bio bio bio the idea of home is very complicated for me. Because I was born in LA like I told you earlier, now I’m in Atlanta. But in between that time I lived in a number of places in Korea, in Tennessee, in washington state, in north carolina, in texas, and my family’s now in virginia.
N: So, the idea of home is very complicated for me. Because I was born in LA like I told you earlier, now I’m in Atlanta. But in between that time I lived in a number of places in Korea, in Tennessee, in washington state, in north carolina, in texas, and my family’s now in virginia. But this idea of a physical home has never been an option for me. I think i attended over 20 schools. I think homes themselves, i've been in at least 20 of them, definitely a lot more since I graduated college, so the idea of home for me has always been people.
As corny as it is, it’s always been my family, it’s the people that I love, and I guess most recently it would be with my husband. The feeling of home and the concept of home has always been the people. You know? It hasn’t really been a location thing.
J: Wow. that is so many places.
N: It is a lot of places. And it kind of forced me to have a really good relationship with my family because that was the only way that we could survive. So I didn't have the luxury of being like, “I hate my siblings, they are so annoying.” I had to be like, my siblings are my friends. I love my parents, because otherwise, you know, my life would've been awful! You know, obviously, they are lovable people. So yeah, home has definitely been people for me. So my mom immigrated to america after she met my dad. So he was on a business trip and he had already been in the states since he was in middle school. So he was really well adjusted.
J; oh my gosh
N: yes, so he’s very bilingual, he’s completely fluent, and he’s got that on and off switch. Like he can just put on his american persona and then his korean persona. So he was on a business trip and he met my mom on a date in Korea and then my mom had just graduated from e-why-ojeah college, which is a very prestigious women’s college in korea. And she had a degree, and she loved studying, but my grandmother, her mother, was like, you have to marry because a woman’s like nothing, you’re not your complete self unless you’re married. So my mom gave into that and they married. So they had kind of a tumultuous relationship, i wouldn’t say it was perfect by any means. Again, she had to be with my dad to survive. And be respected and whatnot. When I think about my life here as second generation or 2.5 or whatever I am, I just feel like there's always this, it always goes back to her. I need to make sure that whatever she didn’t get to enjoy and experience, I have to do it.
So I would say that my idea of home for a long time had to do with my mom but she passed a few years ago so i would say that really did restructure my thinking, my identity, like who am I, what am i, and then I met my husband a few years after she passed and i would say that he’s definitely become my cornerstone and he’s really helped me through this grieving and healing process. I feel very fortunate that I have someone who I can call home and husband. But yeah. When it comes to my core things, my identity always goes back to my mother.
J: can you talk more about how after she passed, how you had to restructure your thinking?
N: yeah. so , my mother had cancer for, she battled it for 5 years, it was leukemia. She was sick for a few years before she passed, and when she passed, I just automatically add to assume all the responsibilities of caring for my siblings. My sisters and I have a big age gap. So 9 years apart and 14 years apart. So, um, my dad had to keep providing financially so it defaulted that i would assume all of these motherly responsibilities. So that was in my early 20s. It was really hard for me to progress ahead and pursue their passions and careers while I felt kind of burdened and stuck by these responsibilities that i never volunteered for. So in that time i think i really poured myself into my family, part of it is definitely obligation and part of it is definitely that I really do love them. And that i really wanted to not mess up the flow of their lives. My sisters were really young when my mom passed away so i was like okay if i just dipped out now and found a job elsewhere, it might cost them more than it costs me right now. So i think that was hard for me where I felt like everyone was on the same path, kind of pursuing their freedom and i felt like there was a regression for me. But yeah, it was definitely tough and a lot of spiritual battling as well. Finding out what my identity is, like i’m not necessarily their mom, but i’m more than their sister because I'm also their caregiver right now. My dad was also struggling with his depression, it was a lot of different things and the idea was just to keep moving forward so that we wouldn’t sink.
