Half Korean, Half Jew: The Whole Story

It is hard to prove I’m Irish. It is even harder to prove I’m Jewish.

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day I get to celebrate my heritage. I’ve always been a bit hesitant to Erin Go Braugh or wear green because of some past trauma. When I was five, my mom took my best friend Emily and I to Disneyland on St. Paddy’s Day. Yes, I guess it looked odd. Emily is a Korean adoptee and my Dad is Korean so we looked like sisters and my mom looked like she was a U.N. volunteer. I wore a large, green button that said Kiss Me I’m Irish that we probably picked up at Parkview Pharmacy near our house. Some folks smiled at me, a few old ladies even kissed me, but one man in a red flannel button-down said, “Honey, you’re not Irish, you’re an Oriental.” And this was in line for the teacups.

Perhaps this wasn’t the happiest place on earth.

The last time I felt remotely Irish was when I saw a production of Riverdance at the Arrowhead Pond. Even though parts were cheesy (like the part where Michael Flatley wears the tightest leather pants you’ve ever seen), I felt so proud that I could finally support a cultural product of my Irish side. Since everyone seems to be at least part Irish no one seems to care that my mother actually came from Dublin. There were around 1000 Jews in Ireland at the time and my mom is one of them. Her and Mashey Bernstein came over together and she’s not even a U.S. citizen after 26 years of living here. She tried to take the test about a year ago. We all practiced the questions with her and she knew them all. It was in the bag. She could now vote and serve on a jury, a lifelong dream of hers. But she came back from the test defeated.

“They said I have no fingerprints,” she said.

Does that mean you could be a criminal? How can a person have no fingerprints? How would we find you if you were missing? my sister asked.

So Mom’s still not a citizen and probably never will be. I suspect her lack of prints is from holding the Starbucks coffee cups everyday. But she doesn’t want to sue just yet.

Some common reactions to the words “I am Jewish” or “My mother’s Jewish” coming out of my mouth:

“No way.”

“You don’t look it.”

“You don’t act it.”

“That’s so weird.”

“Did your mom’s family disown her?”

If I looked Jewish or even half Jewish (a.k.a. a white girl) I probably would embrace my Jewish side, but people make it so damn difficult. Let’s run down some of my Jewish experiences:

1. Around age eight I am told by some South African Jews (who are parents of classmates) that “If your mother’s Jewish you’re Jewish.” It’s apparently not up for discussion.

2. 1988. I am invited to my first Bar Mitzvah. It is being held at a synagogue that is on top of a bowling alley (that has to be some sort of religious violation). So my parents drop me off by myself and I am directed upstairs. I don’t understand a word and they make me sit separate from all the boys. I do not recognize anyone and after two hours of listening to Hebrew I realize that my friend’s bar mitzvah is in the room two doors down.

3. 1990. My mother takes my best friends Ayesha (who is black) and Kelsey (who is white) and I to an outlet shopping mall in Palm Springs. A woman approaches my mother (assuming Kelsey is the “real” daughter and says “It’s so nice of you to take those girls out for the day.”)

4. Ongoing. For as long as I can remember my mom makes us drive to Los Angeles to eat at Nate n’ Al’s, a good Jewish deli. She orders chopped herring and I order a plain bagel with plain cream cheese. I feel weird because I want to shout to the other customers that I am one of them.

5. By my sixth Bar Mitzvah I am a pro. I win the hula hoop contests and take home the centerpiece for my mom. I go to the right room.

6. Age 14-20. My Jewish identity consists of being dragged to Hanukah parties. And that’s it. I don’t get to stay home from school for Jewish holidays. In college my mom gives me a pillow that says “Oy Vey.” My Norwegian roommate and British boyfriend start using the phrase freely.

7. Age 21. I date a Jewish guy for the first time. We click better than anyone I have met so far, but he is really into being Jewish and I feel inadequate because I don’t know certain things. When we break up I explain that it’s just too complicated. I say You don’t know what it’s like to be Asian and Jewish in this country. We look different. Your parents will never accept me. You don’t understand what I study and what I’m trying to do. How do you see me? I say. I just see you as a nice Jewish girl he says.

8. Three years ago. My first year in LA I am driving up Barrington and the traffic is triple the norm. The guy next to me has his window open so I ask him what’s going on. “It’s Yidlock” he says. I wonder if that is offensive or funny. It’s funny.

9. 2000. I get an assignment to write about these Jewish rappers M.O.T. They lead a horah at the Viper Room on Sunset and I feel like I’ve come home.

10. Last week. A Jewish feminist contacts me about contributing to an anthology of Jewish women. I really don’t consider myself Jewish I tell her and she asks me if my mother is Jewish. Yes I say. Then so are you! she says.

I cannot lie. I’d rather be a Half Jew than a non-Jew. It is mostly a good, fun thing. But people don’t believe me, or they want to tell me how I should look, act, and feel. It doesn’t work that way. Just accept the fact that a Jewish woman married a Korean man and had me. It’s not weird or cool — it’s just a family. And guess what? I’m not the only one.

Victoria Namkung is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She writes for InStyle, Los Angeles, and Mavin, a magazine celebrating the mixed race experience.

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