- Sarah Bunin Benor
An Internal Battle
By Eileen Toh
“God, why can’t you just be more Korean?”
I froze at the out-of-the-blue comment. I let it seep into my mind; I was just hanging out with my friends during lunch, enjoying my usual bagel. But now, I felt myself on the defensive.
Offended, I glared back at the lady, another one of Mom’s Korean friends, and set her straight: “I am Korean, and you know it.”
“Oh no, Eileen, it was just a joke,” she spat back. Defeated, I went back to my bagel, without saying another word.
Because of course, at that time, she wasn’t completely wrong.
“What are you?” people ask me.
My name’s Eileen Toh. I’m an 18-year-old college freshman born and raised in Saratoga, a Bay Area-based bubble of booming tech industries and unreasonably priced housing property. I play cello and piano, love writing for student publications, and plan on becoming a doctor. These aspects make up who I am as a person. But when someone asks me those unwelcoming questions (“What are you?” “I mean, where are you from from?”) that strategically target my racial identity, they never believe me when I say I am Korean.
I can’t really blame them — there’s Park, Lee, and Kim, but Toh is not a usual Korean last name. Some have also said that I don’t look like the “typical Korean.” When I asked what that looks like, they would squint their eyes and say: “I just want some bulgogi. Eileen, go make me some kimchi.” Well, so much for that.
As a kid, I loved everything that had to do with Korea. The food, for one, makes vegetables taste like dessert. Every birthday, my family gathered to eat seaweed soup, and every Korean New Year, we feasted on tteokguk, a soup with sliced, chewy rice cakes, which signified another year of strength and good health. The traditional Korean movies I watched with my sisters, the calming ballads we sang along to during road trips, my turquoise and magenta hanbok I wore proudly to my Saturday Korean classes on special occasions — I enjoyed every moment of being Korean.
That is, until I became ashamed of it.
On the first day of first grade, Ms. Haas, a plump white lady, called my parents to notify them that I was required to take a class for kids whose second language was English.
“But… why?” Mom asked over the phone.
“Because, Ms. Toh, Eileen’s just not pronouncing things right.”
Mom checked with me at home. I was speaking completely fine with the exception of a few sounds: Instead of saying calcium as “kal-see-um,” I picked up Mom’s stumbling broken English pronunciation “kar-shoom.” And I unknowingly pronounced zebra as “jee-brah.”
“It’s just a little different, that’s all,” Mom told me. “But you aren’t any different. I want you to know that.”
For the rest of first grade, I went to my regular first grade classes as well as my ESL classes, bearing the ignorant remarks of my classmates (“So, you’re Asian but you’re not Chinese? All the words that come out of your mouth are ‘ching, chang, chong’ though.”). I excelled in ESL by watching Disney Channel and mimicking the actors’ voices every night. Soon enough, I adopted the “normal American” voice, masking my broken English and perfecting the “z” sound.
And that was only the beginning. It took me a while to realize that I was the only Korean American in my school in a sea of Chinese, Indian, and white people. People immediately categorized me into the broad umbrella term “Asian” or “yellow,” though I didn’t want to think of myself as that.
Throughout elementary and middle school, I found myself ostracized by the cliques around me. The principal called our class the most racially segregated grade to ever step foot on campus. The white girls, with their beach houses and leather Michael Kors jackets and Louis Vuitton backpacks, mingled with the white boys, who made an effort to look like the T-Birds from Grease; the Indian girls only dated within their Indian network of boys; and the Chinese girls, with their sneered-at Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and Gap jeans, admitted that they settled for the Chinese boys, who only cared about their Wii games and math olympiads. These were the options I was to be sorted into despite my unwillingness to be so categorized.
As the Korean who didn’t seem to click with the Chinese group, I found it hard to fit in. I needed to fit a stereotype, but clearly, none of them worked like a cookie-cutter. Already rejected from the Chinese group due to my inability to speak the Chinese language and refusal to take Chinese classes per Mom’s encouragement, I looked to the white group of girls — the self-proclaimed “Flirty Fifteen” — for acceptance. By now, my voice was considered “normal” by my teachers and peers, but it was time to do a few tweaks.
I threw in some “like, you know?”s here and there, and after listening to some of their conversations during my English classes, I perfected the hair flips and the unamused laughter and even the so-cute-that-boys-would-notice sneezes. I adopted look-a-likes of their clothes from clearance sales and drugstore makeup products using my babysitting money. And knowing which TV shows and celebrities the Flirty Fifteen obsessed over, I invested myself in One Direction and Gossip Girl, abandoning the Korean Drama Saturdays with Mom. But hey, everyone has to make some sacrifices, right?
But my efforts simply weren’t enough. No matter how much I looked like them, there was one difference that everyone could point out: my appearance. I was physically different: my skin was too olive-toned, my nose too round and flat, and my double-eyelids barely noticeable. By going out so much for expensive brunches and after-school snack sessions, I couldn’t keep up with my lame paper bag lunches and shrinking piggy bank.
Slowly but surely, I could tell that my parents weren’t happy with the person I’d become. “You look like an Asian Barbie,” Dad said with a frown as I went out in a tight, small dress for the fall dance. My grades also dropped; the Flirty Fifteen said it was cool if people didn’t study, and by spending so much time with them, I never had the chance to do my algebra. “You’re in advanced math, Eileen?” a girl scrunched her nose when she saw my textbooks. “That’s just like so, like, Asian and not cool.”
I was opposed to anything Korean. Being Korean before seemed exotic and rare for me, but in this new world of Friday night shopping trips and boy talks, being Korean was geeky and unnecessary, and I quickly came to believe that as I refused to ever tell anyone my Korean middle name. My family wasn’t happy with me when I bailed on watching the newly released Korean movie with them, and I made myself known as the “wannabe American girl” in the Korean community, with the mothers criticizing me every chance they had. I couldn’t even remember how to speak the Korean language.
But one summer, a crisis hit our family. My grandpa, who had been battling lung cancer for the past two years, passed away after the cancer cells metastasized to his other organs.
I remember it all so vividly — it’s a painful memory, yes, but one that significantly molded me into the person I am today. While he was resting, we circled around his bed, overseeing him as my grandmother started crying into his hands that were wrapped with breathing tubes and wires. My aunt wrapped her arms around me as we wept together. My father dropped to the floor, bawling, and my uncle looked down, breathing heavily as the numbers on the heart monitor quickly decreased to a flat zero.
I never was able to say goodbye to him. What struck me is that since I forgot how to speak Korean, I was never able to have a meaningful conversation with him. Just last summer I found out from Dad that he went to the most prestigious national university in Seoul and was a wealthy businessman who invested himself in philanthropic organizations.
His death still stings to this day, and from then on, I found no point in forcing myself to assimilate into any other racial group anymore. I am Eileen Seungmin Toh, a proud granddaughter of Samuel Siewhan Toh, and I am a Korean American.
I took off the makeup, went back to my studies, and reconnected with my family. I laugh just as hard as I did before when I watch the Korean talk shows with my parents, but I also integrate the more American side of my life into the household. Now, thanks to me, Dad has “The Power of Love” by Celine Dion playing in his car when he commutes to work, and Mom lists La La Land and The Imitation Game as her favorite movies of the decade.
Being Korean and American can be disconcerting at times; it’s as if I have to choose between my “Korean Mode” and my “American Mode” throughout the day. However, while switching both on simultaneously can inevitably cause cultural clashes within myself, I like to think of myself as someone who exudes multiple flavors instead of just one. After all, who has ever said that bland vanilla is better than marble cake?