I would say that it was really weird though, in this time i’m giving my sisters rides, doing very basic things like feeding them, doing laundry, and somehow it turned into something that I really enjoyed. And I was like, you know what, even if this is what the rest of my life looked like, i think i would be okay with it. Whereas before, i was like shit. So it was a little different. It was really interesting because as soon as i had a shift of attitude, i felt like good things started happening. Like i met tim. I really do think that my life changed after i met tim. He just brought so much joy and happiness and then in that time my dad also got remarried so i felt less attached and obligated to be at home and I kind of made my way to more independence. I don’t know… i left the nest? I don't really know, I felt okay to be on my own.
My sisters now, one's about to graduate from college and one is about to graduate from high school. It’s still been a struggle for them you know, because they’re so confused and what not. It’s going to be a long process of healing and learning for them. But I like to think that the times that we had together were good for them, so home is very complicated. But it does come down to family for me.
J: it seems like it shifts in shape and location but never in form.
N: no, no yeah. I think that throughout all that time, the term of big sister, Oh Nee, has been my biggest identity. The big sister. And also as the eldest daughter I have just had to reconcile with my dad with him just assuming responsibilities. He’s more old fashioned in that sense. If something happens in the family, the oldest has to take care of it. I would’ve liked it if he asked me how I felt about something like that. You know? Even though i did oblige and i did participate, I would've appreciated if you were more considerate about how i felt. So we’re all still learning to communicate better.i think a lot of asians have a hard time communicating with their parents but yeah. We’re still working on that. So him, too, he was like you’re the oldest sister, and me also realizing that I am the oldest sister, and then just kind of, even if I didn’t want to do something, even just the fact that I am the oldest sister has helped me to step into those shoes and that role.
J: so if you and your dad had to define older sister, would you guys define it the same? Or differently?
N: i think so (the same). I think the expectation is so much greater for an older sibling. It was even greater for me because my sisters were so much younger than me. It’s different if it was just me and my brother-my brother is only 3 years younger than me. I’m the oldest of 4. It’s never just been like you’re my sister, you can borrow my clothes. It’s been like, oh you’re the big sister? You’re the mini mom, you gotta help with these things. Filling out paperwork for school, giving them rides, stuff like that. The way he would define it would be yeah the oldest sibling assumes a lot of the responsibilities and helps the parents. And I think that’s how i would define it from my experiences. It’s not ideal, but yeah.
J: the part about being asked really resonates with me. Because i feel like asian cultures are known for being pretty ascetic, not tons of dialogue and lots of assumptions. But the part about emotional inquiry i feel like is more important.
N: and i think that also, we grew up in this generation where we have the luxury of asking that kind of favor. If you look back in history, they are the grandchildren of people who have been in war. So you just don’t expect anything-everything that’ you're given, you’re not necessarily deserving of it, it’s just reality. So i think that they way there’s such a huge generational difference between me and my parents. My dad’s always like, why’s it always about feelings and the way you feel? And i’m like, cuz it's what i’m feeling! Ya know? But he’s so much more about responsibility and obligation, this is who I'm supposed to be so i’m going to do it, even though his heart may not really be into it, his sense of duty is so much greater than feeling. And i don’t think they have to be., if you’re dutiful, you can’t feel feelings. But I feel like there’s a detachment between the two, what i’m actually doing and what I'm feeling. I think everyone feels both, but i think that in traditional asian or ethnic cultures, it’s like if you have a sense of duty, you just suppress your feelings so that you can keep moving forward, or keep working or whatever it is that you have to do.
J: I know that there’s criticism of ABA’s. America is so much about individuality, whereas other cultures are about group or family importance. Especially when you had to take on more familial duties, you mentioned that you saw other people doing other stuff.
