“Can I help you with anything?”
The most fundamental line in the service industry – yet, somehow when I hear these six humble words, I feel anything but served. Instead, I feel a prickling heat in my cheeks and an instinctive tapping of my toes, as if time will match the tempo of my feet and end this mortifying experience as quickly as possible. I feel anger. Bitter, bratty, red-hot anger.
“Can I help you with anything?”
My irrational irritation flares at those hideous words, but the words are only ugly for one specific reason: they are directed at me. The woman asking has a vacant smile on her face that’s as unnaturally stiff and uncomfortable as her red uniform shirt looks. She is clearly addressing me, but my mother, to my right, responds.
“Can you help me to find this one?”
Impatiently I blurt out, “Ugh-no, um, she means, can you help us find the section with the Lennox plates please?”
I hate everything about this scenario. I hate this woman’s patronizing gaze, as if she empathizes with having to chaperone my parent in public. I hate that she has classified my mother, an Ewha University graduate – known as “the Korean Barnard” – as someone who needs to be chaperoned. I hate that this woman automatically assumes I will play the role of translator, and I hate that I am always hasty to invalidate my mother by filling that role. I hate my mother’s subtly woven, beautiful Korean accent, the one that emphasizes all the hidden syllables oft forgotten by native English speakers. And most bitterly, I hate myself for feeling this way.
In this memory, I am 14. In this memory, the location is vivid, my mother’s words and my white-hot shame painfully clear. But there are hundreds more memories where the sentences have gone hazy and the details of condescension have blurred. There are thousands more where I am 15, 12, 8. A child.
In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of stories like this, not all belonging to me. Consider it part of the classic Asian-American Kid Starter Pack, along with: (a) the trauma of bringing lunch to second grade, only to have all the kids scream “Chang eats dogs for lunch!” (b) constant name-butchering, leading to the inevitable, “Just call me Annie,” and as I knew all too well, (c) backhanded respect, given only at the expense of watching my parents be disrespected.
That summer, my mom and I went to Korea. She took me to her alma mater before we went to dinner with her college friends at their favorite restaurant. My mom remarked with nostalgia how the food tasted exactly the same as it had when she was a student, and she filled her stomach to her heart’s content. My appetite, on the other hand, grew increasingly voracious as the meal went on, but not for soup or rice. As the bottles of makgeolli slowly emptied and my mother’s old friends wandered deeper and deeper into their memories, I grew hungrier for their stories and information about what my mother had been like.
They recounted how Ewha’s professors had all coveted credit for my mother, one of the French department’s best and brightest. “Funny how she’s Joanne Lee now,” they laughed, “since she’s still the same whip-sharp Yeonshin Park we’ve always known!” As the old friends’ laughter grew louder, I became much, much quieter.
Culture and heritage have both evidently played a role in my life. Somehow they claim responsibility for both my proudest memories and the deeply rooted self-esteem issues I carried for years. And while I cannot deny that experiencing racism at such a young age was painful, I realized after my trip to Korea that I could either continue to feel ashamed and sorry for myself, or I could start seeing people’s merits above the context of culture. My mom’s improper usage of English articles had no correlation with her intelligence. I chose to stop defining myself as a victim. I think of all the other pitiful kids who have been dealt their own Starter Packs, and it makes me think of all the films I’ll make telling those kids that they don’t need to be called “pitiful.” Although their own stories of racism may have twisted them in one way or another, I hope that they can learn, as I did, that difference does not mean disease.
I walk through the glass doors of the DMV alongside my mom. This time, I am 17. The woman at window number six has bags under her eyes that droop alarmingly low, and she does not seem particularly rejuvenated in seeing our little Korean duo. As my mom shuffles through her purse to find the necessary documents, she distractedly says, “We’re here to renew the car registration.”
Ms. Eyebags and I match gazes, and I see the familiar spark of relief and gratitude. Thank goodness you are here, O Young Assimilated One, her eyes say. Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with Mrs. Lee, she implicitly sighs. My mom has finally located her wallet and her license, and is about to begin a sentence when the Motor Vehicle employee blurts, “What’s the license plate number?”
She stares at me expectantly.
I stare right back.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.