How was it like coming to Georgetown from your hometown?
Coming here [from California] was different. East Coast is different from West Coast, people are a little uptight. *laughs* They’re less relaxed here. The weather is the worst part. It’s too cold here, honestly.
Tell us about your family and background.
My parents were both born in Korea but they spent the majority of their lives growing up in America. My dad grew up in Hawaii, my mom in Seattle. They went to college here so they’re very Americanized but they still stay very strong to their Korean roots. And that kind of grew into me too. I try to stay very close to my Korean culture. They ingrained in me that out there in the real world, I shouldn’t have to think of myself as Korean, Asian, Asian American – I should just be myself. I don’t have to put a label on myself outside of the house. I can be whatever I want.
Do you ever feel like you have to specify that you’re Korean-American?
Kind of, yeah. I was born in Palo Alto, and at age 4, I moved to Korea, lived there for six years, and then in 5th grade I moved back and grew up the rest of my life here.
I love sharing my Korean culture so I was the president of Korean Club at my high school. It was a pretty big club. It grew because we brought in Korean BBQ, we brought in food, so a lot of people showed up. But a lot of the club members were White or Indian. There were a lot of Korean people in the club, because it was a Korean community, but we just called it Korean Club so we didn’t limit it to Korean students.
Tell us more about Korean Club at your high school.
We just did it for fun. We tried to present on a topic each week – I would always present on North Korea/South Korea relations and the VP would talk about South Korean economics- the jaebuls, the tech industry- and other guys would talk about different things they’re interested in, like cosmetics or whatever. It was educational, we always brought in food, and we would end it with like K-pop music. It was just a fun environment.
What was it like growing up Asian American in Korea and in America?
I don’t remember anything before the age of 4, but once I got to Korea, I was alienated – just because I had darker skin from the sun. I was in preschool or kindergarten and I spoke zero Korean, so I couldn’t communicate with any of the kids there. The teacher couldn’t understand my feelings or what I was trying to communicate so it was extremely difficult. I became extremely introverted, which still stays with me today.
So my mom put me in intensive Korean training at these academies after school, where they just grind you on Korean. I just kept on learning Korean, Korean, Korean. And then at the point I was conversationally functional, I forgot all my English. I didn’t speak any English except for hi, hello, my name’s Alex. So my parents put me in an international school where I could relearn English, from 1st grade to 4th grade.
Going to an international school- it was a homogeneous population, all Asian people. So when I moved back to California in 5th grade, it was extremely weird seeing black and Latino and white people. My English was so bad. I finished up to 4th grade in Korea, which is probably like a 1st grade English level. I was in 5th grade and I barely knew how to write. Reading was bad, math was bad, I was in low level classes. It was just a very different experience. Growing up in a homogeneous population, you learn to be assimilated, so everyone else is like an alien to you.
Have any particular experiences shaped your Asian American identity?
In middle school, my best friends were Korean, Indian, a lot of Asian people. In high school, it was majority white and you didn’t see many Asian people on campus. It’s hard finding your own identity with your culture when you don’t see them as often.