“시원, help me sound more Korean.”
“Ok. Say something where you think you sound most Korean.”
“What?! That’s what it sounds like to me!”
“Don’t have an accent. Just say normal.”
“I did say it normally.”
The world I lived in was (and is) generally white and white-Christian. My church and my school became my only social circles (excepting some brief, bright moments among my community of peers with hand-related disabilities). The few people of color I did hang out with shifted demographically from “Hyphen Americans” to “International Students Wanting to Learn About America.” They were almost all from Korea and again, I was excited to learn more about my birth country. However, they were here to learn about America, so I did my best to help them. I picked up a few more Korean words and ate Korean food (a practice that picked up a bit after my first return to Korea in Middle School) while exploring what it means to be American alongside these international students. For the two who lived with me (and later, my friend) it generally meant playing football, going to church and loving Tex-Mex. As I did my best to help them learn, I made the decision to not care about being Korean anymore. I wanted to focus on being a good Christian, a good Texan, a good Roelke.
Because that’s what being a “good Asian” meant, right? Or maybe I thought I was being good at being “Asian,” as if it was a role I could step into…and out of. I might never meet my birth family, so I wanted to honor (in the most “Asian” sense of the word) the family that accepted me. That seemed right, at the time.
Fortunately, my parents made it easy for me to step out of the role of being Asian, even while they continued to do their best to help me celebrate and learn about Korea and its culture. They usually went before me or were alongside me as I entered new social arenas, so everyone knew I was adopted. If someone asked where I was from, it was simple curiosity. For most, it sufficed to know I was adopted—that seemed to stop most “Asian talk” before it really got started. They knew that I knew as much as they did about Asia.
I played varsity football in high school (for a year, people, and it was my small private school’s first year having a team), dated (and married) a cheerleader, and was generally known as, amongst other things, “guitar guy.” I was doing it! I could see myself firmly on the highway of the American Dream! White picket fence here I come! I was no longer a Korean American—I was an All-American. A Just-American.
A Nothing American.
If my non-white peers ever looked to me for help, support, or solidarity, I was too blind or naïve to realize it. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the tokenizing nature of the promotional photoshoot I was in for the school—alongside a few black students and a ginger. I thought—hoped, really—that my popularity was the reason I was selected, but mostly I was just grateful someone as asymmetrical as me would even be considered for a photoshoot! That naiveté (and general lack of self-confidence) carried me swiftly along the highway to college in the Midwest, where the colors changed a little but the picture was still overwhelmingly white.