N: i feel like i’m still working through that tension. Like i have to be it’s family over everything, whether it’s a social event or having to prioritize with my family, even throughout college, where my friends were like i stayed over at the craziest party and I was hungover all weekend. And i was like, really? I went back home and helped with laundry. You know, it’s different. But i really used to be jealous and envious of people who didn’t have to feel like they were obligated to their family, but now that I'm 30 and we’re talking about having our own family, i’m glad that i was always tethered to my family in that sense just so it kept me really grounded and to reality. And when it does come down to it, I do value my family. So it’s definitely like a high priority to me. Even though it felt like such a lame thing to come home on the weekends when I was a college student. It was humbling and i’m glad that i spent time with the family. Id don’t ever regret not having spent more time with the,.
But i mean, if you asked me maybe 5 years ago, i would have said, that was stupid. I hated that I had to do that. Some of it I think just takes time to change. And it is a weird feeling very american under a very asian parenting style. And then like kind of growing into that mindset that oh my god I am turning into my parents.
J: it is so weird.
N; you have those moments too?
J: I do. My dad used to be like, you can’t rely on anyone but your family. He would always say that to me, especially wheni was in elementary and middle school. And I was like, how comei cant’ just stay and sleepover, but i had chinese school on Saturday mornings, and he would be like, do you hate your culture???
N: that’s a loaded question i’m like 7 years old
J: but now that Tim and I are married, when i think about kids, I do want my kids to be closely connected to me
N: and that’s not even a cultural thing, it’s just that you’re getting older. So your mindset changes.
J: okay, so you said that a huge part of your identity is big sister. Is it Oh Nee?
N: yes, so it’s Oh Nee when it's a younger sister calling their older sister. If it’s a younger brother calling their older sister it’s NuNa. So i have a tomboy sister who calls me NuNa. it’s been an ongoing joke but she actually has me under NuNa in her phone.
J: I also know that you make art, which is how I found you. So would you call yourself an artist as well?
N: yes, i think yes, at that at this point i’m not so weirded out by calling myself an artist. when my mom passed, i didn’t make art for like 5 years. It just felt really heavy to even pick up a pencil I don't know what it was. I’ve drawn my entire life. The first thing i did was pick up a pen and draw over the entire walls of my home, my parents have very vivid memories of my drawings in their first home. But yeah, in that time when i was grieving it was really hard for me to call myself or see myself as an artist even though I ‘ve always seen myself as an artistic type. But what was really helpful was during that time my friends and my family were being very supportive even though I wasn't making art. Like, this is my friend nicole, she is an artist. This is my sister, hse’s an artist. Even the way people were talking about me, in front of me. That Was very helpful for me. So once i went back to making art, it was so easy to get back into it. It’s been 3 years since I've started making art again and I've enjoyed it so much. I feel like i’ve built so many connections because of instagram. I set up a whole instagram account dedicated to my art and I will say that when i do kind of open up about my family and my past, is when people feel the most connected to my art. So een learning the way that people respond to my art has been helpful. I do consider myself an artist. I work full time s a special events manager, but if i have time at home then I will do my best to make art.
J: I've been learning the balance between makingart versus relying on it for livelihood. It can be stressful.
N: I always wanted to end up in a creative position, and there are elements of that in my work right now, but i’m doing a bunch of commissioned pet portraits right now. I’ve done about 50 and i’m at that point where it starts feeling like homework. Procrastinating, watching 7 episodes of a show before I can actually have the option of stepping away and just making stuff that i want it.
I’m still learning about that whole process.
J: you went to college for fine arts. When you were in high school, did you always knows that you were going to college to study art?
N: Yes. I think so, Well, my mom was very unusual as an asian mom to never press me toward a career that i didn’t want to do. She knew that i liked drawing from when I was very young. She was like, you're gonna be an artist. So she took me to a bunch of art classes and I drew a lot of disney characters for awhile. She would ask questions like “what about like a graphic designer? I heard that’s a real job” or “what about an art director?” and i was like, i don’t know, i’m still going to paint. They were very supportive and I went to the governor's honor’s program when I was in high school so I was really able to enjoy making art when i was in high school. I would go home and would draw for fun too. I wanted to go to art school and I had applied to a bunch of big name art schools like risd and chicago and i had been accepted but because of my mom’s illness, i took a gap year and then chose to attend oglethorpe because of the proximity. That freshman year i was definitely like “pffff” a little pouty and sad about not being at the school that I wanted to be at but again, i think it’s all a matter of hindsight. Years later, those things don't’ define who I was but that was a tough time,from high school to college. I wanted to be some big fancy artist and get like a big fancy art education but i ended up here at oglethorpe and the art department is really small and i developed a really good relationship with professor loel here. So i do think that weirdly, things did work out.
