Half and Half: An (Auto)ethnography
of Hybrid Identities in a Korean
Stephanie L. Young
This essay focuses on how immigrant mothers and second generation interracial daughters
construct, perform, and negotiate racial and ethnic hybrid identities. Placing my mother’s
experiences in dialogue with my own experiences, I (auto)ethnographically examine how we
navigate our mother-daughter relationship and intercultural and interracial identities in
relation to discourses of Asian American-ness. I identify three sites for identity formation:
location, language, and the dialectical tension of assimilation-preservation. I argue that the
enactment of a racial self is not always a conscious part of one’s identity. Rather, we each enact
racialized cultural identities that are contextually performed and continuously shifting.
Keywords: Hybridity; Mother-Daughter Relationships; Identity; Autoethnography;
‘‘I’m so happy for you, but part of me is so sad,’’ said my mom on the phone. ‘‘I
must be very selfish mother, I guess.’’
‘‘No mom, you’re not selfish. It’s normal to feel that way. Suzy told me her mom
felt the same way when she got engaged.’’
‘‘It’s different now, you know? Losing a part of you. But Jeremy is a very sweet boy.
When he talked with Daddy and me, do you know what he said?’’
‘‘She will always be your daughter.’’
Stephanie L. Young is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University, USA.
The author would like to thank William K. Rawlins, Benjamin R. Bates, and the anonymous reviewers for their
encouragement and assistance with this article. The author would especially like to thank her mother for
contributing her life stories to this project. Correspondence to: School of Communication Studies, Ohio
University, Athens, OH 45701, USA. Email: email@example.com
ISSN 1751-3057 (print)/ISSN 1751-3065 (online) #2009 National Communication Association
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication
Vol. 2, No. 2, May 2009, pp. 139167
Extensive Asian American scholarship has focused on the experiences of first and
second generation Asian American women (Chow, 1998, 2005; H. J. Kim, 1991; K. C.
Kim & Hurh, 1987; S. D. Kim, 1979; Moon, 2003; Nam, 2001; Shin, 1987; Srole, 1987;
Yu & Phillips, 1987). In particular, the mother-daughter relationship has been a
primary area of study (Chow, 1998; Ho, 2000; Suh, 2007). The cultural challenges,
emotional bonds, and collective experiences that Asian American mothers and
daughters share also have been highlighted in popular literary works such as
Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1977), Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), and Ng’s Bone
However, little literature has focused specifically on the rising population of second
generation Asian American daughters who are biracial (products of interracial
marriages) and how the mother-daughter relationship plays a significant role in the
construction of their gender, racial, and cultural and ethnic identities. Although
studies have examined how children of interracially married couples self-identify
their racial identity (Bratter, 2007; Brunsma, 2005; Luke & Luke, 1999; Qian, 2004;
Rockquemore, Laszloffy, & Noveske, 2006; Saenz, Hwang, Aguirre, & Anderson, 1995;
Xie & Goyette, 1997) and how interracial individuals negotiate moments of racial
rupturing and disjunction (Arboleda, 1998; Lewis, 2006; Satris, 1995; Wolfman,
1995), what remains largely absent in these discussions is the dynamic of the mother-
daughter relationship. Indeed, the mother-daughter bond presents important
moments in the development of a daughter’s understanding of her gendered self
(Hirsch, 1981; Suh, 2007). Both mothers and daughters face a number of
intercultural challenges (Chow, 1998; Suh, 2007), yet little discussion addresses
how first generation Korean American mothers and their second generation,
interracial Korean American daughters negotiate their hyphenated identities.
In this essay, I explore how hybrid identities are communicatively negotiated
within the mother-daughter relationship. Specifically, I examine how my mother, as a
first generation Korean American immigrant, and I, as a second generation interracial
Korean American, navigate our intercultural and interracial identities within our
relationship. I argue that (1) location, (2) language, and (3) the dialectical tension of
assimilation-preservation are three significant sites of identity formation where our
hybrid identities are negotiated within the mother-daughter relationship. By recalling
conversations with my mother and probing her narrative experiences in dialogue
with my own, I (auto)ethnographically examine how we collaboratively perform our
different Korean American identities.
In the next section, I briefly review literature on hybridity and two forms of hybrid
identities*the biracial or interracial identity and the immigrant identity. Then, I
explain how (auto)ethnography provides scholars with a narrative methodological
approach for exploring identity construction. Third, I examine three major sites of
identity formation and negotiation that emerge from our mother-daughter story-
sharing sessions. Finally, I conclude with recommendations for future research.
140 S. L. Young
Sociologist Hall (1996) notes that cultural identities emerge within discourses of
culture and history. In terms of identity, hybridity implies a blending of cultures and
represents a coexistence of difference in which new structures and perspectives
emerge (Garcia Canclini, 1995). As Sakamoto (1996) explains, ‘‘giving up the desire
for a pure origin, hybridity retains a sense of difference and tension between two
cultures but without assuming hierarchy. It is not just a new identity but a new form
of identity’’ (pp. 115116). This cultural dialectic is also noted in the writings of
Russian philosopher and literary scholar Bakhtin (1981), who explains that the
not only double-voiced and double-accented (as in rhetoric) but is also double-
languaged; for in it there are not only (and not even so much) two individual
consciousnesses, two voices, two accents, as there are two socio-linguistic
consciousnesses, two epochs, that, true, are not here unconsciously mixed ... but
that come together and consciously fight it out in the territory of the utterance ...
it is the collision between differing points of views on the world ...they are
pregnant with potential for new world views. (p. 360)
Here, Bakhtin notes the ‘‘double-ness’’ of two merging perspectives or ‘‘voices’’ that
the hybrid identity inhabits as well as the capacity for ‘‘new world views’’ to emerge.
Indeed, hybridity is a creative ‘‘third space’’ (Bhabha, 1991; Bolatagici, 2004; Luke &
Luke, 1999; Sakamoto, 1996). The hybrid identity is one in which the individual lives
in a ‘‘liminal space’’ that is ‘‘neither here nor there,’’ ‘‘betwixt and between’’ (Turner,
1974, p. 85). Turner (1969) observes that those who exist in this liminal space ‘‘are
necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through
the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural
space’’ (p. 95). Hybrid individuals exist within an interracial, interethnic, and/or
international location, an ‘‘in-between’’ space where one may construct and
reconstruct, collaborate, and contest one’s identity (Bhabha, 1991).
Hybrid identity is considered indefinable, embodying multiple positionalities that
emerge in moments of change. Such identities are continuously being made and
remade through social interactions. Indeed, hybrid identity involves ongoing
intertextual performances in which persons continually select and discard identity
fragments (Broadhurst, 1999; see also, Edwards, Ganguly, & Lo, 2007). One may
choose to perform one identity in one specific setting, another identity in another
setting, or both simultaneously.
As feminist scholar Anzaldu
´a (1990b) maintains, hybridization means combining
to create a new space, an ‘‘act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has
produced both a creature of darkness, a creature of light, but also a creature that
questions the definitions of light and gives them new meaning’’ (p. 380). A hybrid
identity blurs categorical boundaries of identity construction. Indeed, one who holds
a hybrid identity may take up a ‘‘mestiza consciousness’’ that ‘‘breaks down the
subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner’’ and thereby transcend duality
´a, 1990b, p. 379). Rather than being a ‘‘fixed self,’’ one’s identity is a fluid
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 141
and continuous process of being and becoming. As Qian and Lichter (2007) point
out, ‘‘race/ethnicity is a socially constructed boundary that can be ‘crossed,’ ‘blurred,’
or ‘shifted’ over time or across generations’’ (p. 70). Choosing to enact a mestiza
identity, therefore, means recognizing that one’s racial, ethnic, and national identities
span cultural boundaries.
