There was a brief time in high school where I would wake up early every Saturday morning and go to soccer practice, which is odd since I never had more than a casual interest in the sport. The only times I could remember playing soccer were during recess during elementary school, and even then, it was just because it was the thing to do. I played Little League baseball as a kid, I would play in a roller hockey league for a summer as an adult, and in the time between, I played badminton. This practice wasn’t part of an organized league, it would be a group of mostly older guys from a few different Korean churches in the area. In fact, there was only one guy at these practices that was my age, we’ll call him Walter. We would carpool to practice together with a couple of the older men.
Walter went to a different church but he seemed to be quite at home in anyone’s car. Walter was one of those kids who demanded that he always sit shotgun and he always had to be in charge of what music was playing in the car. He would blast nothing but K-Pop to my chagrin. When he found out I didn’t care for it, he decided he would get on my case about how I liked “white music” (perhaps he didn’t know I listened to hip hop since he probably didn’t know who The Roots were). It apparently became his calling in life to be an ambassador on the behalf of the Korean music industry and that he should educate me on K-Pop on how I could be a better Korean. He definitely looked the part with his bleached (more like orange) hair and über long bangs. This “education” caused a lot of tension between us, since I never agreed to it, and since he was so condescending about it. I never took to his teachings, and since we didn’t go to the same school or the same church, I thought that I wouldn’t have to deal with him after soccer was over, but that wasn’t the case.
Little did I know that Walter and I would end up enrolling at the same college. Even though we went to a really big school, I kept on running into him. I tried to avoid him, but we had friends that lived in the same dorm, so it was unavoidable. He thought we were friends, so while I tried to avoid him, he kept on trying to get through to me. He wasn’t the only Korean person on campus trying to show me the error of my ways, so I just started trying to tune any person out who started any introduction to me with “Are you Korean? Do you speak Korean?” While these questions seem innocent enough, they were usually followed by “Are you parents ashamed of you? Why do you hate being Korean?” and hearing those questions definitely got under my skin. My parents weren’t ashamed of me, I wasn’t ashamed of being Korean, but there was an assumption made that since I didn’t grow up speaking Korean, that there was some sort of negative story behind it. I would explain that I grew up in the Midwest with very few Korean kids to talk to in my neighborhood, but my words would just fall on deaf ears.
It seemed like this stuff mattered more with Koreans than other Asian ethnicities (I could be wrong), which frustrated me even more. It would take me a couple of years, but eventually I got over it, and surprisingly, one day, Walter got over it too. After we moved out of the dorms after freshmen year, I didn’t see him for a while, and when I did, he was a lot more pleasant to be around. He still had the bleached bangs, but he was no longer getting on my case about my lack of Koreaness. In fact, there was an instance where one of his non-Korean friends asked why there were so many adopted Korean children. Walter gave a predictable answer: “Because Korean babies are the best looking.” I gave a more self-deprecating and cynical answer: “I guess Koreans don’t know how to use birth control.” At a younger age, my response would’ve caused a lot of animosity between us, but Walter actually laughed at my comment. I’m not sure what had happened to make him change his Korean pride way of life, but I’m glad that something did. Maybe he finally became more comfortable in his skin, which allowed him to accept me for who I was, or perhaps he realized that being a Korean pride zealot wasn’t fun for him anymore and that he didn’t want to make being Korean a career.