“You’re not that Asian.” “You’re only half, that doesn’t really count.” “You don’t LOOK that Asian!” “You’re brother looks more Asian than you do.”“I couldn’t even tell you were Asian at first.” “What are you? Besides white?”
My name is Emily Reynolds. Understandably, when you first see/hear this name, you probably think of a white girl. After all, they’re historically English names. “Emily” was the most popular girls’ name from around 1996 to 2008, and is considered a “basic white girl” name. But I’m actually only half white. I’m mixed race, born to a white father and a South Korean mother.
My mother Alice was born in Seoul, South Korea. Her father moved the family to Canada when she was about 6 years old, so he could complete his studies in physical geography at the University of Western Ontario. They moved to Calgary after my grandfather graduated. My mother adapted pretty quickly to her new home country. She traded her Korean name for a Canadian one and she learned English. She still spoke Korean with her family, but since being surrounded by this new culture, the language has almost entirely left her. For a long time, she was the only Asian girl in her class, and kids would sometimes mock her for that. My mother’s upbringing, like most with Asian parents, was strict, but she longed for the typical Canadian girl life. When the time for university came, she left Calgary to attend the University of Toronto, desiring the “big city” experience. While there, she met my father, Andrew. She’s the first person in her family to marry a white man.
At first glance, it’s hard to tell I’m biracial. Besides my very white name, I’m white passing. I have pale skin, reddish-brown hair, and light brown eyes. People have told me, though, that they can tell I have Asian heritage because of my eye shape. My older brother Matthew, on the other hand, has black hair and dark eyes. I’ve been told he looks more Asian than I do, and it’s true. I can only see our resemblance if we’re standing next to each other. Otherwise, I don’t really see it.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I “don’t look that Asian”, and I’ve always wondered why they bother to tell me (as if I didn’t notice already). I never know how to answer this. Am I supposed to thank them for pointing it out? Should I tell them that I had no control whatsoever on my appearance, and that I didn’t really get to choose how I turned out while in the womb? Do I remind them how basic genetics work, when someone has parents with different races? Sometimes I think they say this to me because they’re just genuinely surprised by my appearance. Other times, when told this, I sense a hidden criticism and sharpness, telling me that I can’t really identify as Asian if I don’t look it.
The more I hear this, the more I question my identity. I come from a majority and a minority group. Of course, I’m very aware of my privilege, being white passing and growing up in a typical Canadian household. I wouldn’t call myself a visible minority. So whenever I hear someone tell me I’m not really Asian, I start to think that they’re right. They have a point after all, I tell myself. My mother didn’t raise me with South Korean values. I don’t speak Korean. I dislike most traditional Korean dishes. I’ve never really faced the same prejudices they’ve faced. It still hurts though, when people tell me I’m not Korean enough. Does having an immigrant mother and an entire side of the family born in South Korea qualify as being “Korean enough” to them? And yet, why do I feel the need to prove to them that I am a valid Asian?
The struggle of which race we identify to is one most biracial kids face. Which one are we, which one do we choose? Which one do we check off when a survey tells us to choose only one? We don’t feel like we belong to either. If I say I’m South Korean, I don’t feel like I fit in with other South Koreans because I didn’t necessarily have the same experiences they’ve had. At the same time, if I say I’m only white, it feels like I’m ditching my Korean heritage, effectively forgetting my family’s history and accomplishments. But am I really allowed to belong to this culture if I’m fair-skinned and I’ve never experienced the same struggles they have? I’ve come to simply identify as white, because I think that it isn’t right to call myself Asian if I was never immersed in the culture.
I’ve realized recently though, why do I have to choose one? I’m allowed to proudly identify as both. My father’s family is a large mix of Italian and Irish. My mother’s entire family hails from South Korea. Both are big, happy, and loud. Family reunions and get-togethers are always busy and exciting. On my father’s side, I get to see my extended family at our annual family reunion, and see my grandparents often during holidays. I don’t see my Korean grandparents often, but when I do, it’s always a special occasion and they are always kind to my brother and I. My mother has many aunts, uncles, and cousins in the GTA, so we celebrate Korean New Year, Christmas, and birthdays together. Although my brother, my father and I are the only ones in my mother’s family with a white background, we are still warmly welcomed.
Being half Korean may not “count” as being Asian to some people, but it counts to me. And if you don’t think I count, why do you care? You’re not the one who decides my identity, I do. You’re not the one who gets to decide if I’m “Asian enough”, I do. It’s my life, my family heritage, and my identity, not yours. So yeah, I may only be a “halfsie”, but I still feel pretty whole.
By Emily Reynolds