Most literature examining hybrid identities concentrates on the experiences of
biracial or interracial persons who are situated between racial boundaries (Alcoff,
2005; Arboleda, 1998; Gaskins, 1999; Khanna, 2004; Lewis, 2006; Root, 1992, 1996;
Satris, 1995; Wolfman, 1995; Xie & Goyette, 1997; Zack, 1995). With approximately
6.8 million people reported as ‘‘mixed race’’ in the 2000 U.S. Census (U.S. Census
Bureau, 2001), there is a need to examine the growing population of interracial
individuals and how they negotiate their hybrid identities and problematize racial
categories. Since Asian Americans have the highest rate of marriage outside their
racial or ethnic group (i.e., outmarriage) of any racial minority, interracial Asian
Americans make up a significant portion of this growing interracial population
(Khanna, 2004; Kitano, Yeung, Chai, & Hatanaka, 1984; S. M. Lee & Yamanaka, 1990;
Pascoe, 1991; Williams-Leo
Although scholars primarily have focused on the mestizo/mestiza or mixed-blood
identity (Alcoff, 1995; Anzaldu
´a, 1990a, 1990b; Castillo, 1990; Rodriguez, 1991),
hybrid identities are not limited to biracial or interracial individuals. The immigrant
identity is another form of hybridity, an identity of acculturation in which there is a
‘‘merging of cultures, a type of harmony in which individuals create their own unique
identities’’ (J. E. Kim, 2004, p. 280). Although one’s hybrid identity may be
‘‘harmonious’’ and ‘‘unique,’’ the immigrant individual continuously negotiates the
tension between larger cultural discourses of social identity and individual, self-
constituting understandings of self (see Brah, 1996; Hall, 1994; Luke & Luke, 1999).
For example, Vo˜ and Sciachitano (2000) examine how Asian American women resist
racist and imperialistic discourses that reinforce stereotypes of female Asian identity
(e.g., whore, dragon woman, China doll, exotic).
The hybrid immigrant identity highlights the mixing of cultures that constitutes a
significant part of U.S. history. In fact, the mythos of the ‘‘American dream’’ is largely
based upon images of the immigrant migrating to the United States in pursuit of a
better life and adopting a new identity as ‘‘an American.’’ However, the hyphenated
labels that immigrants possess such as Asian American, Mexican American, or Korean
American suggest a combining of two cultural worlds and, simultaneously, two
cultures in binary opposition (Luke & Luke, 1999). The immigrant identity, then, can
be recognized as an intercultural identity. Such individuals continuously perform
balancing acts between two cultures*sustaining the traditions and cultural practices
of their country of origin while simultaneously adopting foreign customs in an
attempt to survive in their ‘‘new’’ country. Moreover, the immigrant identity
exemplifies Bakhtin’s ‘‘two voices, two accents’’ of hybridity since persons must learn
a second language (to assimilate into their new culture) and develop the ability to
code-switch between these two languages (see Anzaldu
142 S. L. Young
While racial and ethnic identities are situated within a network of social, political,
historical and cultural factors, a primary way to understand ourselves is through and
in relation with others (Olson, 2004). For example, when investigating interracial
Asian white individuals, Khanna (2004) found that the strongest factor influencing a
person’s racial identity is phenotype (physical appearance). That is, how one self-
identifies with an Asian identity is shaped by how others racially identify the
individual through visual cues of Asian-ness (e.g., our almond eyes, olive skin, dark
However, racial identity based upon skin color is but one portion of how
interracial Asian Americans communicatively construct and negotiate their hybrid
selves. While an interracial Asian American identity provides a critical site for
investigating the complexities of racial categorization and racial identity construc-
tions, it also provides a unique intersection of how intercultural identities are
communicatively created and performed. Much biracial literature has assumed a
common language, geography, and/or culture shared between mothers and daughters
(Alcoff, 1995; Brunsma, 2005; Gaskins, 1999; Lewis, 2006; Twine, 1996). Asian
American biracial daughters, however, must not only negotiate their racial identities,
but also cultural and generational differences with their mothers. As Lowe (1996)
the Asian-origin collectivity is unstable and changeable, with its cohesion
complicated by intergenerationality, by various degrees of identification with and
relation to a ‘‘homeland,’’ and by different extents of assimilation to and distinction
from ‘‘majority culture’’ in the United States. (p. 66)
Acknowledging Khanna’s research, I suggest that one’s primary caregiver (e.g.,
mother) is an especially important factor in shaping how interracial individuals
racially and culturally understand themselves. Through reflected appraisals (i.e., our
interpretation of assessments made by others) experienced from our mothers, we
come to know ourselves. While an exploration of my relationship with my brother
(who is also biracial), my father (who is a natural-born ‘‘white’’ American), or my
grandmother (who is of Danish descent) would be interesting, I focus on my
relationship with my mother. As my primary caregiver, I believe that my mother has
had (and continues to have) the most impact on the formation of my hybrid
identities. Therefore, I concentrate upon my crucial mother-daughter relationship in
exploring how hybrid identities are constructed, negotiated, performed, and
One crucial approach to understanding ourselves is by analyzing how we talk about
ourselves in relation to each other. As Hall (1994) suggests, cultural identity is ‘‘not
an essence but a positioning [italics in original]’’ (p. 395). Through talk, I explore how
my mother and I position and reposition our identities and each other in multiple
contexts, allowing certain parts of hybrid identities to emerge and other parts to be
hidden. In the next section, I explain how an (auto)ethnographic approach using
personal narrative offers vital practices for pursuing such understandings.
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 143
As a second generation interracial daughter of a white American father and an
immigrant Korean American mother, I investigate how my mother and I co-construct
and perform our identities. I employ an (auto)ethnographic approach that involves
integrating my mother’s personal narratives with my own. In this essay, I attempt to
explore my racial or ethnic identity through and with my mother. Unlike traditional
autoethnography that focuses primarily on the researcher as researched subject (Ellis &
Bochner, 2000), I expand to include my mother as aco-researched subject. Through our
everyday conversations, informal interviews, and my personal reflections, our hybrid
subjectivities narratively emerge.
In this essay, I dialogically juxtapose my mother’s personal narratives with my own
storied experiences. The narratives represented in the essay are composite stories,
culled from conversations with my mother throughout my life. Some conversations
took place over the phone while others were face-to-face. Many have been told and
retold in different contexts. In these stories, my mother recalls particular moments in
her life when she negotiated and performed different Korean American selves.
Drawing on these conversations, I reconstruct her narratives to ‘‘bring order to our
experiences and help us to view our lives both subjectively and objectively at the same
time while assisting us in forming our identities’’ (Atkinson, 2004, p. 122). While this
narrative process is one of collaboration (Kauffman, 1992), I recognize my mother’s
narrative agency in that she selects, organizes and rhetorically shares her stories with
me. My mother presents a self in these narratives that is consistent with her role as
mother. At the same time, I am attentive to how our mother-daughter relationship
both enables and constrains what stories will be shared between us. Our intimate
connection allows me access to certain stories that would otherwise be untold.
Simultaneously, I recognize my privileged role as researcher in these conversations.
My positionality as a scholar informs my recollections of our talks and my readings of
these narratives that may not function the same for my mother. In this
(auto)ethnography, I renarratize my mother’s stories. Similar to Tan’s (2006) short
story, ‘‘Mother Tongue,’’ I attempt to reconstruct my mother’s voice in the ‘‘broken
English’’ that is familiar to me. Indeed, the narrative sections presented embody
Bakhtin’s ‘‘double-voicedness’’ where my mother’s voice and my voice merge and
reemerge. Through these recollected narratives, I explore how we narratively move in
and out, between and across different sites of our hybrid identities.
Along with the conversations with my mother, I reflect upon my own experiences
as a Korean American daughter. This allows me to better understand how I form my
identities through social interactions and relationships. This autoethnographic
approach utilizes the self-narrative or autobiographical voice (Gergen & Gergen,
1997) and entails an ‘‘ethnographic gaze inward on the self (auto), while maintaining
the outward gaze of ethnography, looking at the larger context where self experiences
occur’’ (Denzin, 1997, p. 277). Autoethnography provides a rich space for exploring
the individual’s experiences in conjunction with sociocultural issues. As such, it can
be considered a form of ‘‘‘ethnic autobiography,’ personal narratives written by
144 S. L. Young
members of ethnic minority groups and ‘autobiographical ethnography’ in which
researchers interject personal experiences into ethnographic writings’’ (Reed-
Danahay, 1997, p. 2). In fact, Ellis and Bochner (2000) argue that personal narrative
is a mode of inquiry that provides insight into larger social, political, historical and
cultural structures and represents an epistemological and methodological shift
towards exploring lived experiences. Autoethnography emphasizes ‘‘how subjects
are constituted in and by their relations to each other’’ (Pratt, 1992, p. 7).
