KAGC Student Spotlight: Yvette, Harvard

These two identities are not and cannot be mutually exclusive…My experience with KAGC underscored this lesson.

In fourth grade, I moved to Texas with my mom and my two older sisters. Although I was born in Maryland and lived there until I was three, I was too young to remember any of the fond memories and stories that my sisters would recount about our few years in the United States before we moved to South Korea. I spent my childhood like any other kid in Korea — went to a public elementary school in Daegu, made dalgona treats after school at a candy shop right outside of school, attended violin lessons, and learned English at my mom’s hagwon.

The first few years of our move to Texas were not pleasant. Although my sisters and I were American citizens, my mom was not; she had to wait at least three years until she could apply for the green card. This meant that for three years, my mom, under a tourist visa, could not stay in the United States for more than three months at a time — and on the few lucky occasions, up to six months. My sisters and I lived by ourselves when Mom’s visa expired, and my sisters, who were a senior and a freshman in high school at that time, respectively, became the head of the household and my second mom.

As a ten-year-old who still needed a parent, being separated from my mom for an extended time was painful. At that time, I was too young to realize the heavy burden that my sisters had to carry on their shoulders for years. Now that I am a college student and an emerging “adult,” I can only begin to wonder how difficult it must have been for them to keep track of rent payments, cook, clean, and take care of their little sister as high school students. In the end, these experiences became the flesh and blood that helped me to empathize with the others’ immigration experiences.

Because I was too aware of my status as an immigrant, I did not struggle with the question of whether I am more Korean or American — the answer was clear. Instead, what confused me was the discrepancy between what I knew myself to be, a Korean, and what others categorized me as — an Asian. It bothered me that people did not care whether I was Korean or not but instead lumped me as an Asian. It offended me that some mistook me as Chinese or Vietnamese. Growing up with the pride of being a Korean as a part of a minjok with its unique history, language, humor code, food, habits, and perspectives that I would never mistake for those of another country, I could not understand this generalization and resisted it.

Yvette at Walden Pond with the Harvard Asian American Christian Fellowship

However, I quickly found that in a country that perceives the Asian American community — encompassing more than thirty ethnic groups — as a single group, these two identities are not and cannot be mutually exclusive. I realized that being dogmatic about my Korean identity and overlooking other ethnic groups’ problems could erode our collective power to fight against the systematic exclusion that we all have experienced.

I realized that a balance could exist between recognizing my assets and characteristics as a Korean and carrying out my duty as an Asian American and being an ally to members of fellow ethnic groups. My experience with KAGC underscored this lesson.

Yvette in a small group discussion during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

My first experience with KAGC was the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit this past winter break. From my first impression of the staff and fellow participants, whose passion for civic engagement could be felt across the room, I was surprised to find myself in a community whose goals and influence reached farther and wider than I had imagined.

When I learned about the policy priorities for the Korean American community — and legislation related to them, such as the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019 and the Divided Families Reunification Act⁠ — I was shocked and embarrassed. As a student studying government, I had considered myself to be well-versed in politics. Yet, I did not know about any of the loopholes or gaps in legislation that disproportionately affected Korean Americans.

Yvette and students from Texas pose in front of the Capitol during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit

During the three days of the summit, KAGC emphasized the particular characteristics of the Korean culture and brought out our dignity and pride as Korean Americans. At the same time, they instilled in us a certainty that our actions reached beyond the Korean American community and uplifted the broader Asian American community that has historically been underrepresented and overlooked in our government.

It was an empowering experience to talk to elected officials representing my hometown and to help them to become better informed to represent their Korean-American constituents. Even better, it allowed me to carry out my civic duties as both a Korean American and an Asian American.

Truthfully, I still struggle with finding this balance. It is hard to think we — Asian Americans — are allies when we still experience and feel the effects of the geopolitical tensions, especially in East Asia that spans back to Korea’s painful memories of colonization, forced labor, sex slavery, and economic exploitation. However, the way that KAGC framed my civic responsibilities as a Korean American who could also represent the Asian American community, as well, helped me to wrap my head around this concept: I could be as Korean as I want, while staying vigilant to things that affect other Asian Americans and lending a hand when they need help.

Yvette is from Denton, TX, and John from Austin, TX. A quick moment before meeting Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) during the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit.

Yvette is a rising sophomore at Harvard College, where she plans to major in government and economics. She has been elected to the Executive Board of Harvard Korean Association as a Co-Cultural Chair for the new school year. Since attending the 2020 KAGC U Leadership Summit, Yvette has been furthering her efforts for civic education and engagement with KAGC. This summer, she is working in the office of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D, TX-35) as a 2020 KAGC Congressional Fellow.

Click here to learn more about KAGC, the largest nationwide network of Korean American voters, and its programs and events for a rare opportunity to share the Korean American identity, discuss the key issues of our community, and get our voices heard, counted, and reflected in public policy.

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