KAGC Student Spotlight: Elise Choi, Boston University
“America is still 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 predominantly 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 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 matters 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.
This summer, I embarked on an enriching journey as a legislative intern in Congressman Andy Kim’s Office. Sharing a common upbringing rooted in the New Jersey public school system, the Congressman and I are shaped by similar American values and aspirations.
As an International Relations major, I was initially drawn to Congressman Kim’s experience and expertise in foreign affairs and national security. His membership on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on China further affirmed my belief that his office would be an ideal fit for my interests. From the outset, I found myself immersed in the intricacies of legislative processes, diplomatic protocols, and the multifaceted dynamics that define America’s role in global affairs.
What made this experience particularly meaningful was my connection with Congressman Kim’s story. As the daughter of South Korean immigrants, the opportunity to contribute to an office dedicated to advancing the interests of our shared heritage resonated deeply with me. It was a chance to give back to a community that had shaped my own journey.
The Congressman and his staff’s unwavering dedication to their constituents was evident from my very first day. The welfare of the constituents was their number one priority. Through extensive research, active participation in meetings with experts, and direct engagement with constituents, my passion for public service was reaffirmed with every passing day.
The Congressman not only exemplifies dedication to representing New Jersey District 3, but also emerges as an advocate for Asian American civic empowerment. As the second Korean American to ever serve in Congress, his district’s Asian American population constitutes just 3%. Although the essence of a congressman’s role lies in the representation of their district at the federal level, his commitment extends beyond his geographic district to encompass an oftentimes underrepresented Asian Americans.
The Congressman’s steadfast engagement with Korean and Asian American groups across the nation has inspired me to take a similar career path as Congressman Kim to be a liaison to bridge cultural gaps and promote understanding across diverse backgrounds. The two months I spent in Congressman Kim’s office turned out to be a transformative journey for me. The walls, which once seemed imposing, gradually became a canvas on which I painted my aspirations and dreams. With each conversation I had, whether it was with fellow interns, staffers, or the Congressman himself, my belief in the power of civic engagement and advocacy grew stronger.
My time at Congressman Kim’s Office marked a pivotal chapter in my academic and personal journey. The experience equipped me with a practical understanding of how policy decisions are made and a profound appreciation for the role of public servants in shaping our nation’s future.
As I bid farewell to Capitol Hill, I stood before the Capitol Building, the iconic symbol of American democracy, with a renewed sense of purpose. The path ahead was clear — I was committed to continuing my journey of uplifting the Korean American community through active civic engagement and advocacy. Inspired by Congressman Kim’s example, I knew that my role in helping to shape a brighter future for both my community and the nation was just beginning.
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 am deeply grateful to KAGC and its dedicated staff for their unwavering support and guidance throughout the whole process. I extend my heartfelt appreciation for aiding me in nurturing lifelong friendships and granting me the privilege of becoming a part of this tight-knit community.
Elise Choi is a 2023 KAGC Congressional Fellow who worked as the Legislative Intern for the Office of Rep. Andy Kim (NJ-3). She first joined KAGC at the beginning of 2021 as a high school student in New Jersey, then later participated in the 2022 National Conference as a volunteer. Upon returning to Boston University, she will continue her role as the City Affairs Committee member at Boston University Student government.
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