KAGC Student Spotlight: Robin, Rutgers
“This piece is supposed to provide a bit of encouragement to fellow Korean-American kids out there like me, who may be angry but have no idea why or where to direct it.”
I think it’s natural for us humans to be angry. Angry at the world, with one another, and most of all at oneself; it is both an individual and collective emotional experience.
Koreans are so well-versed in the art of anger that we have a special word for it: 한. There is no English translation, and it’s hard to accurately pin down even in Korean, but a general definition for it is resentment, hatred, or anger. Perhaps it is the limitation of language that makes its definition so elusive, because we all recognize 한 immediately when we recall it sitting there, like an immovable, indescribably heavy rock in our chests.
I used to feel a lot of anger as a kid, but I never really knew how to deal with it in a healthy way. Growing up as the eldest daughter in a Christian, Korean household meant double the conservatism and twice the moral guilt (I’m sure a lot of you can empathize). Anger was a bad and selfish emotion to feel, and expressing it even more so. I learned from an early age to keep my emotions in check and remember that the kindest thing I could do for the world was shut up and just understand. How could I be angry? I had a home, a warm dinner every night, and parents who loved me as best as they could, despite their 한. My bullies had troubled home lives, and there must’ve been something about my existence that invited them to unleash their 한 on me. I opened my eyes in the morning and saw everyone carrying their burdens on their shoulders. Life’s unfair, sure, but it was unfair for everybody. And someone always had it worse. Forgive, forgive, and forgive again.
Maybe that’s what attracted me to political activism. A beautiful banner to march under, a safe arena to release my 한 and call it “justice”. It baptized my anger with a purpose, transforming it from a source of shame to something noble and bigger than myself. I marched, organized protests, spoke at rallies, and posted Instagram infographics. Gay rights, women’s rights, Asian-American rights, Black Lives Matter — it didn’t matter what cause, when there were victims that needed defending. Part of my self-indulgent desire for martyrdom was satiated through publicly acknowledging that Korean-Americans really didn’t have it that bad. Our history of oppression in this country wasn’t as long and painful as African Americans’, the racism we faced was a lot less violent and in-your-face, and most importantly, as someone who was privileged enough to grow up in a community with a visible Korean-American presence, my racial identity never pained me deep enough to warrant much of my attention. Only during the COVID-19 pandemic, when racism towards East Asians increased at an unprecedented, impossible-to-ignore rate, did I begin to truly think about what it meant to be Korean-American. I thought I had made my peace with it long ago. (I hadn’t).
I am a Korean-American woman. For a long time I felt stuck within the hyphen, not completely belonging to either, yet I never questioned my discomfort — simply accepting it as necessary. I was “oppressed” enough for my opinion to matter somewhat in American political discourse, and I had all the typical anecdotes loaded up like ammo ready to be fired when my victimhood was questioned: my parents chastised for their poor English on several occasions. Getting hit on at 14, by a man old enough to be my father, telling me that I was “fine as f*** for an Oriental”. “Where are you from? No, sorry, where are you really from?” Chink, bat-eater, cat-eater, etc, etc.
It is an essential fact of this world that people will prey on the weak. Which meant that Koreans and East Asians weren’t actually blending in with American society and succeeding; we were seen as easy, uncomplaining targets, “others” who could be trusted to shut their mouths. I was first angry for my sisters, who were fetishized, shot to death, shoved onto train tracks, and stabbed in their own homes. I was angry for the elderly who were beaten and spit on for a virus that they weren’t responsible for. I was angry that we were attacked by individuals who knew suffering better than anyone and therefore should have the most compassion for us; and of course, I was angry at the imperialistic, white, patriarchal system that was responsible for this in the first place. I did what I did best: march, speak, and condemn. And mourn.
Eventually, I began to be angry at the silence, which evolved into a greater frustration directed towards the Korean-American community. We didn’t have a visible presence for a reason. We were content with our little K-towns, comfortable enough to look down on other groups, and never mobilized, or voted, or used our voice. Even in our own homes, anger was discouraged and frowned upon, pushed down again and again until it solidified into a deep 한 that festers until it explodes. We aren’t safe, I wanted to shout, just because we’re the “model minority.” Be angry, please. Wake. Up.
