It was the first racial slur I had ever heard, and it was directed at me. I was in 4th grade. I had transferred to this school the year before, but I was still “the new kid.” On top of those usual fears of being an outcast, here I was, doing my most dreaded activity at school – running laps on the blacktop for PE, when this kid walked up to me with his big group of friends, pointed, and exclaimed, “chink!”
I, of course, did not know what the word meant, but from his and the others’ faces, I could tell that I was being attacked. My recollection of what transpired immediately thereafter has faded, but my parents had picked me up from school early that day, and I remember crying to them, asking what the word meant.
As I sat in the backseat, I could see tears welling up in my mom’s eyes and anger growing on my dad’s face. I thought I had done something wrong. Something definitely felt wrong.
From there, it was always some variation of either: “You’re only good at math because you’re Asian,” or “You’re pretty for an Asian girl.”
Growing up in Utah as one of the only racial and cultural minorities in every class, every grade, and even every school, was harder some days than others. Add religious minority to that mix, and BAM. You’re different from 99.9% of the people around you.
All throughout my life, my parents would rarely let me have friends come over. They feared that kids would come into our home and smell the kimchi we had eaten the night before. I always knew when someone outside of our family was coming over because my dad would light about 35 candles all around the house.
For most of my life, I never understood why my dad was ashamed of the food we ate or the smell that came along with it. And one day, I lashed out at my parents and threw a full-blown tantrum. “WHY CAN’T MY FRIENDS COME OVER?! WHO CARES IF WE EAT KIMCHI!”
As I grew older, my dad slowly began sharing his Army stories with me. He had immigrated from Korea when he was in 4th grade, and joined the Army when he was 18 years old. He told me stories of how he had been bullied because he smelled like garlic. So, he hid his food and ate in secret whenever he could.
Still, to this day, every time I eat Korean food at my parents’ house, out of habit, they tell me multiple times to brush my teeth before I go anywhere.
If you’re here in Utah, and you haven’t been to Myung Ga, do it! Best Korean food in town (other than my mom’s). The bulgogi 불고기 and kimchi soondubu jjigae 김치 순두부 찌개 are the bomb.com.