KAGC Student Spotlight: Elise Choi
“America still is the land of immigrants and opportunity, and there will always be a need for people to bridge the gap of this multicultural society.”
My parents call themselves the 1.5 generation, a mixed breed of model minority Korean immigrant parents and a new generation of not-so-rule followers. In Korean, it is referred to as ilchom ose. This unique label belongs to the first-generation immigrants who immigrated to the new country before or during their early teens. 1.5 generation immigrants carry characteristics of their birth country while assimilating to their new home and oftentimes transitioning in and out of Korean and English seamlessly in conversations. They seem to be very comfortable in their skin, enjoying dual identities of being both Asian and American. My parents decided to make their home in the suburbs of Bergen County, NJ, in hopes of raising a second-generation kid -that’s me- who will be equally, if not more, comfortable in her skin.
I was born and raised in America; yet, I cannot help but feel like a perpetual foreigner in my home country. From the first year, I was put into school, I was constantly hit with the question, “where are you from?” When I was first asked this question back in Kindergarten, I did not understand the true intentions of this seemingly menial question. “New Jersey,” I answered.
“No, where are you really from?”
I quickly came to understand the intent of the question. Living in a predominately white town for over 13 years, I was not ignorant to the fact that my classmates, and their parents, saw me as different. Even my teachers saw students of various minority backgrounds as different. Without speaking to my parents beforehand, the administrators at my elementary school placed me in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. Yet, English was my first language, and it was the only language I spoke.
As a quiet and reserved student growing up, I took extreme measures to ensure I fit in. I cared about what others thought of me, and I often forced myself to sit back and hold my tongue while my peers, their parents, and even my teachers sometimes made insensitive remarks.
Sometimes when my mom picked me up from elementary school, she would speak to me in Korean. After witnessing many accounts of my classmates mimicking Asian languages, or speaking English with an Asian accent, hearing my mom speak Korean to me in public made me uncomfortable and embarrassed. My face would turn red, and I would scan the room to make sure no one could hear her. Afraid my peers would make fun of the way my mom spoke; I would silently scold her for speaking Korean out in public. I was embarrassed over the way it sounded. Eventually, she stopped.
My grandparents on my father’s side have lived in Queens, New York, for over 45 years. We would see them for holidays, birthdays, and many other occasions. Oftentimes, my encounter with them would start with my grandma patting my back or the lower side of my waist with comments like “Aigo, ee-ppuh-ra. You a good student?” Almost as if doing well in school is the only thing that mattered in life. My grandparents’ generation of immigrants, who came to America in the early 70s to 80s, shared one common goal; working hard to offer a better life for their children, which can be attained with financial and educational success. However, achieving the American Dream had come with a price tag, holding their tongue, being rule followers, and living the myth of “model minority,” a description I began to hate.
Along with other young Asian Americans, I was often told to just study hard, get good grades, and go to a good college, as if that is an end, not the means to an end. While it is true that most Asian immigrants have been driven by financial and educational success, it is our deeply rooted Confucianism which spanned multi-generations, that kept them out of trouble, respecting higher authorities and governing bodies, which in turn fueled the myth of “model minorities.” Working tirelessly to provide for the family coupled with language barriers oftentimes made it difficult for our grandparents’ or parents’ generation to get involved in American social or political movements or organizations. In turn, it is our lack of representation in politics and government that we feel perpetually disconnected from American society. Many of us have shared experiences facing the perpetual foreigner stereotype, which is feeling inherently foreign regardless of where they were born or how long they have lived in the United States.
We cannot continue to go down this path.
I am now resolute in finding more about my mother’s country. I have learned to combine my American and Korean identities, taking the best of each to better myself and give back to my community. I learned to appreciate my Korean culture, which has played a significant role in shaping my post-teen identity.
America still is the land of immigrants and opportunity, and there will always be a need for people to bridge the gap of this multicultural society. Pursuing government studies with the dream of working on the Hill someday is my way of getting closer to achieving my “American” status. Despite the positive impact many generations of Asian immigrants had in modern America, we are still under-represented in the local, state, and federal governments. Therefore, when I was introduced to the Korean American Grassroots Conference, I felt an immediate connection to this civic empowerment organization. KAGC is teaching me so much, and most of all, it teaches me to empower ourselves through knowledge, voice, vote, and representation. This is the only way we can grow stronger as American citizens.
I have been working with KAGC since February of 2021, so I am relatively new to this organization, mainly because I am still a high school student. Even through the pandemic, I was able to get involved and connect with the staff through Zoom calls and webinars. I want to express my most sincere gratitude to all the staff of KAGC for this opportunity to be part of an amazing organization and to be able to assist them in working on something truly meaningful for Korean Americans. Thank you.
Elise Choi is a current high school student in New Jersey. Having joined KAGC in February 2021, Elise joined several projects including the KAGC Directory on Members of Congress and the 2022 Election Guide. During the 2022 National Conference, Elise joined as a volunteer while also preparing with the New Jersey delegation to advocate numerous issues relating to the 2021 KAGC Policy Priorities.
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