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.


“I have been [talking about my cultural identity] more and more as of late. I think it’s really interesting to bring up the conversation, especially with another person of color, because they can either empathize in some way and/or I get to hear their story as well. The more I talk about my cultural identity to others, I feel a little more self-aware and less alone. I’ve honestly grown to love having the “cultural identity talk” with anyone that’s willing to have that conversation.

[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.”

Judy is one of the first women I reached out to for this project. We had a couple classes together in college and “knew of” each other but never really met. Anyways, we’ve been following each other’s journeys ever since even though we barely interacted. I always liked her work, and she apparently always liked my sense of style (I had a fashion blog in college – I’ll save the story for another day). We talked about being hit on by dudes with weird Asian fetishes. And coincidently it was the same dude once – back in college. How creepy is that? At least we got to tell our stories, I honestly felt weird vibes from the guy, but never thought too much about it until Judy told her story. It all made sense, and well, it’s gross. We then talked about how she was put in Korean language school and me in Mandarin language school at an age where we didn’t appreciate it nor retain it as well as we should have and how we appreciate our cultures so much more now the older we get. We talked about our parents’ unrealistic expectations for our partners and how they expected us to find someone that would “take care of us”. But we can take care of ourselves and have still managed to find wonderful, loving partners that love us as we are. We talked about our older parents and the cultural barrier of speaking to them about our day to day experiences and the disappointment of our career choices at first but how they’ve come around because they see us succeeding. We talked about the trendiness of Asian food in the present day while we were made to feel ashamed when we were younger about the “weird” food we ate or the weird smells in my house when white friends came over. We talked about identity and having multiple names and struggling with where we belong as weird artistic Asian American women in the Midwest, specifically in Iowa. But, it’s nice to know that we aren’t alone. I’m so thankful to have met you, Judy.

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!

We had this conversation in my living room in Beaverdale, Iowa.

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.