Did you not think you were going to end up in design?
J: No, my mom told me that i could not go to art school. And she will deny that to this day, because she’s pretty free-spirited. But when our parents were young, they didn’t have choices about that kind of stuff. And my mom is learning to live with the fact that some of her kids are not going to stay at corporations or live with steady incomes. I work part time to support the thing that I love doing, but I don't think she wants me to have to worry about making money.
N: I think stability is the american dream for asians. And security. It’s more than that than these big wild crazy dreams. It’s just about you have a job, a home, the people that love you. You’re good. And keep it that way. Don’t do anything to disrupt it.
J: At my previous job I was super drained and I wouldn't want to touch anything when I got home. But I felt kind of guilty (leaving) because my parents were not fond of my leaving a place where I could gain titles and stuff like that … my dad was in theater when he was younger. And now he’s a businessman and he doesn’t do that stuff anymore, but I'm like, wait a second, I don't know if my dad is going to be disappointed if I do become an artist.
N: but he has that creative side, you know? When my husband and I are talking about our future, i told him specifically that i want my children to grow up without any worry. They can do theater, they can play soccer (I hate sports), they can paint; for me the dreams that they are good kind people more than anything. It’s going to change between generations, but I think what your parents and my parents envisioned was just a life of stability and security because they haven’t had that. And i’m sure it’s even different from the grandparents. My grandparents were like, just get married. You know? So like, you have a place to call home. And there’s always that transition. It is different between generations. And it’s going to be different when we have kids, too.
They’re going to have something else that they don’t like about how we think too. And I’m like, well i’m going to be perfect by then so I don't know what they are going to complain about.
J: I know that you said that you moved around from coast to coast, north to south, having experienced all these vastly different regions, people, and cultures, being back in the south, do you feel like this place has any affect on you or your work?
N: definitely. People take notice of me a lot more because i stand out - there’s not that many asian faces. There are only 2 other asian people who work at oglethorpe and we work very different jobs and we rarely run into each other. And that for me has been an advantage because people remember who I am. I get a lot of people who are curious about my upbringing and my background. I’ve come to this point where i’m more selective about sharing what i want to share. Just because i am korean and i look korean. Doesn't mean that I have to tell you about my korean identity. But if i want to share it, then I am happy to share it. I think that's just been a common thing living in the south. They don’t see as many asians, so they are more curious. I think that most people are not malicious. i have dealt with people who are less kind because of their very narrow experience with asian people. But Most of the time if i do get people who ask where are you from? I know that they are just curious.
A few years ago iwas at a dog park and an older white man asked me where are you from and i said i’m from down the street where do you live? What makes you say that or ask me that? I don’t just go up to people and say where are you from? And he was like oh ok and he walked away. I feel very entitled to call my own shots. If i don’t feel like answering someone then i won’t. If i do, theni do. And that’s been a big personality switch from when I was younger. Because when I was younger I constantly felt like oh yeah i'm a little bit different so let me explain who I am and where i’m from also i speak perfect english so you don’t have to worry about… you know, things like that where there's been a big personality shift and change and also i think there’s been more representation on tv too so people aren't’ so weirded out by seeing asian faces.
But definitely when it comes to the geography of georgia, all the Koreans are gathered in the duluth area. Duluth Alpharetta and Johns Creek. I’m a little detached in atlanta , so if i want korean food then I ‘ll go to buford highway. But it is interesting because a lot of our colleagues are black or white but i would love to work with more asians and see more asians in our field. If you go to emory, you see a lot of international students. When It comes to living in atlanta, there’s not too many, I think. But The majority of asians are up in gwinnett county.
