Being Half Asian in Korea


Half-Asians have a spider sense for other half-Asians.

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, makes someone “look” half-Asian. I’ve met halfies with pale skin and dark skin, straight black hair and curly light-brown hair and everything in between. Yet, somehow, we can always find each other in a crowd.

That’s why, when a skinny girl with long brown hair sat in the first row of my third-grade English class during my first week as a teacher, I knew she was like me.

I did my introduction lesson, explaining that I was half American and half Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but easy enough for the kids to grasp). In every class, without fail, this part of my presentation was met with astonished interjections and expressions of disbelief (“OOOAAAAA, TEACHER!!! SO COOL!!”) When I explained that I was American, the girl in the front nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.

At the end of the class, she ran up to me.

“My dad’s American too!” she said in perfect albeit high-pitched English.

“That’s so cool!” I said, bending down slightly so I was at her height. It occurred to me that this little girl was the only person in school I didn’t have to water-down my words for. My Korean co-teachers often went on about how clearly I spoke English (“Just like our textbook CD’s!”) and I wondered if they knew that that wasn’t how I normally spoke.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name’s Hailey,” she said.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hailey,” I said. She smiled and waved, then bowed for good measure, before running off to her friends.

She was the only biracial kid I’d seen in the school. She seemed well-adjusted enough, talking easily in Korean with the other kids.

I realized that I might have been the only other half-white-half-Asian person she’d ever met. This seemed even more likely when my co-teacher came up to me a few days later and said:

“Hailey is always very excited to see you. I can understand her feelings.”

“I’m excited too,” I said, sweating a little when I realized that I’d inevitably and involuntarily become somewhat of a biracial role model for this girl. I just wasn’t sure if:

a) she needed one in the first place

b) I was good enough to be the kind of role model she deserved

But, while I still had a lot to figure out, I’d definitely learned a thing or two about being half-white-half-Asian in my 22 (23 in Korean age, kill me now) years of life. Now that I was in Korea, I was gaining a more nuanced understanding of my race every day.

Top Things I’ve Learned About Being Biracial in Korea


  1. People don’t stare at you

“People will stare at you,” they told me. My Korean teacher told me. My interviewer told me. My friends told me.

Except… no one really does.

I live in an area of Seoul with very few foreigners, so foreigners are kind of like unicorns. But most of the time it seems like the Koreans here could not care less about my foreigner status.

Even when I twisted my ankle while trying to cross a stream and nearly tumbled three feet down into wet water and rocks, letting out an undignified squeal, none of the Koreans around me so much as glanced in my direction.

After years of being told how white I looked by other Asian people, this is still surprising to me. I hadn’t been worried, because I’d never really fit in anywhere my entire life. People in America never actuallyย staredย at me in the street, but I’d heard more than once at school from a near-stranger “Oh, I’ve seen you around campus. You look very… unique.”

I know that I do. Even among half-white-half-Asian people, there’s no one who really looks like me. But I got over my angst about that somewhere in high school. It’s a part of my reality and my identity. Being different is nothing new for me, so I was ready for the stares.

But they never came.

Maybe I look “Asian enough” from a distance. Whatever it is, I’ll admit that, at times, it’s nice to blend in.

2. People overestimate your Asian-ness

It was 7pm on a Tuesday. My friends and I had stopped by a bakery that smelled like literal heaven. I was with two people: Veronica (who is white) and Nadea (who is black). None of us are particularly good at Korean. I have two semesters of college Korean under my belt, while Nadea has a year of self-study and Veronica has been diligently working through the Korean alphabet for a month.

Nadea approached the vendor and tried to ask if the bread on the menu was sweet.

The woman blinked slowly and stared at Nadea, expression unchanged. The classic Korean I-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying-so-I-will-stare-at-you-until-you-do-something-else look. Nadea repeated the question with slightly different wording, only to be met with the same look.

Then, the woman turned to me.

What is she saying?” she asked me in Korean.

I froze. “Ummm… she…. uhhh….”

