In case you didn’t see this in the Tacoma News Tribune, here’s my first Reader Columnist article, from February 20, 2012.
Differences That Were Once Scorned Are Now Admired
MARIA GUDAITIS; CONTRIBUTING WRITER
When you attend Korean church, but don’t speak Korean, strange and comical misunderstandings can happen.
A friend (half-Korean like myself) once asked about a new group called the “Young Others.” What an odd name! Many younger members are half-Korean, but still. Ouch.
My mom shook her head with scorn. “It’s the Young Adults group!” Oh. A mispronunciation by the pastor, not an exclusionary title.
I’ve often thought about that mythical group, the Young Others. My mom is Korean and my dad is Lithuanian, so I’m of mixed ethnicity. Many times I’ve checked that box on forms: Other.
It’s not just job applications or achievement tests that lack a category for ambiguity. In Korea, biracial kids are often viewed as mongrels and mistakes. Half-Asians aren’t potential Benetton models or sports stars. We’re abandoned to orphanages and taunted on playgrounds.
Mainstream American culture didn’t give me a pass because people in the “motherland” might despise me. I look Asian. I’ve felt the sting of insults and prejudice on school buses, at work and on city streets. (No, my family doesn’t eat dog, cat…or giraffe!)
Wherever I go, am I doomed to be the Other?
For all the pain of growing up different, I wish I spoke more Korean. I wish I understood more about my heritage. Like many Asians during the 1970’s, my Mom pushed us to assimilate. Success could only come as true Americans. So along with math homework during summer and frequent museum trips, she spoke exclusively English to us. Dinner was hamburgers, tuna casserole or mashed potatoes with gravy. It wasn’t often we got to taste spicy denjang chigae soup or mixed rice bowl bibimbap.
These days, Asian youngsters have weekend language schools and summer camps. Church kids tell me they speak Korean in school and bring kimchi and kimbap for lunch. Different isn’t weird—it’s cool. Some of their friends love Korean pop stars and wish they were Asian. How times have changed!
I don’t feel sorry that I was a Young Other. Having two ethnic backgrounds trained me in the art of good communication. I’m thankful for the richness of Korean culture. It’s a lacquer and mother-of-pearl fretwork that adorned my inner life with tigers, gold coins, pear blossoms…and math homework books.
With time, I’ve come to realize I really wasn’t alone. All of us are “Young Others” to a degree. We’ve all felt that gap between who we are, and how outsiders see us.
Some of you are single parents. Some came back from deployment with physical or spiritual damage. You might be a late bloomer, domestic violence survivor or child of an alcoholic parent. Teased in school. Lost your business or a marriage. Many of you reading this are among the millions of unemployed Americans—and both food pantry and inner strength are getting depleted.
Your words can sound like a foreign language. (Parents of teenagers, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) The heartache and burdens of your life are as far away and strange as the fish markets of Busan were to me growing up in the U.S.
Take heart! We can overcome. I now flaunt my Korean-Lithuanian heritage! I no longer shirk from kimchi or sauerkraut. My friends love my exotic cooking. They love my Dad’s stories from the old country. They beg me to tutor their kids in math!
Our damage and differences—the ways we are unusual, despised or weird—these very things are essential for who were are. Celebrate your otherness. In fact, there’s a great word for it: extraordinary.
By the way, I’m secretary of the Young Others group now. We meet 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, in locations all around the globe. No membership dues required. The food is really good. The company is encouraging. And everyone is welcome.
Maria Gudaitis, a writer and designer, is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Reach her through her blog at mariagudaitis.com, where she writes about food, poetry and local events.
[Editorial note: I used to link to these essays on the News Tribune site, but now that my term as a reader columnist is over, and some links may end up broken, I’m posting the full article here on my blog.]