Jamaican | South Korean
I identify as mixed-race, Atheist & straight. My mother is from South Korea and my father is Jamaican. They met in London in the 80s, having both come to the UK from their respective countries. My father was a shift manager in McDonalds, Tottenham Court Road and my mum came in and applied for a job.
I recognised I was mixed-race from as early as I can remember (around 5 or 6). I grew up in South London with my Jamaican family. My parents split when I was born, and my mother returned pretty much immediately to South Korea. I only saw her every 10 years. I met her again briefly at age 10 and then again at age 20, I haven’t seen her since. Most of my cousins are full Jamaican and I remember thinking my brother and I looked very similar to each other, but not to any of them.
My parent’s both arrived in Britain from very different backgrounds, similar values but extremely different personalities and ways of doing things. They married, had my brother - who is 6 years older than me - then me, and unfortunately separated around 3 months after I was born, when my mum returned to South Korea, leaving my brother and I with my dad in South London.
I remember I was asked to take part in an exhibition at school in Year 1 where we drew our parents and talked about where we were from. I drew my mum with ghostly White skin (having never met her at this point, just seen her in photos. Which was strange as she isn’t ghostly White) and my dad with the darkest Brown pencil I could find, a photo of me posing was superimposed in the middle of my parents and I said I was half from this place and half from that place.
I grew up in South London in a huge Jamaican family, very much surrounded by Caribbean culture, history, values and stories of travelling to the UK for a better life. I identify strongly as being not just mixed-race, but both proudly Korean and Jamaican. More often Jamaican having had the same experience as any ‘full’ Jamaican child growing up in a Caribbean home.
But outside the environment of my family, I am not always accepted as being Black/Jamaican or able to understand a Black experience. Quite often Caribbean’s can only see how Korean I am, and Koreans can only see how Black I appear to them: stuck in a halfway house between wanted to deeply belong to two different communities. The Korean community can often be quite xenophobic, and I remember being told of mixed-race Korean children being called ‘Jampong’ which is a ‘spicy mixed-up noodle soup’. Particular traits get chopped up and attributed to being Korean or Jamaican, such as being athletic, loving maths, loud, down the line, common ongoing stereotypes. I found myself thinking of half my qualities as Korean and half as Jamaican. I feel challenges professionally with reconciling the feeling that I’m ‘doing well’ or ‘beating the odds’, considering the background I come from; a single parent Jamaican father who arrived as a teenager to London. There was a huge period of my adult life where I have had to reconcile feelings that I may always feel I am working double as hard for half the reward. Having to always prove myself beyond initial judgement from the colour of my skin.
I feel you naturally gravitate towards people whose racial experience is a daily part of their identity. Surrounding myself by likeminded people, not just based on race, but on political and lifestyle views is essential to feeling you can have a place where maybe your race cannot be reflected.
Being mixed-race interacts with absolutely every part of my being: my relationships, my insecurities, my aspirations and my feelings of my place in society. I often feel I have to prove my right to sit at the same professional table as others, for whatever prejudice or barriers to entry I feel may exist. In relationships race can consume your perception of situations or feelings or being of ‘imposter syndrome’ in particular settings.
Sometimes it feels like mixed-race has become a glorified ‘desirable’ race. I often hear people say, ‘I would love mixed-race children’, ‘being mixed-race is so cool’, ‘mixed-race children are the most beautiful’, ‘mixed-race people get the best of both worlds’.
I do not speak my native languages, but I grew up in a Jamaican household, so I understand patois. Somehow socially I can feel a shame in saying I don’t speak Korean and nor have I been to Korea or Jamaican, does that make me less of either? I’m not entirely sure. ‘It’s a rite of passage to go to your motherland’ is what some people say. Something I think is short-sighted an insensitive, there are a number of reasons I haven’t been to Jamaica or Korea and it’s not link to lack of Jamaicanness or Koreanness.
Food has always been my way to access being Korean and Jamaican. You start a conversation with a Jamaican about ackee and saltfish or Korean about KimchiJigae and suddenly you are speaking one language. I feel an immense pride in my heritage when I simply sit down and eat a plate of food from that country.
When people ask where I am from I would choose to answer I am from Brixton. One of the most positive experiences about being mixed-race is meeting other mixed-race people and instantly having so many aligning feelings and fears, regardless of our mix. One negative experience is people often attributing your success in any given thing back to your race, not hard work. It is somehow less impressive because ‘yeah, but you’re half...obviously you’re going to be...xyz’. I currently work in the fitness industry and my athleticism has often been awarded to ‘Black people are always in better shape’ or ‘you’ve just good genes’. No amount of ‘good genes’ can account for hard work, dedication and motivation. I hate the feeling that people look at me and even for a second allow themselves to think I was gifted what I have worked so hard for.
It is great to be surrounded by so many movements, celebrations and platforms for honest expression of mixed-race experiences.
If I had the opportunity to be reincarnated I would want to return as myself. I stopped wanting to be like other people a long time ago when I realised I am lucky to occupy my space, my mix and my experience so distinctively from other people’s experience.