Scholars specifically interested in Asian American studies have utilized narrative
and autoethnography to address larger sociopolitical and historical issues such as
invisibility, collective identity, cultural assimilation, familial relationships, and
constructions of Asian American-ness (Chow, 1998, 2005; E. H. Kim & Yu, 1996;
J. E. Kim, 2004; S. D. Kim, 1979; Nam, 2001; Rhee, 2006; Thompson, 2000; Yang &
Rettig, 2004; Zia, 2000). As Ho (2000) notes, the practice of ‘‘talk story’’ is critical for
grounding the political in the personal. Ho observes that storytelling is a ‘‘significant
part of the critical construction and maintenance of identities and cultural memories
in my [one’s] family’’ (p. 14) as well as a way to ‘‘connect with another woman’s
multiple ways of being’’ (p. 27). Indeed, feminist scholars have advocated using
personal narratives in examining women’s experiences as primary centers of
knowledge and interrogating the intersections of race, gender, and class in shaping
women’s identities (Alcoff, 2005; Anzaldu
´a, 1987; Collins, 1986; Gubrium & Holstein,
1998; Haraway, 2004; Harding, 1987; Lorde, 1984).
In what follows, I reconstruct specific moments in our lives where my mother and I
have become aware of our hybrid identities. Through (auto)ethnographic narratives,
I explore our racial or ethnic identities within our mother-daughter relationship. I
describe three major sites of identity that emerge through our narrative reflections:
(1) location, (2) language, and (3) learning to negotiate the dialectical tension of
‘‘Where are you from?’’ is a familiar question for both my mother and me. Usually,
strangers who ask the question are merely curious. For my mom, people hear her
thick accent, distinguish her Asian physical attributes, and usually recognize her
immigrant identity immediately. As for myself, it’s more of a guessing game. Since I
have physical features of both my parents, I am visually ambiguous and racially
uncategorizable. I usually respond by explaining that my mom is from Korea and that
my dad is from Michigan. Or I answer, ‘‘Valparaiso, Indiana.’’ When people ask,
‘‘Where are you from?’’ I have to decide if they are asking me, ‘‘Where did you grow
up?’’ or if they mean, ‘‘What is your racial or ethnic background?’’
In Asian American studies, several scholars have addressed this recurring question
asked by strangers (Satris, 1995; Thompson, 2000; Zia, 2000). Asking ‘‘Where are you
from?’’ however, is not always about asking where one’s roots are located. In fact, ‘‘the
question, while often benign, is never completely innocent’’ (R. Lee, 1999, p. ix). As
Satris (1995) notes, ‘‘‘Where are you from?’ does not ask for a retracing of the road
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 145
that led me here; rather it presupposes that there is some one specifiable location that
I am from’’ (p. 57). I am being asked to account for myself. Nonetheless, ‘‘Where are
you from?’’ reminds us that our racial or ethnic identities are very much anchored to
Our identities are substantially shaped by where we are born as well as the places
we inhabit, experience, and call home. Geography influences our behaviors, our
attitudes, our values, who we are, and how we see ourselves. We identify with specific
places, becoming very attached to where we have resided for extended periods. ‘‘I’m
from Valparaiso.’’ ‘‘I’m from Seoul.’’ ‘‘I’m from the Midwest.’’ ‘‘I’m from Indiana.’’
Indeed, people have psychological and emotional connections to places they
experience and inhabit (Tuan, 1977); and ‘‘our sense of whom and what we are is
continually shaped and reshaped by how we feel about places and how we feel in
places [italics in original]’’ (Milligan, 2005, p. 2105). In particular, place and location
affect how we identify our ethnic and racial identities (Luke & Luke, 1999).
For my mother and I, living in the Midwest has affected how we develop, negotiate,
and maintain our racial or ethnic identities in several ways. First, living in Indiana for
my mother was initially an isolating experience. She recalls when she first became a
Honestly, at the beginning ... [sigh]. And after two babies, Dad would go to band
practice. I would have a hard time with you and Steve. Daddy never ... of course,
he was always busy with school. There wasn’t a Korean community. Not many
Korean people and no real community.
Koreans when they have baby, the mother-in-law comes to help or my parents
come help. Nobody came to help. Grandma never help anything. Never said
anything. I learned myself. Sugi [my mother’s friend] actually she came almost
everyday to help.
Stories like my mother’s are not uncommon for Korean women who married
American servicemen and immigrated to the United States. These ‘‘war brides’’ are
often alienated from both Korean American society and mainstream American
society (H. J. Kim, 1991). Being a new mother in a foreign land can be especially
challenging. As Moon (2003) notes, ‘‘the privatization of mothering was one of the
most difficult problems they [Korean women] faced in their immigrant life’’ (p. 851).
As my mother explains, new mothers in Korea traditionally are surrounded by a
network of family and friends to help them in the transition into motherhood.
Residing in Indiana, however, meant a sparse Korean American population and few
Korean women who could socially support my mom.
At the same time, separation from a larger Korean American community facilitated
her self-sufficiency. My mother explains her independent character:
Well, I am independent. I’m very different. I wasn’t scared to come to this country. I
came here by myself with a grand total of five dollars. And, honest, I tried to fit. I
was working hard. He [my father] was going to school. In the beginning, we had
nothing. We had 800 dollars. I never thought I was the luckiest woman. Actually,
Daddy was lucky to have me. And, I didn’t have many Korean friends because I was
146 S. L. Young
working. I didn’t have Korean friends because I didn’t know Korean people. I don’t
know. You working, when are you going to meet Korean people?
To survive economically, my mother entered the workforce to help support my father
while he attended graduate school. She explains that due to her work, there was very
little time to seek out other Korean Americans. Living in a small, rural city in the
Midwest, in fact, limited her potential contact with other Korean immigrants. The
combination of economic constraints with geographical factors separated my mother
from a Korean American community, yet encouraged her fierce work ethic and self-
Working with other ‘‘Americans’’ also encouraged greater assimilation into
mainstream America (i.e., white, middle class, Midwestern, individualistic). My
mother simultaneously recognizes her difference of being ‘‘Asian’’ (or ‘‘Oriental’’ in
her words) as an active inhabitant of the Midwest (a primarily ‘‘white’’ place). Thus, a
second influence of living in the Midwest has been the integration of two ethnic
identities. My mother reflects upon her hybrid, Korean American identity when
visiting Korean-centered communities:
If I go to Korea-town. Those people are real Korean people. When I look in the
mirror, I know I’m Korean, but I don’t feel. I feel like I’m different. It’s very funny
because I’m away from a lot of Korean people, the Korean community and I’m
working with American people. Mostly white people in a white people town. I feel
In this instance, my mother recalls how she felt ‘‘different’’ and identifies herself as
other from ‘‘real Korean people.’’ Instead, she feels ‘‘like American.’’ She clearly
articulates how residing in the Midwest has affected how she conceptualizes her
ethnic identity. She observes that due to her limited exposure to the Korean
community and her extensive interactions with ‘‘mostly white people in a white
people town,’’ she feels more American (i.e., ‘‘white’’) than Korean. Although she
shares the same language and physical characteristics, my mother differentiates
herself from the other Korean Americans in Korea-town.
This sense of being ‘‘different’’ indicates a hybrid identity in which one must
negotiate the boundaries between insider-outsider, same-other. In fact, my mother
feels not quite Korean (‘‘When I look in the mirror, I know I’m Korean, but I don’t
feel’’) and not quite American (‘‘like American’’) greatly due to geographic
constraints (i.e., minimal interaction with the small population of Korean Americans
residing in Indiana). Her words reflect a discourse of geography in which she is
symbolically and existentially located between the borders of insider and outsider.
While my mother articulates how her identity is a stable identity bounded by
geography (Korean or American), her words also reveal the hybridity that goes
beyond geographic borders. Indeed, we both foreground different aspects of our
identities dependent upon the contexts in which we find ourselves. While we may
both speak about our identities as stable entities, the ways in which we communicate
with one another reveal a more complex hybrid world involving both/and contra-
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 147
As a contrasting example of this liminal positionality, my mother recalls her
experience of being an insider-outsider when visiting South Korea after living in the
United States for nearly 20 years:
I feel like I’m still part of Korea. When we went to Korea, feel like this (America)
was like home. I was used to American people. When I visit Korea, it was strange,
my feelings. I feel like I’m a visitor to my own country. Just feel like I was a visitor.