I fumbled for words, making another attempt at phrasing Nadea’s question differently, only to be hit with more questions in Korean, still directed at me. I wanted to scream “What makes you think I have any idea how to say this?!

We got the bread eventually. Nadea was satisfied. I was a bit flustered.

3. People Underestimate Your Asian-ness

“You’re very good at using chopsticks,” my co-teacher, Seung-Jin, said at lunch. “Did you practice a lot?”

“Umm…” I covered my mouth and finished chewing my jap-chae, “I didn’t really… practice?”


“So you tried for the first time in Korea?” she gasped.

“No, I mean, I used chopsticks in America.”


“I mean, not for like, pizza and stuff. Just for Asian food. My grandmother taught me.”

I remembered sitting at a table in my grandmother’s house with a cup of dried beans on my left and an empty cup on my right. My grandmother put a pair of chopsticks in front of me and told me to move all the beans to the empty cup. While excruciating at the time, I’m forever grateful to her for this lesson.

“My grandmother is Japanese,” I reminded Seung-Jin.

“Ah, right,” she said. Because it was easy to forget that about me, I supposed.

4. People Make Weird Comments About You


I don’t mean offensive, I just mean… weird. Such as:

Is that your real hair color? Umm, yes. But it’s so dark. … I’m sorry about that?

Are you wearing colored lenses? No. Your eyes are so interesting. They’re brown. Yes yes but a lighter brown.

My favorite comment came when sitting at a restaurant with a Korean guy who quickly made his way to my “blocked numbers” list:

“Your nose is beautiful,” he said.

I paused before the ddeokbokki on my chopsticks could reach my lips.

“My nose?” I said, conscious of how oily my nose probably was and uncomfortable with him scrutinizing it so intensely.

“Yes. Many Korean people want your nose.”

“It’s my mom’s nose,” I said slowly. “It’s a Chinese nose.” Had he really never seen a Chinese person before? Maybe it was different seeing the nose slapped on a face with “white” bone structure.


“It’s beautiful,” he said. He brought up my nose seemingly every ten minutes. I started to wonder if he had a nose fetish. I didn’t meet him again.

5. Some People Will Never Accept You

“And who knows a word starting with ‘D’?” I asked my third-graders.

Hailey raised her hand and stood up. “Doll,” she said confidently.

The boys behind her started snickering. “Oeguk-in” they said. Foreigner.

She looked down at the floor and said nothing. My co-teacher looked at the boys disapprovingly and handed them extra sheets of homework as punishment. For the next few minutes, Hailey stared at her desk, shoulders hunched over.

I wanted to yell at the boys, to tell them that Hailey was just as Korean as them, that insulting her was insulting me.

More than that, I wanted to tell Hailey not to listen to them.

I wanted to tell her that for years, wherever I went, people on both sides of my heritage also told me I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t welcome. I wanted to tell her that I’d spent nights crying because I thought I’d never be “enough” for anyone.

But I’d learned, day by day, that no one else could tell me who I was. I’d learned that being an outsider is a privilege because belonging nowhere is also belonging everywhere once you stop caring what people think. I’d learned how special and beautiful I was, how blessed I was to be part of two worlds, to be unique, to have this kind of empathy for outcasts and willingness to explore new cultures.

But, in the end I said nothing.

It wasn’t my place to discipline the kids in a language I could barely speak, and I couldn’t embarrass Hailey in the middle of class.

Class ended and the kids ran out. I saw Hailey eating lunch with her friends, laughing and looking like nothing had happened.

But I knew that she hadn’t forgotten what the boys said and she probably never would. I knew that she’d save every one of those comments somewhere dark and deep inside of her. I knew that her life was going to get harder as she got older, but I also knew that she would be okay, that she would love herself and find people who loved her not as Korean or American but as Hailey.

I hoped that one day, with or without me in her life, she would understand the words I never said.

10 thoughts on “Being Half Asian in Korea

  1. Wow Kylie, I really enjoyed this post and reading about these eye-opening experiences you’ve had! I’m glad you’re still writing because I feel like I’m getting to follow you through this journey with you ๐Ÿ™‚ looking forward to the next one!



