A student's internal struggle to find harmony within two cultures.

   It always happens to me on the first day of class. I sit nervously dreading the inevitable moment. I shuffle papers, tap my feet nervously, and push away loose pieces of my hair trying to calm my nerves. The roster is efficiently being checked off by the teacher until the pause that I dread erupts.

 I glance up and recognize the symptoms. The teacher’s throat strains during the verbal confrontation with the letters forming my foreign name. Knots in my stomach begin to climb on top of one another. Relief washes over my teacher’s face as she crosses out Eun Young and replaces her with Joyce Kim. I am a Korean American.

  But for most of my life, I have been living as just an American. My two names represent the constant conflict of duality in my life, one as a Korean, the other as an American.

  Being raised by first generation Korean parents in the midst of a conservative, Caucasian dominated Orange County; my childhood was spent eating fragrant spicy kimchee alongside cheeseburgers while Korean dramas played in one room, and Britney Spear’s Baby One More Time in another.

  For me, America was home and Korea was a foreign country somewhere on a map. In grade school, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning felt like my own personal promise that I was a true American.

  During the pledge, I would often sneak looks left and right at my classmates. I would watch them mumble through the pledge as I proudly enunciated each syllable in my secret verbal handshake.

  But every day, reminders of my ethnicity showed. At lunchtime, my elaborate bento box lunches complete with chopsticks would give me away. My friends would peek into my neatly categorized lunch and collectively ask, “Dude, what is that?”

 Then they would attempt to poke my food, like what one would do to the glass wall of an aquarium to catch the attention of the undersea creatures. As my cheeks filled with unmerited embarrassment, I’d mumble a sentence about an evil mother who force fed me weird pickled vegetables and rice while quickly shoving a few bites of food into my mouth.


  Ever since I stepped out of my mother’s womb, I’ve always had my citizenship papers firmly gripped in one hand and the American flag in the other. Perhaps my parents wanted to give me one last reminder of who I am when they signed and sealed my fate on my birth certificate as Eun Young Kim.

  Eun Young is as much a foreigner to me as I am to her. I denied her existence. I envied other Korean Americans whose parents didn’t bother giving them a separate Korean name. They had nice, clean names that didn’t require two different sets of signatures, one for legal documents and one for everything else.

  Korean culture was foreign to me and I spent most of my life running away from it. I saw the many ways in which my parents were subtly humiliated for being foreign. People would speak to them in louder-than-normal tones or simply ignore them to avoid dealing with their broken English.

  Seeing my parents being treated differently fueled anger inside me. I did not want the same for myself. I abstained from anything I deemed “too Korean.” I quit Christianity and became Agnostic; I refused to watch overacted Korean dramas even when non-Koreans at my school became addicted to them. I barely touched Korean food, preferring to go out with my friends for hamburgers.

  I even subconsciously kept myself from becoming close friends with other Koreans whom I deemed as too conservative. I had difficulty meeting a Korean I could get along with. Many of my friends were Asian, but none were Korean.

  There was a time when a friend innocently asked me to widely open my eyes. I stretched my skin and eyebrows all the way to the ceiling to open them up. Then my eyes grew tired and collapsed back into their original almond shapes.

  “Can you see like we can?” my friend said. “What do you mean?” I said.

  I knew exactly what she meant. My heart pounded faster.

“You know…because your eyes are so little. Like do your eyes only see half of what we see?” my friend said.

“My eyes can see just as much as yours and they see fine!” I said.

I was hurt. I felt the sting of tears wanting to flood my little eyes. Once again, I was the foreigner.


    Asian blepharoplasty, commonly termed “double-eyelid surgery,” refers to surgery designed to create an upper-eyelid crease in eyelids that naturally don’t have a crease. Those who seek the surgery typically desire to look more bright-eyed and want to make applying eyeliner easier. They also seek to remove the puffy and tired look associated with a fatty upper lid.

  College was the first time in my life that I had been exposed to Asian American history. Every week, I learned of the numerous contributions and hardships that Asians had endured in order to help build the United States of America, the same America that I pledged allegiance to every morning. As my history and present came together and reconciled, pieces of me began to fall into place.

  I also took a journalism class that required me to write a full-length report on a topic of my choice. My mind immediately went back to the Sunny Hills High School days when I learned of a cosmetic surgery that altered one’s eyelids.

 At Sunny Hills, some Asian girls would get blepharoplasty, a surgical modification of the eyelids to create a crease. It was a popular graduation gift for Asian students by their parents.

  I’ve fantasized about having wider, “brighter” eyes before. But to actually physically alter my eyes would be acknowledging and cementing my self-loathing. This was something I had always struggled with.

  My mother even offered to send me to Korea to have the surgery done. She said that “The finest Korean surgeons have the best understanding of Korean eyes.” She was willing to take out loans to pay for the surgery. Although I quickly said no, a part of me constantly asked myself, “Am I sure?” After all, playing with my eyes was something I did at a very young age.

  As a child, I used to spend hours in front the mirror tracing an outline into my flat monolid, a single eyelid without a crease. Those hours consisted of me poking a pencil into the pudgy fat of my lid so that an indentation would parade as a crease; it only lasted until I blinked my watering eyes. This gave me a glimpse of what life would be like as less of an outsider.

  While other girls had step-by-step tutorials in teen magazines on how to achieve hot, smoky eyes, the same tutorials gave me bruised eyes. The media told girls my age to accept who I was and that I was beautiful. Yet, none of the women who graced these covers looked anything like me.

  I had no role models. I had no one to show me that being different in my own way was okay. The monolid was such a miniscule detail, but for me and many other Asians, it was bigger than us.

  As I did my research on blepharoplasty, a common theme appeared. These surgeries were popular due to the desire of the patients to align themselves with Western ideas of beauty. Small eyes are often viewed as deceitful and shrewd, unfriendly and cunning. Blepharoplasty made eyes more wide open, and appealing.

 After careful thought, I came to the realization that I did not want to change who I was and that I just never could understand what it meant to be Korean-American. And that was ok.


 I’ve always felt this need to defend my Korean heritage, whether it was the strangely spiced foods or the smaller shape of my eyes. But by constantly being on the defense about my own ethnic identity, I grew to be resentful towards it and I delved away from what I was looking for. I couldn’t understand why I was not easily accepted by others. I could not understand why it took so much work for me to be seen as an American.

 It was upon writing the report on blepharoplasty where I realized that all I had been seeing in the mirror was an empty reflection. Being Korean-American meant neither taking one side nor the other; it is about learning to integrate my identities to show people my true self. It was about having a true reflection.

 It’s still a learning process to open up my eyes on my own terms. I don’t blast Korean pop songs from my car and I still don’t watch overacted Korean dramas. I don’t always prefer my mother’s cooking to a good old hamburger, but I am taking steps.

  Had I gotten the surgery, I realized that looking into falsely created eyes would tear down the small steps that I’ve taken to regain the person I’ve learned to cast away. My eyes have begun opening in a way that’s allowing me to see my true reflection.

  Now, I no longer dread the first day of class. My name is who I am. My eyes are my eyes.

Copyright © 2012 Tusk Magazine - All rights reserved. - Created by the students of California State University, Fullerton