Between the ages of 12 and 15 I had two great anxieties: being behind the counter of my family’s small town bagel shop in the presence of a customer, and being asked what my parents did for a living. Growing up, we changed postal codes and landlines more than anyone else I knew, but we eventually settled in a small, suburban town when my parents took over the local bagel shop. It’s safe to say we were one of the only non-white (let alone Korean) families residing there at the time, and unfortunately “visible minority” does not accurately capture the isolating, frightened feeling I came to know as a twelve year old girl.
We were a tearing, yellowing seam on white garment—unexpected, sore, disruptive.
Without warning and without anyone having to say so, being non-white became a point of embarrassment and shame. I felt this at its peak behind the counter of that bagel shop, watching my parents serve middle class white people in their broken English and chapped hands. Many of the incoming customers would be my schoolmates and their families. I cringed at the idea of my parents interacting with any of them, and I wanted so badly for all of us, my parents included, to be on the other side of that counter.
This is not to say I secretly hated it when my friends and I would have lunch together at my parents’ shop, or when I’d get to know the regulars, or when I’d have access to all the ice cream I wanted. For a while, that shop was also home. I had good summers, after school visits and birthday parties. But this anxiety of being behind the counter—being other—was always present, lightly asleep. When triggered awake, I dealt with it alone in isolating silence.
I began to reject my Asian identity the way young girls (and boys) learn to reject pink because they don’t want to seem vapid. I remember feeling pangs of flattery when people threw me words that deflated visibility like “white-washed” and “banana”. I remember writing in my diary as an angst-ridden aspiring “artist”, echoing the young white girls I read about, using words like “my bosom friend” (re: Anne Shirley) and dramatically referring to omma as “my mother”.
I remember a peer finding out my legal Korean name in the 8th grade, and to my despair, screeching it over and over in front of everyone in a horribly over-the-top accent. I remember shying away from this name, dreading having to explain, insisting on its irrelevance. I remember the first Asian supply teacher and my ashamed, sinking feeling when hearing his Chinese accent. I remember classmates taunting him, impersonating his way of making their English sound absurd. I remember his look of defeat, his rush out of the class. I remember my silence. I remember wanting to be invisible, praying no one would look at him and think of me. I wanted to be on the side of the counter that ate, not served, that got to walk in and out, not stuck, as I felt, in a display of submission and ridicule. I wanted to shout at my peers, “I can read and write and speak in all the same ways you do!” and in a way, I convinced them. Whiteness became an armour I was too afraid to take off.
My parents sold that bagel shop sometime when I was in grade 10, fittingly, to another Korean family with two children, just like mine. The town has vastly diversified since we lived there. They are now working at a café and catering service on the first floor of an office building in Scarborough. It is, to this day, still nerve-wracking for me to state it so openly. We immigrated here when I was five years old, my brother two. The move was undoubtedly for us, but it’s always been my parents working behind the counter. Yet, in front of white friends, I still face a quiet habit of shame in saying what they do; in mentioning that counter.
My experience with this feeling is not simple. It’s guilt. It’s love. It’s the burden of making their labour worth it. It’s having not only a generational barrier with my parents, but a language and cultural one as well. It’s wishing too late that I took better care of the bridge between us, instead of trying to find home with people who couldn’t even digest all of me, that spat out my roots.
It’s nostalgia for something that’s never been.
Fast forward to now: Bachelor of Arts in English under my belt, miraculously obtained post some truly anxiety-ridden classroom conditions of unbearable whiteness. Slowly unlearning. Shedding that armour. Realizing my Asian identity is not an apology. Realizing my self worth—as Asian, as woman, as writer, and as yes, Canadian—does not need validation, from anyone.
– elise suk-young y.