Korean-American as art

By Jenny Lee

A burst of amber light slices through the darkness, introducing Christina Seo and another improv actress on stage exchanging dialogue. Coming up with the funniest lines possible, Seo slowly gains confidence and comfort from the guffaws of the audience. Everything seems well underway until her white counterpart looks at Seo, who is about to take bites out of a hamburger, and says, “Is this dog meat?” The lights go down and silence soon engulfs the small, open theater space.

That scene, which took place in an improv show five years ago, still traumatizes the 24-year-old Korean-American. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Seo is as uncomfortable as Americans may be with the dog eating culture of Korea – the controversial practice that is enjoyed only by a small proportion of the population.

“After that scene, all I could think was ‘I’m going to work my ass off and make sure that I never work with this girl again,’” Seo says. “Being Korean-American has worked in both good and bad ways. The bad is bad.”

Living as a second-generation Korean-American is not easy. The inextricable bi-cultural bind that has them teetering between their parents’ traditions and American customs, stereotypes and racism against Asian-Americans continue to prevail, as manifested by Chris Rock’s recent zinger at the Oscars about Asians being “math whizzes.”

“I didn’t like being Korean when I was younger,” says Will Song, a 37-year-old Korean-American who is a long-time Chicago resident. “Ten years ago, 15 years ago or even when I was growing up, we were a big time minority.”

What Song didn’t like the most was having to be conscious of how his white classmates would perceive him. He had to sacrifice “just to fit in.”

“Nobody wants to bring like doenjang jjigae [soybean paste stew] to lunch,” Song says. “Instead, you want to eat pizza, hamburgers or fries or something.”

In some cases, their teenage experiences as Korean-Americans can leave emotional scars. Nic Park, a 25-year-old Texas native who was raised in an all-white neighborhood in Pittsburgh, still grapples with his recollection of being taunted by three white kids, who dumped ice bags on him. He says he fantasizes many times about going back in time and beating them up.

“There was a lot of racism, a lot of people being rude, people making snide comments and making shitty jokes,” Park says. “Even the people who were well meaning, there was a lot of unintentional ignorance and it got really frustrating.”

But as much as he feels uncomfortable in the U.S., he also feels displaced from his country of origin.

“I don’t know if I like identifying as an American anymore even though that’s what I am,” Park says, “but I think I have more of a hard time with other people perceiving me as Korean. When I went to Korea, I was speaking in English and people would look at me weird and it bothered me.”

In an effort to get past these challenges, Park says he strives to find a creative outlet through which he can express himself while showing off his talents. For him, it is being a funny guy. Now a member of Chicago’s Asian American sketch comedy troupe, Stir-Friday Night!, he writes and performs sketches based on his life experiences. He says one of his favorite sketches is about a Korean superstition, “fan death.”

Seo and Song also see art – whether it be writing, acting or cooking – as an avenue to embrace themselves as well as to promote their root culture.

“We’re an amalgam of Asians, and we’re really interested in our cultures and how we can tell stories about ourselves as normal Americans who have these rich backgrounds of traditions, food, sound and place,” says Seo, who is also a member of Stir-Friday Night! and Lady Crush, another improv comedy group in Chicago.

Song expresses his art in cooking. The owner of BopNGrill, two popular burger joints in Chicago, Song has combined two plates he loved when growing up into one cuisine: Burgers and fries, and Korean food. Out of that experience, he created kimchi fries.

Will Song sells kimchi fries at his burger joints, BopNGrill. (Jenny Lee/Medill)
Korean-American Will Song sells kimchi fries at his burger joints, BopNGrill. (Jenny Lee/Medill)

“I knew if I open up a little dinky fast food restaurant, I have to do Korean American,” Song says. “Most of our clientele – about 70 percent – are Caucasian. So the fact that we are ordering kimchi fries or they want kimchi jars, it’s really nice because it’s like we are promoting Korean culture as well.”

Photo at top: Korean-American Christina Seo and Nic Park perform on stage at an improv comedy show, Stir-Friday Night! (Stir-Friday Night!)