Didn’t feel like I was home. I want to go live there again, but after I went there, it
was different. I think, I’ve changed, not Korea.
Here, she describes how residing within the United States for almost 20 years has
changed her national and ethnic identities. Although my mother feels like she is ‘‘still
part of Korea,’’ she also senses that she is ‘‘a visitor’’ to her land of origin. America has
become ‘‘like home’’ while South Korea has transformed into a place that is ‘‘strange’’
and ‘‘different.’’ Similar to experiences in Korea-town, my mother emotes a hybrid
positionality, one that is ‘‘neither here nor there,’’ and ‘‘betwixt and between’’ (Turner,
1974, p. 85). She expresses how she has become ‘‘used to American people,’’ and how
she has transformed into something other than South Korean.
Indeed, she is Korean American. She explains her feelings of this hybrid identity:
I’m between. I don’t look exactly American. I speak Korean, but I don’t feel real
Korean. I’m living too long in this country. And I’ve been away from the Korean
community. And plus, I never go to the Korean church either. If I go to the Korean
church. People learn from people. But working outside with. ... If I went with the
Korean community, I would learn more. I’m not Korean and I’m not American. I’m
Clearly, she self-identifies as neither distinctly Korean, nor altogether American, but,
rather, in-between. She exists within a liminal space (Turner, 1969), residing outside
both the Korean and American identity boundaries. My mother also notes that her
identity is a continuous process that involves reinforcement from others (i.e., ‘‘People
learn from people’’; see also Cooley, 1902). In some sense, one learns how to be an
authentic Korean from other Koreans. Due to a lack of involvement within the
‘‘Korean church’’ and ‘‘working outside,’’ my mother feels that she is ‘‘not exactly
American’’ nor a ‘‘real Korean.’’
One reason for her feeling in-between is my mother’s persistent attempts (and
perhaps, success) in joining mainstream American culture. In fact, one approach to
surviving in one’s adopted country is through the process of assimilation. Although
immigrants may not intentionally assimilate (Alba & Nee, 2003), the need to succeed
economically requires immigrants to integrate into and identify with mainstream
American culture (e.g., white, middle class, individualistic). Indeed, immigrants often
have ‘‘a certain desire to assimilate [italics in original], a longing for fitting in rather
than standing out, even though this desire is often at the same time contradicted by
an incapability or refusal to adjust and adapt completely’’ (Ang, 1994, p. 9).
Immigrants may assimilate to differing degrees and often create communities to
insulate themselves and retain their ‘‘original’’ cultural or ethnic identities. For
example, scholars have examined how Asian American immigrants who marry
148 S. L. Young
native-born White Americans are more likely to assimilate into middle-class
American society (see Fu & Hatfield, 2008; Hwang, Saenz, & Aguirre, 1997; Kitano
et al., 1984; S. M. Lee & Yamanaka, 1990). This choice, however, is highly constrained
by circumstances and structural forces (e.g., economic, geographic). Hybrid identity
may likely then emerge through this negotiation between one’s culture of origin and
one’s adopted culture.
Although my mother’s first 18 years in the United States were spent in rural
Indiana, my family moved to the suburbs of northwest Indiana near Chicago. Moving
from a rural locale to a suburban city allowed my mother to join a small community
of Korean war brides. Such a network is not uncommon, since between 1951 and
1980 approximately 45,500 Korean women married American military personnel and
migrated to the United States (H. J. Kim, 1991; I. J. Kim, 2004; Shin, 1987). My
mother explains how moving to the suburbs was a positive experience:
Valparaiso was close to Chicago, lot of Oriental people. Chinese, Japanese, very
comfortable. And more open. I was so happy to move. Growing up there you
learned a lot of things. Steve [my brother] said he learned baseball. People treated
you different. We were treated better, me, you and Steve.
Here, my mother discusses how a more suburban city offers more opportunities,
racial or ethnic diversity, and ‘‘more open’’ attitudes towards ethnic minorities. I can
recall other conversational instances in which my mother articulated her relief in
moving from a rural area to a suburban area where she felt there would be a greater
acceptance of our interracial family. As she explains, she feels ‘‘very comfortable’’
living ‘‘close to Chicago’’ where there is a larger Asian American population. Here,
my mother includes my brother and me with her as hybrid persons receiving better
treatment in this more cosmopolitan setting.
As we have seen, location has played a significant role in influencing how my
mother experiences and comprehends her immigrant Korean American identity.
Being initially isolated from a Korean American community, working with other
white, middle-class Americans, and residing in suburbia are all factors that have
shaped my mother’s ethnic identity. Living in the Midwest, too, has affected how I
negotiate my hybrid identity as a biracial Korean American. Growing up in Valparaiso
brought more educational opportunities. However, along with these opportunities
came limited exposure to other second generation Asian Americans. In fact, where
biracial individuals reside directly influences how they racially identify, for ‘‘the
locations where intermarried couples live may affect how they identify their children’s
race/ethnicity’’ (Qian, 2004, p. 751). For me, growing up in suburbia encouraged a
middle-class, white consciousness that was simultaneously reinforced by my mother’s
desire to ‘‘fit in.’’
As a child and teen, absent from my numerous journal entries are any doubts
about my racial or ethnic identities. In fact, I fit into my middle-class suburban
community so well, I ‘‘unconsciously’’ self-identified as white. With a mother who
emphasized ‘‘fitting in’’ to white suburbia, I was socialized to see myself as white.
Twine (1996) notes that residing in suburban areas encourages the acquisition of a
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 149
‘‘racially neutral’’ identity (p. 205), and that with young interracial women, ‘‘mothers
may play a pivotal role in transferring a racially neutral identity to their daughters’’
(p. 222). Indeed, children of Asian white couples often racially self-identify as white
(Qian, 2004). I felt I was like everyone else and seldom engaged in racially defining
myself. Nonetheless, there were a few instances where my racial or ethnic identity was
questioned and thereby revealed as masked for me. I recall a memory when my father
explained to me the 1990 U.S. Census, which did not include my brother and me.
Writing now, our interaction vividly returns to me:
He explains to me the process. The Census is to collect information about the
American people. The government wants to know who lives in America. But you’re
different. There are no boxes for you and Steve. You’re half white and so is your
brother. So we decided that if we add up the two half white portions they will equal
a whole white person on the Census. See? And the two half Korean portions equals
one Asian-American citizen. See? I understand the math, but do not feel right. I feel
like a whole person, but the government says otherwise.
At the time, being excluded from any one racial or ethnic box was not an
emancipatory experience. Rather, as a child, the need to belong to any particular
category was important. Although I felt ashamed for concealing my Korean heritage
and privileging my whiteness, I still felt white. Although I understood that I was not
fully white, but, rather a half-and-half*a Korean American*the idea of being added
up with my brother to form a discrete ‘‘whole person’’ sounded absurd. (Obviously,
other biracial and interracial individuals also found the system absurd. In the 2000
U.S. Census, I finally was able to mark more than one racial box.) That memory
forever reminds me that my racial identity is a contested site, as something that is
ever-shifting and contextually constructed. Not until I left the suburbs and began
college did I begin to critically engage with my Korean American identity. Here, I
recall an episode of racial rupturing in which I am identified as nonwhite:
While attending Purdue University, I meet with an old friend, Jeff, from my
hometown. We haven’t seen each other in over fifteen years. He tells me that I look
exactly like I did as a child. Just as he remembers. Just like the photographs. We
catch up with questions. How do you like Purdue? How are classes going for you?
We chat about our families. We chat about our recent memories of high school. We
chat about how we are. We finally chat about dating. ‘‘So, how does it feel to date
white guys?’’ Jeff asks. The question catches me off guard. I ask him to clarify. ‘‘I
mean, what is it like to be in bi-racial relationships?’’ I am caught off-guard again.
