realized that everybody is different and all an outsider in some way or another. For me, I am a Korean American, but I am also Tina Lee. I ended up finding myself, but not within the boundaries of two cultures.