J: I don't know that many asians who stay in the city.
N: and part of it is housing, we get it. I really do enjoy being korean and american. I also love being in the south. I don’t feel as comfortable being korean american when I step out of the city, like when i go to rural parts of georgia i feel very uncomfortable. I see confederate flags, i get the staredown. I feel a little bit nervous and just a little afraid when i’m in those areas. Generally when I'm here in atlanta, I enjoy being in the city.
My life is very different from my cousin's life. They live in los angeles and they have grown up not even having to make friends that don’t look like them. Because everyone in their world is korean american. They don’t have to speak englishi f they don’t want to. Actually when i took a trip to la. I got really weirded out. I was like, why am i getting weirded out by people that look like me? I’m like, there’s too many! So i’ve definitely gotten very accustomed to being like, it’s okay if i’m the only asian person in the room. Or if there is another person, then i’m like, oh, i probably know that person or i know someone who knows that person/. It’s definitely like a smaller community here. But I found it very fascinating that everyone in their world is korean and you stay in your korean roots. Of course, there are people that break away from it but it’s not weird for someone who’s not korean or not asian to see crowds of asian people. They don’t get weirded out by htat. Os ithink it would be more interesting if we took someone who is not asian to a korean supermarket in la. I think they would be weirded out by htat. Like what the heck is happening.
J: my brother-in-law was telling me that he doesn’t actually feel very comfortable when he is in a place where there is not a lot of diversity. His norm is in a place with a lot of diversity. In my old office there was not a lot of diversity and it was super uncomfortable to be in a majority white office because there was no one to talk to or sympathize with, or if there was then they were 800 feet away.
N: I think that’s super important because you’re spending 8 hours a day with these people and if you can’t find a common ground… it’s not about what they look like at that point, it’s about intention. If you can’t have a single person like that then it’s not a good environment.
Thankfully we have a great blend of white and black people at Oglethorpe, so that’s my norm. It’s a liberal arts school here too, so people are progressive in their thinking. It was easy to come here and work because people are open-minded. It is harder for me to be open-minded in those moments when I’m not comfortable. I Feel myself thinking like “I'm the other.”
When I was younger, I found myself thinking, you’re the other, you’re the one that’s sticking out so you need to fit in. and at this point, I feel like I don't have to apologize for who I am. It’s not my problem that i’m korean, i was born like this. If it makes you uncomfortable, then you can ask me more about myself, maybe get to know me, find a common ground so that you don’t feel uncomfortable.
A lot of it has come with the political climate and how divided this country has become and i feel more defensive and protective of my identity than before. I think a lot of people of color feel the same way.
J: you use the word protective. Like someone watching out for something else. Because sometimes the word i jump to is afraid, but to know that you have power.
N: it’s different now. Korean people are rich with culture and there’s so much celebration, now i’m like, why was I ever ashamed of my food stinking up the place
J: I think about that like 99 times a day
N: and you’re putting kimchi in everything now?? How dare you have made fun of me wheni was ten years old! It’s different, i feel like i have the power to be like, that’s my people’s food, you’re welcome. And you don’t have to invite me to anyplace, i’ll already be there.
J: There are a lot of korean southern fusion restaurants and i’m like what??
N: Heirloom bbq is really interesting because it’s a former K-pop singer who married a southern chef and they have this bbq restaurant together. They have a lot of flavors and sides that are korean inspired and i don’t love bbq but i go there for the sides. You know there’s kimchi, she's made this cool green tomato kimchi it’s not spicy it’s sweet and fresh and cold. But like the fact that they’ve brought two very different -- together, I think it’s really inspiring. I think there’s more opportunity for that. But it is interesting to see like, “korean tacos” like tacos are not a korean thing. Everyone know what a bibimbap. It’s kind of cool, it’s weird, it’s also like our secret weapons, all the good things about korean food, everyone knows about it. But i also like that people are enjoying it.
J:have you watched pen165?