Bi-racial? The hyphenated word is foreign to me and seems to hang in the air like a
black fly. I’ve never thought about it before. It’s never been an issue. Then it strikes
me*he is telling me that I’m not white. I’m not white? Am I a shade of gray? Of
course, I’m not white. I guess I’m not. I’m other. I am of another color. All I can do
is reply that I don’t know.
Here, Jeff identifies me as being a nonwhite individual. My Asian-ness in this instance
is invisible to me. He recognizes my otherness, and I feel other-ed because of my
passing as ‘‘white.’’ This episode, however, was one of the first steps to developing a
biracial consciousness. While attending Purdue University, I became more aware of
my racial identity. This was largely due to being exposed to people of different racial,
150 S. L. Young
ethnic, and national identities. This change in location encouraged me to shift my
self-identified racial identity from racially neutral (white) to biracial Korean
As we have seen, location plays a significant role in racial identity construction.
Specifically, living in the suburban Midwest encouraged me to take up a ‘‘racially
neutral’’ or white consciousness, while moving to a university setting allowed me to
interact with a more racially diverse population. In fact, Twine (1996) notes that
young biracial women who reside in middle-class suburban communities and are not
‘‘culturally trained’’ to identify as racially different tend to take up a position of
‘‘white neutrality.’’ Absent from my childhood diaries is any discussion of racial
difference because I shared the cultural identity of middle-class white suburbia with
my family and friends. For both my mother and I, residing in suburban Indiana
enabled, constrained, and hybridized how we construct our racial and ethnic
identities. In the next section, I explore how language plays a significant role in the
development of racial or ethnic identities within our mother-daughter relationship.
Along with place, language has played a primary role in how my mother and I
perform our hybridities and construct our racial or ethnic identities. For my mother,
one of the major processes of becoming and being an American is learning to read,
write, and speak English. Indeed, English acquisition is considered an essential
process for being socially accepted and economically successful within the United
I’ll never forget the feeling, the first time in the U.S. when Dad picked me up from
Grand Rapids. He came to Chicago and then he picked me up from Chicago to
Grand Rapids. Then, he drove from Ludington. And I sitting next to him in car,
Daddy driving, looking at the highway. Green, big signs. That feeling I still have.
How am I going to know, reading those signs. Only numbers I know that. That’s all
I know. And how long would it take to read those signs? Sitting next to Daddy.
How long is it going to take to read those signs?
I had an English book. English 900. Oh, I took a class in Korea. Before Dad, I knew
a little bit in Korea. So, I bring it here. So, I thought I was going to school, but no
time. Dad had to go to school, so I had to go work. Most easy to learn is work. You
talk to people. That’s most easy way to learn English. Fastest way to learn. After
coming to this country, a month later, I got a job and I work. Fastest learning is
other people talk. I’m not very good in English, but some people understand.
In the first story, my mother recalls a memory when she wondered when she would
be able to read the English highway signs. Instead of taking formal English classes in
the U.S., she ended up learning the language by working with others. She identifies
cultural immersion as the ‘‘most easy way to learn English.’’ Although the ‘‘fastest way
to learn’’ English is by talking with others, my mother also recognizes that she is many
times perceived as being ‘‘not very good in English’’ due to her Korean accent.
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 151
As Nakayama (2005) notes, however, for immigrant Asian Americans ‘‘we are
taught to write and speak in ‘proper’ English. Thus, we hide some voices, develop
others’’ (p. 69). Speaking in English rather than in Korean is one way for my mother
to voice an American self and suppress her Korean identity. Yet her broken English is
a new voice, a bilingual, hybrid one that ‘‘can violate and disrupt the systematic rule
of both languages’’ (Nakayama, 2005, p. 69).
Although some people find her accent and broken English a challenge to
understand, I clearly hear her words. My ears are acclimated to her voice. I
simultaneously hear and do not hear the grammatical inconsistencies, incorrect
nouns, or improper verb conjugations. For me, the words my mother speaks are not
‘‘broken’’ at all, but full and wholly hers. Listening to her share her stories, I am able
to see how my mother enacts her hybrid identity of Korean American.
In the next personal narrative, I recall an instance when I am identified as
‘‘translator’’ by a sales clerk. My mother is labeled as ‘‘other’’ by the clerk due to her
Korean accent while my Midwest accent (e.g., white, neutral, natural-born American
accent) allows me to pass as an insider. Here, my ‘‘proper English’’ conceals my hybrid
identity of Korean American while my mother’s broken English becomes a signifier
for her hybrid identity of Korean American.
Mom and I are standing in line at the check-out counter. We are just finishing up
another one of our shopping excursions. It’s one of our mother-daughter rituals,
one that we thoroughly enjoy together. A few pieces of clothing were on sale, but
unfortunately have not been marked down at the register. This leads to a few
complications. ‘‘Twenty-five percent off. This shirt and this shirt,’’ Mom tries to
explain to the cashier. ‘‘And sign said other thirty off pants.’’ The woman briefly
glances at her, appearing to be confused by Mom’s heavy accent. She then turns and
begins asking me questions about the items. I repeat what my mom has just
explained to her. Somehow, I am unable to speak up and tell the cashier to please
direct her questions to her, not me. Instead, I ‘‘translate’’ for my mom, a bit
embarrassed by the whole situation. I am also frustrated that the woman made no
attempt to try and communicate with my mom, completely ignoring her.
Walking back to the car, I inquire about the brief episode.
‘‘Why did you let her do that, Mom? I mean, aren’t you upset that she ignored
‘‘That’s okay, Stephy. She don’t ignore me. Sometimes, hard for them to understand
me. You better speaker.’’
‘‘I know, it’s just ...’’
A part of me wants to scream, ‘‘But she did ignore you! And she assumed that I
would ignore you too! Don’t you think that’s rude, perhaps even racist? Don’t you
think she should have at least tried to talk with you?’’ Instead, I keep my furious
thoughts to myself.
After recalling this memory in writing this essay, I share the story with my mother.
She interprets the episode in a very different light:
152 S. L. Young
Other people thinking, I don’t speak English. That’s normal. Okay, but you’re used
to Mom. Mom’s English, you’re used to. So, not really different from other people
with the accent. But other people, when I speak, it’s very hard to understand with
accent. So, it’s probably true. We go to a store and I speak, that person figure out
right away, I have an accent and they’ll talk to you. In public, I don’t like to talk
with other people. Unless I know someone. When Daddy and I go together, I ask
him, ‘‘Daddy will you go ask because those people are more comfortable.’’ I’m a
very sensitive person. I’m not sad or anything like that. I’m okay. Sometimes, when
they treat differently, then I’m sad. Not equal because Oriental, then I’m upset.
While I initially criticize the interaction between the sales clerk, my mother, and
me as an incident of discrimination, my mother’s experiences of similar interactions
allow her to normalize the situation. Our divergent interpretations of the interaction
reflect our different hybridities. As an immigrant Korean American, my mother’s
hybrid identity has many times culturally ‘‘other-ed’’ her. Having had numerous lived
experiences similar to this situation, my mother takes up the attitude of ‘‘that’s just
the way it is.’’ In this specific instance, my mother contends that the clerk is more at
ease with me because of our language similarities. To have smoother social
interactions with those who may find it ‘‘very hard to understand [her] with [her]
accent,’’ my mother allowed the clerk to talk with me instead of her. She notes,
however, that ‘‘sometimes, when they treat [me] differently, then I’m sad,’’ and if she
senses that individuals are not treating her equally because she is ‘‘Oriental,’’ then she
As a second generation biracial Korean American, my hybrid identity is one of
privilege, a position that allows me to be critical of the interpersonal exchange.
Indeed, I perceive the interaction as an example of systematic ethnocentrism (even if
unintentional). The clerk, for me, appears to be (1) more comfortable not dealing
with my mother’s accent and (2) hopes that I, as a second generation child who
speaks English fluently, will take the role of translator for my mother. While I have
‘‘kind-of Caucasian’’ physical features, my English fluency categorizes me as non-
ethnic. Although I do not speak fluent Korean, my ability to understand my mother’s
English allows me to exist within a hybrid location. In this instance, I also become
aware of my mother’s broken English as a language barrier and her ethnic identity of
Korean American. In our day-to-day interactions, our racial or ethnic identities are
eclipsed by our relational identities of mother and daughter. This situation with the
cashier directs my attention to how our differing abilities to speak English play
significant parts in how others identify our ethnic or racial identities.
