Learning to See My Jewish and Korean Identities as Complementary
As a multicultural Korean-Jewish woman, it is rare to be in a space that is dedicated to nourishing and cherishing all aspects of my identity at once. I believe that every person has the right to define themselves and to be imagined and treated as a complex being. It is crucial to build caring communities that embrace complex identities and experiences that are often erased.
I have not always operated in the firm belief that I, along with every other human being, have the right to define myself. For the majority of my childhood I let others define me. As a child, my sister and I were often referred to as “the half-Jews” by our cousins on our mom’s side, especially while observing Jewish holidays or traditions, because our dad isn’t Jewish. This label made me feel like I didn’t fully belong in Jewish spaces. I felt like I had to prove that I was “Jewish enough” to my friends, family, and peers. I didn’t want to let others’ perceptions of me define me, but because I didn’t have any examples of diverse Jewish people to look to, I didn’t know how to defend myself.
However, the feelings of not being Jewish enough do not erase the moments in which the Jewish community has offered me a tremendous sense of belonging. These feelings may sound contradictory, but I hold both of them at once.
Since I was born, my parents immersed me in Jewish tradition. I grew up going to preschool and Sunday and Hebrew school at the synagogue my mom grew up in. My best friend and I grew up in synagogue together, were confirmed together, and celebrated becoming bat mitzvahs in the same month. Some of the most joyous memories of my childhood and young adulthood include celebrating Jewish holidays with my family and friends.
As I’ve grown older it has been increasingly important for me to embrace Jewish tradition. But I also craved a space where I could explore other aspects of my identity, especially my Korean identity.
My dad is half-Korean and half-white, and throughout my childhood he and my Korean grandparents consistently made an effort to share their culture with me. Over the summers I would visit my Korean grandparents, who would cook traditional meals for my sister and me while sharing family stories.
It was deeply important for my grandfather to share Korean culture with me and my cousins. When he initially immigrated to the U.S., pressures to assimilate kept him from passing on Korean language and traditions to his children. He has been able to reclaim certain aspects of his culture by passing on traditions and stories to his children and grandchildren later in life.
Even though my family shared Korean culture with me from a young age, I didn’t know where my place was in broader Korean or Asian communities. Not unlike my worries that I was not “Jewish enough,” I didn’t feel like I was “Korean enough” to claim space in Korean or Asian communities. These feelings were solidified when people laughed or looked at me in utter disbelief whenever I identified myself as part Korean or told them my last name, Kim. I understand where those reactions come from.
Due to the specific construction of race in this country, I often experience living in America as a white woman. This is an immense privilege that I am working to interrogate every day, but it does not negate my experiences as a multicultural Korean-Jewish woman.
I am beyond grateful that my parents stressed the importance of cherishing my Jewish and Korean identities. They knew how important it was for me to learn about the historical experiences and traditions of Jewish people throughout the world. My parents and grandparents also stressed the importance of knowing my family history in order to carry on Korean tradition. I was never forced to choose one of my identities over another and was allowed to grow into these identities in the way that felt most authentic to me.
However, it has been a challenge to embrace all aspects of my identity at once. Now I’ve learned to see my Jewish and Korean identities as complementary rather than contradictory.
The first time I was ever able to imagine myself as a whole cohesive individual took place my junior year of high school in a multiracial affinity group meeting at a Student Diversity Leadership Conference. Although the term “multiracial” itself is fraught with problematic assumptions about race, the affinity group was special because it allowed people with mixed cultural heritage to share stories and fully belong.
When I walked into the multiracial affinity room, I immediately started sharing with people about my cultural heritage. Everyone I met had a different story, but there was a tangible, collective sense of relief in that room. Here was a space where we all belonged, no matter what. For the first time, I felt like I had the power to define myself. I realized that I had the right to identify myself separate from how others perceive me, and I didn’t have to justify my existence in the space.
After getting to know a few people, the affinity group leaders instructed us to silently walk around the room and look each other in the eyes, acknowledging each others’ full humanity and complexity. In that moment, I felt seen in a deeply spiritual and visceral way. That was the beginning of an ever-expanding journey towards imagining myself and others as complex entities, interrogating my privilege and biases, and learning how to engage in communities of collective care.
Since then, I have intentionally sought out moments to share my complex identities with others and to acknowledge the nuances in the stories of others. In my first year of college at Scripps, I have learned that embracing the complexity of others is not a simple, one-step process. It requires consistently checking my conscious and unconscious biases, examining structural inequalities in society, interrogating my privilege, and most importantly, listening.
I have learned that embracing my identities and fearlessly defining myself should never mean neglecting my privilege as a white passing woman. Often the best thing I can do in communities of collective care is listen to, hold space for, and stand in solidarity with people who have stories both unique and similar to my own. I am constantly making mistakes, questioning my identity, and second-guessing myself, but I know that this work is a process.
I still have so much growing and learning to do, but I feel prepared to share with others, especially diverse Jewish children, that our complex identities don’t have to contradict one another. We are whole. We all belong.