Helen Lee

helen-leeWhen I traveled to China a couple years ago, no one believed me when I told them I was from America. They told me I didn’t look American. Thanks to Hollywood movies, the word American has long been associated with being Caucasian, Euro-Caucasian, white. Growing up, I never considered myself an American because I myself thought that being American meant being white. I wonder how many people believe being American means white. America is not only for whites, it is for everyone.

My father and mother immigrated over from South Korea in their early 20’s in the mid 1970’s. My father was separated from his siblings as a small child and often had to steal his food. Once he arrived to America, he worked hard saving money, owning a grocery store. He never wanted my sister and I to struggle the way he did in Korea. He wanted us to belong to America, to be comfortable. He even refused to give us Korean names saying we don’t need Korean names in America.

Growing up in Chicago, wasn’t always the easiest, I was often ridiculed and made fun of for my appearance. I wanted to fit in, to belong and longed to look like those around me. Once I graduated high school, I left for college in Hawaii. I had never been to Hawaii and had no idea that Asian Americans were the majority. It was an amazing eye opening 5 years. For the first time, I started to appreciate my family history and felt comfortable in my skin. It was a wonderful feeling.

America was built on immigrants from all over the world. Being American doesn’t have a specific look. Being American is to hope, to believe and to never give up. Being American is to experience struggles, fears and to be vulnerable. Being American is to leave the world better than we found it, for future generations to find the traces of how we have loved and inspired, in hopes that America continues to grow and evolve.