To some degree, I have accepted my hybrid translator position to help my mother
feel more comfortable communicating with others who might not understand her. I
recognize that although she understands English, she is still self-conscious about her
broken English. Conversely, in certain situations my mother becomes a translator for
me. In the next narrative, I recall visiting the Korea-town near Atlanta, Georgia:
Mom, Dad, my fiance
´Jeremy, and I take a day trip down to Atlanta, Georgia to visit
the Korea-town and obtain the necessary provisions*keem-pop, tobu (tofu), kim-
chee, and other essential Korean foods. We enter the warehouse-sized Korean
grocery store around noontime and decide to have lunch in the store’s cafeteria.
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 153
There are a number of restaurants to choose from, each with their own distinct
Korean specialties. Dad and Jeremy wander about looking at the signs with the
Korean characters, Han-gul. As I scan the cafeteria, I notice that my father and
Jeremy are the only two Caucasian persons there. Their whiteness is in stark
contrast to the Koreans surrounding them. I wonder how I am perceived and
racially identified by others in the store. Mom and I walk to the back restaurant,
one of our favorites. I begin pointing at some of the images, unsure of how to
pronounce some names of the Korean dishes. In Korean, the woman behind the
counter asks my mother what we would like to order. In English, I whisper to my
mother that I would like the bolgogi and be-bim-bop. I am simultaneously familiar
with the food, yet foreign with the language.
In this instance, a reversal of roles occurs. My mother becomes the translator for me.
Here, our Korean American hybrid identities function in dissimilar ways. My inability
to speak Korean identifies me as a ‘‘white’’ American while my mother is identified as
ethnically Korean. This inability also reflects our generational differences*my
mother as immigrant Korean American and I as second generation Korean American.
Language proficiency is perceived as a signifier of a Korean ethnic identity. My
mother’s Korean-ness emerges while I am unable to ‘‘pass’’ ethnically as Korean.
Although I am accustomed to the Korean cuisine, the Korean language is unfamiliar
Along with distinguishing my biracial identity in relation to my mother, I also
recognize my racial or ethnic difference in relation to the white identities of my father
and Jeremy. In instances when my father and Jeremy are placed into contexts where
they are a numerical minority, such as at the Korean grocery store, their identities
become raced for me. Their whiteness is brought to the foreground. Even though we
have shared cultural similarities (white, middle-class values), we are racially different
from one another. My hybridity becomes clearly present to myself through (1)
phenotypical characteristics (my skin color, eyes, hair, etc.), and (2) my inability to
speak Korean. I become self-aware that I am neither white nor Korean.
When I relate the experience to my mother, she explains that she, too, exists within
this in-between place. She articulates her feelings of being culturally distinct from
Korean Americans who reside in Korea-towns: ‘‘When I go into Korea-town, I feel
different. I do talk, but I feel different.’’ Although she and the woman at the restaurant
share the Korean language, a common language is not enough to create complete
ethnic or racial identification with one another. As stated previously, living in a
predominantly white Midwest has shaped how my mother ethnically identifies
herself. Even though she identifies as Korean American, she perceives herself as being
different from those individuals inhabiting Korean enclaves. Nonetheless, my mother
is identified as sufficiently similar by the woman who directs her questions to her
instead of me. The woman also speaks with my mother out of respect, as addressing
one’s elders is customary in Korean and other Asian cultures. My mother explains
that people naturally tend to speak with those they identify as ‘‘similar’’ to them:
‘‘Well, it depends where. When we go to a Korea store, they’ll talk to me. Even if you
ask, they’ll talk to me because they’re more comfortable.’’ Although she identifies
others as being ‘‘more comfortable,’’ my mother, too, appears to be more at ease
154 S. L. Young
speaking with the woman on our behalf. She effortlessly performs her role of
translator, fluently ordering the food in her mother tongue.
As we have seen, language plays a role in how we are racially or ethnically identified
by others. We each are identified as different or ‘‘other’’ by those external to our
relationship by visual cues (how we look, our raced bodies) and oral cues (how we
speak). Our hybrid Korean American identities are contextually constructed,
constantly emerging (or being erased). For both my mother and I, we enact a
hybrid translator position dependent upon the exigencies of the situation. In these
moments, each of us recognizes the other as having different language proficiency.
Through the enactment of speaking English or Korean, we foreground our racial
selves to each other, positioning our relational identities into the background.
These instances occur from time to time and guide how our hybrid identities are
managed within the mother-daughter relationship. In the next section, I briefly
highlight how differences in cultural expectations of the mother-daughter roles are
structured around the dialectical tension of cultural assimilation and cultural
preservation. Within this dialectic, my mother and I negotiate our intercultural
differences and our shared racial or ethnic hybrid identities.
Intercultural Mothers and Daughters
The mother-daughter relationship is a continuous process of negotiating roles,
relational identities, and racial selves. Korean American mothers are positioned in
unique ways at the intersection of cultural differences for what it means to be a
mother. They bring with them Korean notions of motherhood while adapting to
American ideals of motherhood. Traditionally, motherhood and childrearing have
been the primary role for Korean women (Choi, 1994; B. Lee, 2004; Suh, 2007).
Korean women’s views of family roles are shaped by Confucian teachings of filial piety
and patriarchal authority (Fong, 2002; Hurh, 1998; E. Kim & Hong, 2007; K. C. Kim
& Hurh, 1987; W. J. Kim, Kim, & Rue, 1997; B. Lee, 2004; Lehrer, 1988; Yang, 2001).
Simultaneously, first generation Korean American women are exposed to American
ideals of individualism, fluid family structures, and self-sufficiency that can shape
their styles of mothering (Moon, 2003; Suh, 2007).
The mother-daughter relationship plays a large part in the development of a
daughter’s understanding of herself. Specifically, daughters of immigrant mothers
face a number of intercultural challenges (Chow, 1998; Gudykunst, 2001; Suh, 2007).
For example, Suh (2007) explores how Asian immigrant mothers and their Asian
American daughters must negotiate differing gender ideals. Suh notes that within
Korean American mother-daughter relationships, the ‘‘mother is likely to view the
daughter’s assertion of personal choice as a selfish exercise of disobedience against her
mother’s parental authority and rebellion against the cultural practice of filial piety’’
(p. 40). Indeed, conflict between mothers and daughters highlights the tension
between Korean and American values (W. J. Kim et al., 1997).
Korean American mothers and daughters must constantly navigate these contra-
dictory cultural expectations. First and second generation Korean American women
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 155
exist in a both/and positionality where they continuously balance assimilation of
American mores and preservation of Korean ones. These opposing tendencies
continually transpire within the mother-daughter relationship. As Baxter and
Montgomery (1996) note, not just mother-daughter relationships, but all personal
relationships are ‘‘organized around the dynamic interplay of opposing tendencies as
they are enacted in interaction’’ (p. 6).
This dialectical tension of assimilation-preservation plays a significant role in how
my mother and I negotiate our different hybrid identities. First, the process of
assimilation significantly shapes our hybrid identities. As described in the previous
section on location, my mother has attempted to assimilate into mainstream
American society. To obtain an ‘‘American’’ identity, my mother has made efforts to
assimilate not only herself, but also my brother and me into mainstream, middle-
class white American society. She explains that,
You were always well dressed. Depends on how mother, how parents take care.
What are the parents doing. You know, I always had you well-dressed up. You know
that. Children who looks pretty or looks nice clothes, those are the popular ones.
Somebody who doesn’t look good or good clothes, they aren’t popular. Why do you
think Mommy did things like that? So you were popular. You were pretty and smart
and always clean looking. So, other kids just like you. Parents. It’s the parents. So, I
tried to do. Mom’s always careful. I don’t want my kid to be half-Korean, half-
American and treated bad. I don’t want someone to say, ‘‘Oh, Korean mom and
American father.’’ I didn’t want them to look down on you. Why did we have the
Pine Run house? For you. Beautiful house. Built right across the school. We tried
hard. You were a really good dresser, even in kindergarten, you know? I didn’t want
anyone to pick.