  2. Spidey senses indeed =). I’m so glad to connect with other people with similar experiences to me. I have one that is slightly different… Whenever I go back to Taiwan I do get a lot of stares, but to be honest, I think most people don’t care and will just go about their day… I’m glad I found your blog. This has inspired to consider writing about my own experiences =).We gotta stick together!


      1. Agreed. My Mum told me that there was this boy in my primary school who was like us but denied it and said he was white…well, because kids are cruel to things that are different… I don’t remember this person at all, but growing up in NZ, there really weren’t many people of mixed heritage. I’m always so happy to come across a familiar face if you know what I mean =). I might start drafting it up soon, I expect it will take a while to put my thoughts in writing and decide what I want to include. I look forward to your stories about Korea! It’s one of the places I’d like to visit one day!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ” Iโ€™d learned that being an outsider is a privilege because belonging nowhere is also belonging everywhere once you stop caring what people think” <—- I relate to this so much. This is what I have been telling myself as well. I am mixture of african and arab, and all my life, until today I have felt like an outsider from both sidea as well. It has been hard but I have learnt to accept and love myself. Thanks for sharing, its great knowing that there are people out tbere who feel exactly the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Kylie,

    First off, I read both “Aurora’s End” and “Voltage,” and you are an amazing writer. Seriously, congratulations on being so skilled at writing. I love your entire Korea blog in general.

    Second, I’m so happy after reading your post because I FINALLY know someone else who’s had a similiar experience to mine. I am half Korean and half Irish, (I’ll get more specifics if I ever have $200 lying around ๐Ÿ˜) and growing up I had more contact with my Korean side, even though I never learned to speak any of the language, the downside of my upbringing in a VERY white area. Seriously, like 98% of my town is white/European. There are a few Asians and Hispanics mixed in, but very few. I’ve struggled with my biracial identity for a long time.

    Anyways, Kylie, I’m sorry for rambling on and on about my life and making this comment be WAY longer than it needs to be. I just wanted to ask you a question. How did you overcome all these struggles? How did you witness all this prejudice and keep going? Whenever I hear about Asian American discrimination in the news, it’s like my heart breaks a little. There are racists in my town too, if my parents’ Facebook feeds can be believed. I realize you say that being mixed is a blessing, but I’m really not sure.

    (Also, while we’re on the topic of biracial people with Asian heritage, have you heard of an actress named Chloe Bennet? She’s like a goddess.)

    A Nervous Biracial Girl


    1. First of all, thank you so much for saying such kind things about my writing ๐Ÿ™‚ It means a lot more than you probably realize.

      I don’t know if I’d say that I’ve “overcome” the challenges of being biracial or racism towards Asian people. Other people’s comments still hurt me, and they probably always will. But the difference between my feelings now and when I was younger is that now I know who I am, and I know that no one else’s words can change that. Strangely, I reached that point by studying Chinese very hard to make myself feel “Asian enough” but realized that no matter how many words I learned, the Chinese students at my school were still going to see me as white. Learning that you can’t change people’s minds is sad but also liberating. I realized that nothing I did would meet everyone’s expectations, so I might as well stop trying and just do what I want.

      I’m sorry if that’s not a particularly helpful answer. But the truth is that there’s nothing I could possibly write that could convince you that being biracial is a blessing. It’s something you have to decide (or not) for yourself. Things that have also helped me along the way are writing, and surrounding myself with people who see me as Kylie, not as one race or another. But it’s also ok to not have everything figured out yet, or to not like your identity sometimes. I’m still figuring things out and probably always will be.

      It sounds like part of your question is also dealing with racism against Asian people, not only biracial people. Accepting that the world is full of terrible people is still something that I’m working on. I think all that we can do is channel our anger into something positive. For me, that’s writing. I’m trying to get more (positive, not stereotypical) representation of both Asian and biracial people in today’s YA lit scene. For you, it might be something different.

      I hope at least some of this was helpful for you! Thank you again for this comment, and I hope everything goes well for you in the future.

      And Chloe Bennet is indeed a goddess ๐Ÿ™‚


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