N: it’s my childhood!!
J: me too. That show blows my mind.
N: there’s that episode where her best friend Anna doesn’t stand up for her when they are doing this spice girls science project and then maya gets made fun of for her race. The way they close the episode,, how anna says I’m sorry i didn’t know your experience, I didn't know how you feel or what you were going through was hurting you and what i was doing wasn’t helping, I was really moved by that scene.
She’s half japanese and half white. Her experience is a little bit different from mine, but I can still relate to it. When I'm watching this show, i’m not think like oh my god I'm watching this asian person play this role. I’m watching this teenage girl go through the most painful part of her life and i’m not so stuck on her being asian. I’m more into the story.
We need to be introduced that way more and more. Not like, this is an asian person. You must learn about their… dynasties! I’m an american. I was born and raised here. My experiences are very american. My husband and I took a trip to europe to celebrate our 1 year of marriage. And i realized that i was very american there. I read a whole buzzfeed article about it. “Americans smile too much” everywhere I went I would go in and say hello and no one’s smiling back so i felt really hurt! And then i was like oh that ‘s na ermaican thing . we’re like tipping too much. I just thought it was really funny because there were times when I was like, I'm being too american.
OH, and I visited Korea a couple years ago. My experiences here in the south are like, I'm that asian girl. But when I'm over there, I'm like that american girl. I can’t relate to people as well. It’s very elementary, it’s very basic. I’m dressing differently you know but i’m following american fashion trends, i think i was wearing a beanie, it wasn’t that amazing, and every girl looked like a K-pop star. And I was like, i feel weird. A lot of people are supposed to look like, me, this is the homeland, this is the motherland, . that was interesting.
BEcause my experiences are american. Especially in the south. Because it’s very different.
And I'm staring at everyone because they’re asian. And no one is staring back!
That was fun and weird. Because i thought i was just going to blend in and feel right at home, but that was not the case at all.
You grew up in cobb county, right?
J: Right. There were not a lot of asians.
N: do you ever have that experience where you see one other asian person where you lock eyes and you’re like, are we friends or are we going to ignore each other? And find our own set of non asian friends?
I had that a lot in high school. Should I become friends with the other asian or would that make me too predictable? You know, when you’re in high school you have time to think about these things.
J: there just weren’t that many asian people who were my age… I had peers, but we never really talked about our ethnicity or our embarrassing asian stories. We can now.
N: when you’re in your teens, you’re more concerned with how you appear to other people… but it is weird for me to look back and just be like, why were you so worried about being liked by people who aren’t even keeping in touch with right now? I felt like I had to adapt ot white culture a lot.
J: I have a lot of regrets about my childhood, like why couldn’t I fully enjoy that?
N: I know, but you can’t regret that anymore. You just enjoy it now.
J: I made taro balls at my house the other day.
N: food has been such a good way for me to reconnect with my asian identity. One thing that I really regret is not spending more time with my mom in the kitchen. I have this cookbook by Maangchi and i’ve been finding recipes that gives me this foggy reconnection back to the times when my mom would prepare meals for me. It’s been joyful, confusing and sad.
I have really bad long-term memory. I can’t recall information, but i can pick up little details. I’ve been trying to reconnect to what they are exactly. I was at michael’s last week and I found polymer clay, and my mom and I once made something out of polymer clay. I couldn't remember what it was, but I was like, okay, i need to keep collecting those moments and not just her in her deteriorating health.
J: if you could describe yourself in three words, how would you describe yourself?
N: well, I do know what I want others to see when they think of me. I want them to think I'm strong, not because I am strong but because i had to build my strength from my weaknesses. Os i think that embracing vulnerability is the key to strength. I am very open and sometimes I am a little too open, but that's because I hope the outcome is wonderful. So that’s what I hope people see and think of me.
I don’t know how to describe myself. I would say I’m very caring. I’m loyal. And i’m changing; i change my mind all the time. I change my outfits like 10x a day. I’m changing drastically as a person and growing constantly. I might change my mind about that too.