Teaching Moments: Sharing my Heritage
To be honest, I had no idea that May is Asian American Heritage Month.
I have most likely heard this at some point in my life, but promptly forgot.
The fact that I am Asian American (or more specifically Korean American) is not typically at the forefront of my mind. In my daily life in the U.S., I could go days or weeks without giving thought to this sort of hyphenated identity that categorizes me based on my ancestry. But in Liberia, strangers seem to remind me every day that I look like a “Chinese man.”
These constant observations and remarks frustrate me, but I try to use them as teaching moments. It’s in these instants that I explain that although my parents are from Korea, I was actually born and raised in America.
frequently commenting on my appearance opens the space for discussions about
culture and place. And oftentimes, I find that my Korean background helps me to
connect with Liberians in a way that I might not be able to if I were a
“typical-looking” American (if that even exists).
Having visited South Korea quite a few times in my life and also having a firm grasp of the lifestyle and traditions, I naturally tend to talk about Korean life almost as much as I do about American life. This means that I am able to pull from two very different cultures in these cross-cultural conversations. I describe the taste and flavors of Korean food and their similarity to traditional Liberian dishes—big bowls of rice with spicy soups. I also share the post-Korean War stories of my parents’ generation and explain the division between North and South Korea to which many Liberians can relate, having seen or experienced some part of the somewhat recent civil war in this country. In addition to being able to create these kinds of parallels between South Korea and Liberia, these conversations also foster a sense of pride for me regarding my Korean heritage.
I am also proud to be an American citizen. I realize, upon deeper reflection, that America has created the setting that made these positive interactions possible. The United States government has funded and supported my wonderful, cross-cultural experience in Liberia for the past two years through the Peace Corps. Beyond this specific opportunity, my upbringing in the U.S. as the son of immigrants has allowed me to feel both unambiguously American and proudly Korean without having to choose between either identity. For this I am grateful now more than ever, and I am happy to play my small part in representing the diversity of America to the people of Liberia.