“From 'Hang a Larry' to a reverse judo move.”
Racism, rejection and assimilation has been a part of the visible minority experience since migration began. Our season finale guest Alex, shares his experience of how life events have shaped the reclamation of his culture. The contrast of his outlook and attitude towards his Korean culture from when he was a child to now is fascinating. Alex doesn't do anything half-way and isn't afraid to tell it like it is, leaving listeners with the invitation to truly lean into their cultures and own them. Heads up: if you are listening with children, you might want to keep your "earmuffs" handy for language.
If you’d like to tell us your story, or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe for our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you are listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define, and celebrate their family and cultural identity. We set out to make six episodes of our first season of the Root & Seed podcast. That makes this our season finale!
The past 18 months has been a heavy one, not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for those of us who identify with almost every single culture that is prevalent in North America and Globally. From the murder of George Floyd, which sparked a long overdue movement for Black Lives Matter to farmer protests in India, to the rise of anti-Asian hate, conflicts between Israel and Palestine that brought about a rise in anti-Semitism, the discovery of thousands and counting Indigenous children buried in residential schools to the most recent atrocity in Afghanistan that will sure to have effects on immigration and the stories of their descendants for years to come. All of these events have made us take a pause. Regardless of your background, the effects are wide reaching and pronounced.
With those events as backdrop, a culture reclamation and re-appropriation has emerged opening up the floodgates for those seeking to do just that, like many of our podcast guests this season. And while each of their stories have been unique in their own way, one of the most fun and exciting things about your response to our platform and podcast has been the relate-ability of the stories. We heard feedback, like “I'm just like Vicky. I too found my people” or “While I've never thought about it that way, the way Aldo distinguished his different selves made me really think about the different parts of my identity.” And some of you are inspired to document your family elders, just like Kathy, before the stories slip away. With all that in mind, when thinking about writing an introduction for Alex, our season finale guest, we wanted to ensure that we didn't over-rotate or over narrate. You see Alex’s story is super relatable and in some ways not overly unique. What is impressive and commendable is his understanding of the effects that his story has had on his outlook, behaviour and values as a professional, a husband, a father, and simply as a human being. Take a listen.
I am a first generation Canadian in that my parents (I think that's the right terminology for it) immigrated here, right before I was born. And so, I'm technically born in Canada with Canadian citizenship. I am first and foremost, a Canadian, if you put it in those sort of technical terms. And I guess if I were to describe what my relationship with my culture has been or was for quite a long time, I’d say it wasn't particularly a positive one.
In fact, I'd say on my worst days, there was probably a lot of self-loathing, there was probably a lot of shame for who I was and where I'm from and who my parents were. A lot of that is a circumstance of being a Korean family, living in rural Ontario, that owned and operated the convenience store.
And there was this really sort of deeply rooted racist upbringing that I experienced for quite a bit of my formative life. And it doesn't help to be one of three Asian families in a 50 kilometer or a hundred kilometer radius.
My brother and I were the first Asian students at our grade school, literally ever in its existence. At the end of the day, it should go without saying that we lived a life that was kind of coloured by almost every shade of racism that you can think of. From the really blatant stuff, from being profiled by police officers or subversive microaggressions….which at the time we didn't necessarily understand nor have the right words to articulate what they were. But we lived through that. It was a very much a lived experience for quite a bit of my youth. I won't necessarily go into what those racist acts were and what I went through on the day to day, because the acts themselves aren't necessarily important for this conversation. But I will say those circumstances kind of fundamentally shaped or reshaped my values, wants and desires as a person and as a visible minority. I had grown up wanting to become and desperately wishing to be white. And I wholly rejected my Korean identity. Everything about being Korean, I hated, and I didn't want anything to do with it. And you could call that whitewashing. But in hindsight, I probably call it something more sinister and I call it assimilation. I adopted white mannerisms and still to this day, use a lot of very white idioms and phrases, like “hang a Larry” to mean “turn left.” Like what Korean guy says that ever? I very much adopted being a white person as my identity. I exclusively wanted to eat white food. I didn't want to eat any of my mother's cooking. I even wanted to date white girls. I mean, at the time, not that I had much of a choice, that was literally the only option.
Even when I went to university, my parents would have that conversation and say “I hope you grow up wanting to marry a Korean girl or an Asian girl.” I was like, “No, man, I'm going to marry a white chick because this is the new world that you brought me into. Therefore, I'm going to adapt and be that guy.” But the problem was I wasn't, I would never be white, despite my best efforts. I think the worst part of all this is that this pursuit led to this really toxic feedback loop that reverberated out to the rest of my family. The racism that was piled on top of me resulted in me wanting to assimilate to becoming a white person and doing all these things to be white and sort of erasing my cultural identity.
It affected how my parents viewed themselves. It affected their confidence and affected their belief in who they were. It affected my brother's belief in who he was. And in retrospect, I could see my parents giving up their Korean identity too, because I kept echoing to them. “You brought me to this rural area, you brought me to this new sort of white world. Therefore we need to be more white” and if I think back, I can see them sort of giving up a lot of these points of identity, like being a Korean, like the food. We stopped eating Korean food for quite a long time.
