Originally written for a different publication, here is my answer to the prompt: What does being Asian American mean to you?
Hey there! I’m K.J. I was adopted from Daegu, South Korea at 6.5 months old, and in case you were wondering, K.J. stands for “Kaleb Joon-Tae”.
Growing up, being “Asian American” could have meant a lot of things. As an adoptee, I desperately wanted to be Korean, a true Korean. But I knew that would never be the case. Someone else spoke for me and gave up my Korean; all that was left for me to be was American. Just-American.
America gave me her dream and her hope—that I could rise above my station and be anything I wanted to be. So, of course, I did my best to be a Korean-American.
In the 90s and early 00s, being Asian American meant a lot of things. It meant I was good at math and kung fu. It meant I laughed at all the jokes about squinty-eyes and broken English. It meant I was good at piano or violin and that my house smelled funny. It meant I was always the Asian version of whichever superhero I dressed up as. It meant I was too colored to be white and too pale to be a kid of color.
It meant I was never me.
As I grew up I met some Korean international students and was ecstatic—I could finally learn what it meant to be Korean. I sang songs with them, played outside with them, ate food with them, but of course, I didn’t learn all that much from them. They were here to learn about America and improve their English. They weren’t tutors or Korean angels sent by God to re-endow me with that piece of the identity that was stolen from me. They were my friends and roommates, two years my senior, studying abroad. So as they learned about America, I further embraced America. I became the best Texan, the best Christian, the best Roelke I could be.
Because that’s an Asian American trait, right? Filial piety and whatnot? Isn’t that what honor is about? Did honoring my white family mean I was honoring my Korean family? Did it make me more Asian?
Two decades later, a lot has changed. Two Black deaths—flashpoints in the media—a pandemic, and Trump’s presidency mean I see myself as Asian American now, though mostly because I realized the world sees me as Asian American regardless of who my parents are.
Two decades later, I see myself as Korean American. Not because I think of myself as any more Korean than when I was adopted, but because I’ve finally begun to stop playing the part of the racial-gatekeeper.
I’ve stopped seeing myself as “not Korean” and I embrace myself as Korean enough.
So today, right now, I believe that to be Asian American is to be proud of who you are. To be Asian American is to be loud about your pride. To be Asian American is to be a pioneer, cutting through whatever jungle or wilderness hinders our pathway to greatness. To be Asian American is to be a builder—skillfully crafting a better world with the best resources you can find. To be Asian American is to stop waiting for the majority to let you have a seat at their table and just go and build your own damn table.
There are so many people we can give seats to, who need a table built for them. We have so many other siblings of the Asian diaspora that need to hear “You are enough.”
Let’s get loud. Let’s get to building.