I found out about the KAGC through my father, who emailed the fellowship opportunity to me in the hopes that I’d be interested. When I was accepted, I was simply happy for something meaningful and prestigious to do for the summer, and went my merry way. Upon my arrival in D.C., the first thing that struck me was a lack of an Asian-American presence on the Hill, let alone a Korean-American one. For the first time in my life it was normal for me to be the only Korean in the room, and that was unsettling. When I walked into a little Korean convenience store on Eastern Market by accident, I almost cried from homesickness at the Shin ramen stacked on display.
This is supposed to be the heart of our nation’s government, I thought. We have barely any staffers on the Hill, and a measly four Representatives in the House. I’ve always known that wherever I go in life, my face will be seen as Korean before American. If I yearned for a world where the opposite is true, then I needed to step up and use my voice even if the very fact that I have to is “unfair”. And being one of few privileged enough to receive such an opportunity, I had an unspoken duty to educate others on what it means to be Korean in front of people who didn’t know better, who were ignorant as to why I balked when asked if I was Japanese.
I attended the KAGC Conference for the first time this year, and I left the event feeling more hopeful than I’ve had in years. I’d grumbled for so long about a lack of a Korean-American presence in the political sphere, and here I was humbled, meeting grown-ups who had staked their entire lives and careers in actualizing this dream; their blood, sweat, tears, and 한 had paved the way for me to be there. I met Korean-Americans from rural America, who felt the pain of being the “other” so acutely that I couldn’t help but be grateful for my privilege and amazed at the sheer diversity to be found among such a small group. I met kids in high school who were much more well-spoken and passionate than I was at their age, even more than I am now.
We basked in the feeling of understanding each other without having to explain, shared a familiar anger that was uniquely our own, and dreamed the same dream, a dream that had started with the first arrival of Korean immigrants in Hawaii, 1903. Upon returning home from the conference, I felt a grudge I wasn’t even consciously aware of begin to slowly melt away.
Korean culture doesn’t encourage therapy, or feelings, or emotional discourse. Fathers rage viciously only when it’s in “manly” fashion, mothers develop “hwa-byung” to the point of physical sickness, and children grow up abused at worst and chronically angry at best. We drink like fish, smoke like chimneys, and smolder without bothering to identify the flame. 한 came across the ocean with us, and we are still trying to escape it.
This piece is supposed to provide a bit of encouragement to fellow Korean-American kids out there like me, who may be angry but have no idea why or where to direct it. I’d first like to say to you: it’s okay to be angry. In fact, please be angry. It’s not a dirty emotion; it’s as essential to humans as breathing. Whether it was your parents, your church, or friends who told you otherwise, you can still understand their pain without forsaking yours. And it is natural and expected to be angry when you see what’s going on in the world; how could you not be?
If our community shares a collective 한, as painful and corrosive as it is, then it naturally follows that we can heal collectively as well. When I first began getting involved in activism I was looking for an outlet for my anger, to cry out “injustice” and feel good about myself by doing it. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you think that’ll help you cope, please do it. I can’t promise you’ll be any less angry, or the world will be any less unjust, but you could come out of it with a lot more perspective, compassion for humankind, and most importantly, forgiveness for yourself. Politics (whether you’re working in your local community, on the Hill, or in the fabulous Korean-American Grassroots Conference) is ultimately relational, just like us humans — that’s the number one thing that was emphasized to me during my summer in D.C. Anger, when repressed or misdirected, can burn bridges in a flash, but it can always unite us to build new ones as well.
Korean-Americans, your pain is valid. Our pain is valid. Let’s accept one another, embrace our rage, and make something beautiful of it.
Robin Gwak is currently a junior at Rutgers University studying Philosophy and Political Science, with a minor in French language studies. Before joining the program, Robin was passionately involved in various advocacy and campaign groups, sometimes using her fluency in the Korean language to bridge the gap between non-English speakers and outreach groups. It was these kinds of experiences that made Robin more aware of her Korean American identity and fueled her commitment to social justice movements. Robin served in the office of Representative Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5) as a part of the 2022 Congressional Fellowship cohort.
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