We almost exclusively moved to the English language for quite a while. And we speak “Konglish” now, Korean English combined. I forced them to do all these things. It wasn't something that I'm necessarily proud of now when I look back at it. I think it shows you there's this really sort of negative relationship that I had with my culture growing up and it just persisted for the better part of 10 years. Shades of this was my experience for a while and it wasn’t until maybe the final years of university where things started to get a little better.
I went to Queens, AKA the whitest school in the country. I think you can see quite an obvious pattern for me. And after graduating and moving to Toronto, it wasn't really until I met my wife that a true cultural identity Renaissance took place.
Here I am a Korean guy who has rejected everything about himself. Wanting to sort of assimilate to being white. And then here's my wife who grew up in Toronto surrounded by friends who looked like her, who come from the same place as her, who are Chinese, who speak the same language, with the same sort of lived experience. She too experienced shades of racism throughout her life as all visible minorities do, but not to the extent that I did. And when I injected my own life into the way she was living, I felt a comfort in wanting to reestablish and reclaim elements of my Korean identity, elements of my Korean background, and make it more of who I am; and kind of do the “reverse judo” move for now rejecting whiteness.
A lot of that reversal is still quite new to me. The past four or five years are probably my reclamation or this Renaissance has been happening. And it's been a steep climb. Before it was maybe pockets of activity here and there, but now it's more of a hockey stick. And it has sort of skyrocketed with everything that's happening in the world with the media finally spending more money and time covering visible minorities. Not just in the news, but in entertainment and everywhere. With the representation, I feel much more comfortable and it's helped me shed quite a toxic piece of baggage that I've been carrying for quite some time.
I feel like talking about this stuff is always so cathartic. Because it's so hard to talk about reclaiming cultural identity, especially with people who may not understand your lived experience. I think just being able to share that publicly…..maybe someone will be able to connect with it. Maybe someone will be able to relate with it through….certainly not the same details, but through like the same broad strokes. It’s a really key point for me and this idea of hearing other people say it, or seeing other people living the same thing. When Kim's Convenience was a play….that for me was a huge inflection point for me because I saw my life on the stage. I literally saw everything from my childhood, from the dynamic between my family, the dynamic between people outside my family, owning a convenience store and all this confluence of events and factors and things unfolding in front of me. And I was like, that is my life...someone has lived this before. I feel seen. I don't feel alone anymore. And I think that ultimately gave me so much more confidence to say. I can do this. I can feel comfortable with who I am. I can feel comfortable with this experience of learning for the first time who I should have always been and who I was meant to be. And all those things that I felt ashamed of before I no longer have to, because it's not an isolated thing. I'm so glad that it's not something that I'm going through by myself, because loneliness is ultimately the thing I feel hurts. So many people hold onto their identity. When you feel like you're doing it by yourself, it feels like you have the weight of the world on you. And that's not a nice feeling.
Oh wow. Alex has always been a straight shooter, but his level of awareness, honesty and reflection surprised even me. And I love what he said about seeing evidence in the world of his story and how it invited him to experience safety and explore his culture as part of his identity.
He then shared a realization that was so simple yet, so impactful and puts a spotlight on how important his name is to one's identity beyond just being a label.
My Instagram handle for a very long time used to be @Troy_Aleksander. When you actually spell it out, it's Troy, T R O Y, and Aleksander spelled like a Russian and the reason why I did that is because growing up a lot of people could not pronounce my name and they messed up my name quite a bit. And when you look at Choi, C H O I… you actually think how the hell do you screw that up? There are maybe two or three permutations of that that I could forgive. But at the end of the day, there have been enough Koreans out in the world and if you watch golf, there's Anthony Kim. Sure his name is easier, but wouldn’t you put Choi in there? I think KJ Choi, I think that's another golf player. My name is out there. It's not that hard to figure out and I started to get a little angry about this.
People were just saying, “Oh Choi, oh, I can't say that. The way you're describing it…. I'm going to butcher it. So I'm just going to call you TROY.” Like Helen of Troy. So I had leaned into this again because I was trying to be white and because I was trying to assimilate to the people around me. And since I'm leaning into a white version of my name, let's turn my full name into another white version. So let’s use the Russian spelling of Aleksander for shits and giggles. So that was my handle and that was sort of a thing that I lived with for quite a while. Even this notion of Troy…. people's grandparents were calling me that 15 years ago. And so it's not necessarily a new thing.
Very recently and I'm ashamed about this story, but I'm going to share it anyway: An old colleague of ours...Hankyul, but her name is actually pronounced Hankyul. She's Korean and she has a very Korean name and she owns it. She's probably lived with a more sinister version of people butchering her name...where people just Anglicized it. And she's living with even other Koreans, like me, butchering her name and I did it out of true laziness. And I'm ashamed to say I would say “Hankhill” and I wouldn't use the correct pronunciation of her name.
