Judy 지영 (Ji Young) Lee
26 / Korean American
“Growing up in a Korean household was the driving force to my cultural identity. I learned at a young age that I was “different” than people around me. When I was younger, I actually used to be embarrassed being a person of color—the food I ate got made fun of at school and I had parents that spoke little to no English. I felt like I practically forced my parents to make me more American for the sake of fitting in. As I get older, it’s almost the opposite. I embrace being different. I embrace being Korean. I’m not embarrassed about who I am and how I grew up. I’m still not completely sure who I am or why I am the way I am, but I feel enlightened to figure it out.
When I moved to Des Moines from Chicago in 2010, it was quite the culture shock for me. At college orientation, I’ve had people come up to me asking if I /actually/ knew how to use chopsticks or telling me that I was their first Asian friend. This gave me an intense flashback to my elementary days. After a few months of living in Iowa, I realized I missed so much. I missed home/Korean cooking, which was something I couldn’t even get at any restaurant in Des Moines because it wasn’t available. I missed being surrounded by other Koreans and speaking the language, something I used to find embarrassing. I missed grocery store trips to H-Mart and Assi, something that I took for granted because they were “just there”. It took some time before I got to appreciate Iowa for what it was…. but honestly, I miss the culture a lot. ”
[My Advice to someone trying to understand/figure out their cultural identity is to] TALK. ABOUT. IT. (Insert clapping emoji’s in between.) With anyone! Talk to a friend. Talk to your parents if it’s possible. Embrace your culture and do research.
I walked into this project hoping for a good conversation with another human about Asian identity. I didn’t really think of it as anything else. I’m happy to say that I walked out with more than that. I walked out with questions about myself and others. I am more curious about myself and my identity than I ever was before. It’s so refreshing to have an open conversation with someone that understands and is willing to listen.
I simply hope for others to gain insight [from this project]. These are real words from real WOC in Iowa. Every story is different and every story is an experience. I hope people read through these and have a better understanding about what it’s like to be us.”
I’ve been having conversations with other Asian Americans and WOC working in the arts in the area and drawing parallels from their stories and mine. It’s been an incredible experience. I feel less alone in the world. These shared cultural experiences and childhoods make me feel so many things, positive things and I just want to make art about it and get to know these amazing human beings even more. I wish I knew that there were more people like me in such close in proximity going through the same things with the same interests sooner! Life would have been a little less confusing growing up, but I’m figuring it all out now, or at least beginning to. Thank you so much for reaching out and being so genuine and easy to talk to, Judy!
WOC Iowa is a passion project I’m working on to showcase, focus and center on WOC in Iowa. I want to reach out and have an open, honest and deep conversation about cultural identity and to draw parallels from our experiences while understanding the differences.