Indeed, my mother articulates her concern for her children to fit into mainstream
American culture. Her words reflect what many Korean women married to American
husbands tend to do*‘‘conform to the norms of white American society, which is
necessary for their survival’’ (Shin, 1987, p. 268). Concerned that we would be viewed
as inferior due to being nonwhite or racially or ethnically different, my mother
consciously strived to uphold, and even excel, at middle-class American norms.
Interestingly, her words also highlight a very middle-class attitude towards
mothering. She notes her parental responsibility to ensure her children’s social
inclusion (e.g., ‘‘Depends on how mother, how parents take care. What are the
parents doing’’ and ‘‘Parents. It’s the parents’’). She articulates a heightened awareness
of popularity based upon appearances and identifies her primary role as mother to
ensure my social success (e.g., ‘‘You know, I always had you well-dressed up’’). For
her, having a ‘‘beautiful house’’ and having me be a ‘‘good dresser’’ are visual
indicators of social and economic success. In some sense, material privilege enabled
us to erase our Korean identities and construct our ‘‘white,’’ middle-class identities.
Cultural assimilation is valued as a means to social acceptance, economic success,
and being ‘‘an American.’’ Yet, simultaneously, cultural preservation functions to
maintain the Korean-ness of being Korean American. For example, my mother
approaches her role of ‘‘mother’’ from a traditional Korean perspective. She associates
156 S. L. Young
her mothering style as Korean, differentiating Korean parenting and American
Korean moms are a little different. American parents to little children want to be
best friends. After about 18, then they aren’t as close. Korean parents once you have
a child, you are very close. You watch. American parents like to show love. But
Korean parents very much love, but not show. Korean families are very close,
especially daughter and sons and grandparents.
Parents are always the umbrella covering you. That’s a Korean parent. But American
children too much wanting to be out of the umbrella. That sometimes is tough. I
Here, my mother recognizes two key characteristics of Korean childrearing. First,
unlike American parents who my mother perceives as ‘‘want[ing] to be best friends’’
with their children, Korean parents are the ‘‘umbrella’’ to protect and guide their
children. The Korean parent-child relationship is viewed as more role-bound than
American parent-child relations. (‘‘I’m your mother’’ and ‘‘You’re my daughter’’ are
recurrent phrases that my mother uses to remind me of my particular obligations as
her daughter, regardless of my age or individual desires.) Second, she notes the
difference between Korean and American parents with the outward expression of
affection. The emotional connection between parent and child is deep, but not always
outwardly displayed in Korean families. In fact, Asian mothers have a difficult time
expressing affection to their Asian American children (Chow, 1998).
My mother also uses the umbrella metaphor to explain the collectivistic attitudes
that Korean parents hold. Indeed, Korean parents tend to view their children as
extensions of themselves and take on full responsibility for their children’s behaviors
and success (Fong, 2002; E. Kim & Hong, 2007). Filial piety is essential to good
parent-child relations. This collectivistic approach, however, can conflict with the
individualistic ideals that Korean American children hold (e.g., ‘‘American children
too much wanting to be out of the umbrella’’). My mother continues to explain the
Asian people have family go first. Parents say something, children listen. You don’t
always listen to Mom sometimes. American people after leave home are
independent. Nothing wrong, but you’re not Asian. You’re American.
Here, there is a sense of loss in my mother’s tone of voice. Although I am her
daughter, I am dissimilar to her. Her words reflect the tension of cultural assimilation
(integration into American culture) and cultural preservation (maintaining Korean
heritage). Ironically, because she has successfully socialized me into being an
‘‘American,’’ my mother cannot fully relate to me. Indeed, ‘‘immigrant mothers’
sense of losing their daughters arises out of their ambivalence about their daughters’
acculturation process[es]’’ (Suh, 2007, p. 40). My mother associates me into a stable
category and a hybrid one. In fact, there is a push and pull between American-ness
and Korean-ness, a continuous positioning and repositioning of my cultural identity.
In this particular instance, my American-ness overshadows my Korean-ness. My
mother self-identifies as ‘‘Asian’’ while identifying me as ‘‘American.’’ She highlights
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 157
how my independent attitude (e.g., ‘‘You don’t always listen to Mom sometimes’’) is a
signifier for being American while her collectivistic maternal duty (e.g., ‘‘Asian people
have family go first’’) is a distinct trait of her being Korean.
While my mother pushes me into the American category in certain instances, at
other times she pulls me back into my Korean-ness. This is part of the cultural
preservation that plays an important role in how my mother and I relate to one
another. Our weekly conversations consist of sharing Korean-American recipes. Over
the phone, my mother gives me directions to prepare a variety of pon-chons (side
dishes) and chee-gas (hot soups). Food is our bonding element, helping us to
maintain our unique Korean American ethnic identities. In fact, food is essential in
how we sustain our Korean heritage, a way for us to intergenerationally and culturally
(re)connect. In this next personal narrative, I recall a particular instance when food
and hybrid identities emerge:
Kimchee. Balgogi. Kochu. The tastes and smells of the familiar envelop me. It is the
last night before the final move. My mom’s friend, one of my ajumas, has invited us
over for dinner. It is a goodbye dinner before my parents head down to
Simpsonville, South Carolina. My dad and brother sit with the other men at the
‘‘boys’ table.’’ Corn, watermelon, barbeque chicken. I sit at the ‘‘girls’ table,’’ eating
with my mom and her Korean girlfriends. Spicy bean sprouts, rice, tofu soup. We
use chopsticks instead of forks. The women laugh and talk and eat. Although I love
the food, I still feel a bit out of place. I do not understand their Korean chatter. I am
a different type of woman. I am second generation Korean-American, with only a
few Korean phrases in my vocabulary. ‘‘Thank you,’’ I say in Korean. My mother
smiles proudly, and the other women laugh in amazement. I know a piece of their
language. I have performed my Korean-ness for them.
Since I am unable to speak the language fluently, I am identified as different from the
first generation Korean American women. At the same time, I am included at their
table as I am my mother’s daughter, a Korean American woman. The two tables, with
distinct ‘‘Korean’’ and ‘‘American’’ foods, suggest separate gendered and cultural
boundaries. The food is familiar, but the language foreign. Surrounded by these
women, my mother’s Korean-ness merges with the other women’s and emerges while
my hybrid Korean American identity becomes apparent. I identify with and
differentiate from my mother and her friends. Cultural preservation through food
helps to reinforce our shared, but different, Korean American identities. In moments
like this, sharing recipes and food creates an awareness of our heritage and highlights
our racial or ethnic identities within the mother-daughter relationship.
Conclusion and Implications
I believe that, for Asian-American women, ethnicity is part of identity. No matter
how Western or ‘‘white’’ we may feel or act, there is a way in which we view the
world through the lens of our ethnicity, there is a way in which the Asian values
that were passed on to us*even if diluted*resonate in our lives today. (Chow,
1998, p. 207)
158 S. L. Young
In this essay I have explored the ways in which Korean American mothers and
daughters communicatively co-construct, perform, and realize their hybrid racial or
ethnic identities. I have examined my mother’s lived experiences interwoven with my
own and identified how location, language, and the assimilation-preservation
dialectic are specific areas when our hybrid identities emerge. Specifically, residing
in the Midwest has shaped the ways in which we have come to know our racial selves
by limiting our interactions with larger Korean American communities. Along with
location, language proficiency (in English and/or Korean) has been a signifier for
hybridity and has played a central role in how my mother and I perform our racial or
ethnic identities. Finally, within our mother-daughter relationship, there has been
continuous negotiation between assimilating into middle-class, white American
culture and maintaining Korean traditions.
Examining our mother-daughter relationship has been a personally rewarding
experience and critically reflexive endeavor*one that begins to address the
complexities of identities and mother-daughter relationships within an (auto)ethno-
graphic format. I have identified three specific sites of identity construction (i.e.,
location, language, and assimilation-preservation), nevertheless, scholars must
continue to investigate the nuanced ways we construct and enact our identities.