And I thought that was so shameful and very recently, when the whole anti-Asian racism point in time where there was all this violence happening against Asians, there was a kind of a sub movement of people reclaiming the correct pronunciation of their Asian name. Or even their Asian name in general, and ditching their English name going for their true name. And then she posts the story about how she was reclaiming her name and how she explained how her name is pronounced and why it's important to her.
And I think that struck a chord with me where I was like, “I want to do the same too, because I changed the pronunciation of my name.” Ultimately I was trying to make it more convenient for people around me and to be quite blunt, I was making it convenient for white people. I didn't care or I still don't care anymore about making anything convenient for anyone outside of myself and my family and the people that I care about. That was sort of a moment in time and I said to myself very clearly, I'm no longer this person, this, Troy, I'm no longer this Aleksander.
I mean I've kept the spelling of Aleksander and the social forums because I think it's funny. I liked "k, s". But I digress. The whole point of changing Troy to Choi was that it was one of those sort of big steps in changing how I thought about my name.
Which is something that a lot of people grapple with. Names are such an important part of who you are. Even now, when I meet with someone, I don't know how to pronounce their name. I make sure I spend the time. Even if it takes out five minutes of a 30 minute meeting, I will make sure I get it right.
What Alex shares next speaks to the depth of his introspection and his level of understanding and appreciation for his culture and its role in his life.
A thing that to me has helped me remember this pursuit that I'm going through and be a constant reminder of this evolution that I'm going through….I got a tattoo about a year and a half ago, maybe a little longer than that, on my arm.
It’s a smoking tiger and it's done in a traditional Korean folk art style called Minhwa. I'm butchering this pronunciation because my Korean is awful. So if there's any Korean listening, please don't kill me! What this tattoo ultimately symbolizes to me are two things:
One, the Minhwa art style is specifically a folk art style that was epitomized by all these images and artistic depictions done by unknown artists of very little professional training. It is very much like figuring it out as you go and you're just doing it. It's like the people's art.
And the image itself, the tiger smoking, is representative of an age old saying kind of like how people say, “once upon a time”. The Korean version of that is “when tigers used to smoke”. And I think when you combine those two things, I don't really have any formal training or formal background in how the fuck I'm going to figure out how to be a Korean, but I'm going to figure it out, and I'm going to go as far back as humanly possible to figure out who I am as a Korean and what that means to me.
And what elements of that Korean life I wanted to continue to bring into the future. So it's a representation of my journey. I will literally have for the rest of my life, unless, you know, someone slices a piece of skin off or I get laser removal! I think it is a constant reminder to keep reclaiming who I am.
Alex's story about his Instagram handle and the meaningful tattoo are pure irrefutable evidence that Alex is at the height of his journey and what an awesome journey he is on just in time to make an impact on how he and his wife are raising their daughter. I asked Alex one last question. “What advice would you give to others who are seeking to connect with their culture?” And he painted a picture of the attitude that one could take when starting to do so.
I'm not going to say that everyone had the same lived experience as me, but if there was something that you grew up feeling ashamed of, or grew up feeling that, you don't enjoy this part of who you are, where you're from because of how others used to react to it.
A very prime example of that would be your kimchi fridge. I'm sure a lot of people who have a kimchi fridge and had friends come over, would be like, “what is that ungodly smell?” To catalog all of those things (and I had used this terminology before) but do a reverse judo move on it now in your adult life.
Take everything that you were ashamed of to date, everything that you hid from and own it and make it the thing where you're going to carry it with pride, carry it unabashedly. Kind of force it onto other people that might've otherwise shamed you for it. So if in the alternate universe of people were like, “what is that smell? Your Korean fridge is gross with all the kimchi.” I was like, well, “Hey, get the hell out of my house and beat it. Right. And so like, if you don't like it, go to your house where you smell no food because you eat boring ass crap”. It is literally just like an over-correct.
And I think that to me….I mean….that's a bit of an aggressive approach, but that is a very sort of “Alex approach”, for those of you who don't know me but it's those sorts of things. So next time I'll serve kimchi if I have a dinner party and I'll find those moments of self-inflicted shame and ultimately completely change the narrative. That's been sort of baked into my head and I think that's, ultimately one of the best ways to embrace it in my mind.
Alex's journey can be nicely summarized as “From hanging a Larry to a reverse judo move” and in more direct terms from racism and rejection to acceptance, celebration and over-correction. We are excited to continue following Alex from this newer, richer vantage point, super proud of our friend and a million thank yous to Alex.
Well, that's it folks. Season One is in the books. Pure gratitude to you for listening, for your feedback and sharing your stories as a result of our guests, this season lending us their voices, their stories, their hearts, as a way to inspire others.
Planning for Season Two is well underway. And we would love to hear from you . If you'd like us to cover a topic, you have an idea for an episode or simply want to share your story, please don't hesitate to reach out.
AND if you haven't heard yet, we are in the midst of launching something super special for our community to start collecting, documenting and sharing their stories of heritage, culture, family, and tradition, and the root and seed conversation tool. Go to rootandseed.com to learn more and to join our waitlist today. Bye for now.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra. Executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU