Family. Race. Identity. Self. All of these things play an invaluable role in helping us understand at a young age who we are and how that affects the way we experience and navigate the world.
Few are more sensitive to that than people of color, whose very skin color sparks controversy, confusion, and bullying. But even those reactions have a purpose. The jokes. The secrets. The good intentions. The mistakes. How do I know?
Because no matter who we are and what we’ve been through, we manage to always rise stronger than we ever imagined, and with an impeccable understanding of what makes us special and worthy. Adam is no exception. In fact, he’s proof.
If I had to direct a film inspired by my life and early childhood, it would be centered around the idea of family, and how my own mixed heritage–white and Korean–has played a role in creating the man I am today.
In the first few minutes of the film, you would see what some might consider as the perfect nuclear family because a lot of my childhood was about us presenting ourselves in that way. But it wasn’t until I got older that I began to discover things our family kept hidden from the world to maintain that image of perfection.
So, as the film would get started, you would see mom, dad, and their son and daughter gathered at the table, eating. But then you’d see what’s really happening behind the curtains or beneath the surface that people don’t get to see.
For example, I grew up under the assumption that our family was “normal,” exactly what you would see on an ABC sitcom. But quickly learned we weren’t “normal,” and that there was a lot I didn’t know. For example, it wasn’t until the age of 17 that I learned my sister wasn’t my biological sister and that their current marriage wasn’t the only marriage either of them had been in.
And what probably shocked me the most was that my sister already knew this, but was intrinsically told to never share that information with me. was old enough to know and intrinsically told never to share that with me.
I grew up under the assumption that our family was “normal,” exactly what you would see on an ABC sitcom. I soon realized the truth: a “normal” family doesn’t really exist…and my parents, like everyone else, are human, trying to make it and do what they think is best.
At first, I felt betrayed. I wanted to know the purpose of them keeping this from me because I wouldn’t have felt or thought differently about my sister. But the more I thought about it, I realized that picture of a “normal” family doesn’t really exist.
I learned an uncomfortable truth: my parents, like everyone else, are human, and they were just trying to do what they thought was best, and trying to make it. And when I thought about it even more from my mom’s perspective as a Korean immigrant who just wanted to fit in by having the ideal nuclear family, I could better understand why they made certain choices.
The next couple of minutes of this film would paint an even more realistic picture of being Asian American, which is an experience that’s particularly different than being a person of color in another context because the assumptions and stereotypes people had about me were generally good things.
For example, when I was a kid, it was assumed that because I was Asian, I would excel at anything academically, which honestly played a role in helping me be the person that I am today. Because of that expectation, I knew I was going to college at a very early age and that I wanted to be a great student. But at the same time, I felt put into a box. I couldn’t express myself creatively because I was expected to be an academic.
When you are a minority in a white space, you often become the bud of many jokes. And at a very young age, you realize you have two choices: be the bud of the joke and own it, or fight against it and become an outcast. I chose the first option.
I don’t think I thought about that experience deeply until I started immersing myself in race and cultural studies. As a kid, I just accepted it because it was what I was hearing from everyone else, and it aligned with what my parents wanted. So, I played the cello and was a mathlete–both things Asian kids are expected to be do and be really good at.
When you are a minority in a white space, you often become the bud of many jokes. And at a very young age, you realize you have two choices: you can either be the bud of the joke and own it, or you can fight against it and become an outcast. I chose the first option. So, to avoid feeling the sting or humiliation of being picked on, I would make the Asian joke first so they could laugh and it would be easier for me to fit in.
So, many people would ask if I had another, more Asian name. And when I would tell them that I didn’t they’d be confused. To break the awkward tension, I would crack an Asian joke.
Thinking back to those days, many of the jokes centered around the cultural differences people didn’t understand, like how to pronounce Asian names. Or, in my case, the fact that I had a very American name. It always threw them off and didn’t seem to fit, in their eyes. So, many people would ask if I had another, more Asian name. And when I would tell them that I didn’t they’d be confused. To break the awkward tension, I would crack an Asian joke.
For example, I would say, “How do Asian parents name their kids?” People would try to guess and eventually give up. And then I would reply, “They throw change down the stairs, and whatever noise it makes, they name their kids by it.”
Since we moved around at least every three years because my dad was in the Air Force, I could often use that and many of the same jokes, which made it easier and easier to repeat more confidently. And the more I could do that, the less of a target I became, even though I had to silence and make fun of a core piece of who I was.