First, we need to reevaluate how racial and ethnic identities are conceptualized. As
De Andrade (2000) notes, ‘‘race and ethnicity are products of social interaction and
institutional relations’’ (p. 269; see also Nakayama & Martin, 1999; Omi & Winant,
1994). Instead of viewing racial or ethnic identity as a static, individual attribute,
scholars should approach constructions of identity within a relational framework. A
relational identity is one that ‘‘arises out of communication and becomes an
increasingly central influence on individual partners’ ways of knowing, being, and
acting in relation to each other and the outside world’’ (Wood, 1982, p. 75). Indeed,
our identities are made and remade continuously through our communicative
interactions with each other.
Notions of hybridity and hybrid identities can provide scholars with critical
approaches for exploring constructions of relational identities. Hybridity is a
relational subjectivity, a communicative process that constantly emerges within
specific social interactions. Hybrid identities draw attention to the comprehensive
ways our identities are dependent upon others. In this essay, for example, I provided
several instances in which other individuals influenced how my mother and I
recognized and enacted our racial or ethnic identities (e.g., the cashier, Korea-town,
and dinner). Our Korean American selves shifted into the foreground when third
parties interacted with my mother and me. Authors have noted that individuals
choose which racial and ethnic signifiers to present depending upon particular social
contexts (De Andrade, 2000; Gans, 1999; Okamura, 1981). In contrast, utilizing a
hybrid framework emphasizes identity as a collaborative process among individuals
that involves both conscious and unconscious performances of (hybrid) selves. It is
vital to explore the exigencies that influence which facets of one’s identity emerge and
are (re)presented within particular and shifting social contexts.
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 159
Second, how location and geographical and geopolitical discourses inform and
shape racial or ethnic identities is a significant issue for scholarship on hybridity,
identity, and Asian American studies. Identities are always relationally placed, and are
‘‘always negotiated to some degree through others’ acts of placing us in some social
category as well as our announcing to others those categories in which we see
ourselves or in which we wish to be placed [italics in the original]’’ (Maines, 1978, pp.
246247). For example, when my mother and I interacted with the cashier, visited
Korea-town, and had dinner with the ajumas, our bodily selves moved into new
locations, influencing how we both performed our racial or ethnic identities. We can
examine these particular places as well as newly emerging locations such as the
‘‘ethnoburb,’’ described by Li (1998) as ‘‘suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas
and business districts in large metropolitan areas’’ (p. 482). Such environments can
provide insightful case studies concerning the impact of place(s) in shaping ethnic
minorities’ constructions of their racial or ethnic selves.
In addition to interrelationships of particular physical sites and identity
formations, we need to interrogate the geopolitical discourses embedded within
conceptualizations of identity. Terms such as marginality,transnationalism, and
diaspora all locate individuals within a geographic and geopolitical framework. This
language highlights relational origins and subsequent positionings by connecting
identities to (initial) places and with others across places. For example, Luke and Luke
(1999) note how discourses of place and location greatly influence how individuals
identify their ethnic and racial identities. This taken-for-granted practice of
identification by birthplace, however, is not without structural and political factors.
In fact, the use of birthplace as a primary indicator of ethnic identity is largely
influenced by governmental surveys and census data collection to monitor
immigration and population changes.
The interwoven relationships between senses of place and understandings of
identity pose continual challenges for migrating persons and their children’s senses of
self, others, and belonging. As James and Lobato (2004) note, ‘‘immigrants’ identities
form through a complex combination of experiences that include what they were and
what they are becoming’’ (p. 8). Movement from one place to another is not only a
bodily experience, but also a process of identity construction. In fact, Maines (1978)
argues that while ‘‘identities as well as bodies are capable of migration’’ there can be
disjunctions between where bodies are placed and where identities reside (p. 251).
Therefore, further investigation is necessary to understand the complexities of how
identities and bodily selves are conceptualized in relation to imaginary spaces,
material places, racial borders, and cultural boundaries.
Finally, I encourage scholars to embrace more critical approaches to how personal
narratives create identities as well as resist and reinforce larger cultural narratives. As
Lowe (1996) argues, we need to examine identities not as ‘‘fixed’’ entities, but rather
produced by ‘‘Asian American cultural practices’’ (p. 64). The personal narrative
process is a cultural practice that has allowed me to recall moments and stories when
my mother and I have negotiated our Korean American identities both within and
outside of our mother-daughter relationship. The sharing of personal narratives with
160 S. L. Young
each other became part of the process of co-performing our hybrid identities. Indeed,
the process of narrating became ‘‘an act of constitution of identity’’ (De Fina, 2003, p.
16; see also Bruner, 1990; Polkinghorne, 1988). Not only are our selves performed and
(re)formed when we share our personal narratives, our identities also are co-created
in these narrative moments.
Through the (auto)ethnographic process, I have come to recognize my experiences
within my mother-daughter relationship as individually unique and, simultaneously,
similar to other Asian American daughters. I have gained a greater understanding of
my biracial Korean American-ness in relation to my mother’s Korean American-ness
by having our experiences become reflexive objects of inquiry rather than taken-for-
granted happenings. In fact, ‘‘the very act of interviewing transforms an interviewee’s
formulation and retelling of her life’’ (Ceballo, 1999, p. 312). While the stories
presented in this essay are not from formal interviews, in some respects the
(auto)ethnographic process has allowed me simultaneously to be an interviewer and
an interviewee. In retelling my mother’s stories and my own, I have (re)created our
hybrid identities. The act of writing has given me greater insight into our lived
experiences of hybridity, and as such, I have been transformed by this narrative
process. Hopefully, this (auto)ethnography will provide both my mother and me a
narrative site to engage further in conversations about our relationship with each
other and our hybrid selves.
Personal narrative is a potential methodological approach for retaining cultural
heritage (Chu, 1976), a strategy for marginalized groups to voice their lived
experiences (Clair, 2001; Langellier, 1999), and a political tool for resisting racist
representations and hegemonic metanarratives (Vo˜ & Sciachitano, 2000). Storytelling
can provide a means for ‘‘voice-centered research’’ (Mauthner & Doucet, 1998) that
reinforces an epistemological shift towards conceiving knowledge as emergent from
women’s situated experiences (Harding, 1987).
At the same time, however, scholars must recognize the power of metanarratives
that shape people’s storied experiences of their own identities. As Hall (1996)
contends, ‘‘identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse and produced in
specific historical and institutional sites within specific discursive formations and
practices, by specific enunciative strategies’’ (p. 4). For example, my mother’s
personal narratives seem to embody the metanarrative of the ‘‘ideal immigrant’’ or
‘‘model minority’’ in which an individual deserves to be a citizen of a nation if they
assimilate, work hard, and contribute economically to the nation-state (Fong, 2002;
McLaren & Dyck, 2004). How does the ideal immigrant or model minority inform
and influence how my mother constructs her Korean American identity (and other
Korean Americans’ identities)? Sociopolitical metanarratives and larger discursive
structures enable and constrain hybrid (immigrant and interracial) individuals’
narrative constructions of their selves. Personal narratives, in turn, influence
metanarratives. We must continue to investigate relations between the micro and
the macro when exploring narratives. For example, a critical examination of power
structures*how nation-states control ideas of racial identity and how racial
categories are political tools of governments*is invaluable in the exploration of
Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 161
how Korean Americans negotiate the discursive and contradictory constructions of
Asian-ness and whiteness (N. Y. Kim, 2006; see also Goldberg, 2002; Johnson, 2003).
In this essay I have narrated how the mother-daughter relationship plays a
significant role in the construction of racial or ethnic identities, specifically for hybrid
individuals. My mother’s and my experiences have shaped how we live, feel, and
know our Korean American selves. Although we both recognize each other’s racial or
ethnic identities, enacting a racial or cultural self is not always a conscious part of our
identities. Our mother-daughter relationship often appears to be absent of racial and
ethnic differences. In fact, our relational roles (e.g., mother and daughter) seem to
‘‘trump’’ racial or ethnic identifiers. Nevertheless, race and ethnicity do play a
significant part in the creation of our selves and how we relate to each other as
mother and daughter. We each enact racialized cultural identities that are
contextually performed, continuously shifting, and constantly informing our
mother-daughter relationship. Examining how immigrant mothers and second
generation daughters negotiate their hybridities within and beyond their relationship
is important as the population of second generation Asian Americans and biracial
individuals continues to rise. Exploring identity co-construction within these
interpersonal relationships can help to interrogate the complex intersection of race
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