I WAS PUSHING MY WAY through a crowded toy store a few days before Christmas with no gifts for my two daughters when I saw us on the sale table: my family immortalized as a wooden doll set. “We” were a stocky Asian nuclear family in shapeless kimono-like outfits sporting bad bowl haircuts framing yellowish faces. Riveted by the frumpy wooden likeness, I picked up the mom and fingered her coarse black hair, her shapeless body, her barely-there specks of eyes.

Last year, three months into kindergarten, my eldest came home crying that she wished she looked like her friends. When I asked what she meant—hoping she was referring to her dimples, not her skin color—Hannah blurted, “I wish I wasn’t Korean!”

Shame flooded through me. “It’s a great thing to be Korean,” I chirped. “Our whole extended family is Korean. It’s something special we share!” Hannah looked uncertain, but I trudged on, hoping she wasn’t catching the question marks in my voice. “You know how we love bulgogi and kimchi?…” My voice trailed off. Couldn’t I think of something less cliché than food?

When we moved to Edmonds, my husband David and I joked that we were contributing to the diversity quota. On grade school Curriculum Night I stood self-consciously looking around the kindergarten room, noticing I was one of two nonwhite parents in a class of 23. I nodded stiffly at the perky, young white teacher while other parents addressed her with easy familiarity, already on a first-name basis. David and I had never expected our born-in-the-USA child to share our immigrants’ sense of being outsiders.

We decided to wage a year-long campaign to embrace our family’s Koreanness. We got out the Washington State Korean Business Directory and looked into Korean language schools. We searched for a Korean church, singularly guided by the mantra, “Must expose our child to our people!” We shuttled the kids from the Harvest Festival to tae kwon do demonstrations and folk music and dance concerts. We never missed an opportunity to deliver a culture lesson at the dinner table. “You see how you can use chopsticks to pick up these tiny pieces of anchovy? In Korea, there were expert women divers called sea women who would harvest all types of shellfish.”

Through it all, Hannah rolled her eyes. She bristled and pushed away the books I brought home from the library with colorful covers featuring young girls in traditional Korean hanbok costumes. “Mom, I don’t want to read some dumb book about a Korean seesaw girl!”

At Thanksgiving, when my mom came over to stuff us full of her finest home cooking, Hannah protested. “Korean food again? Couldn’t we have a normal meal that doesn’t have rice in it? How am I supposed to do my ‘How Big Is Your Turkey?’ homework if we don’t eat any turkey?”

Our desperate attempts to pass on an appreciation for all things Korean appeared to make Hannah even more resistant. The last thing she wanted was to be continually reminded of the thing that set her apart from her friends.

How to get Hannah to see that being Korean was cool? This became the driving question as Christmas approached. I shopped obsessively for the perfect present that would help instill my daughter’s ethnic pride. For a second I thought I’d hit the jackpot with the Asian Family Doll Set, but as I stood in line at the cash register, smoothing down the Asian mom’s hair, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it, afraid it would feel too much like a reminder of our otherness—in all the wrong ways. After months of fighting off her parents’ Korean revival fever, this unflattering wooden interpretation of “Asian” would not win over our daughter.

What if the gift cast doubts on Santa’s existence due to it’s similarity to Mommy’s Korean Cultural Education Campaign?

Hannah had been enviously eyeing her friends’ fashionable dress-up dolls at birthday parties. Then I saw Oki, a funky plush Groovy Girl doll in a chic retro tank top, white leather mini, and knee-high boots. I was ecstatic. Who knew there was an Asian Groovy Girl, and a punk rocker at that? Surely Hannah would be drawn to this decidedly cool chick who just happened to be Asian.

By the time I wrapped Oki and a brunette Princess Bubblegum Groovy Girl in a pink-chiffon-and-polka-dot dress for my three-year-old a week later, my triumph had worn off and doubt took its place. Was Hannah’s gift too emotionally charged after our fierce months-long battle about all things Korean? I decided the Groovy Girls would be presents from Santa, to seem more neutral. Santa, not I, could be the culturally conscious gift giver.

But as I signed Santa’s cards and planted cookie crumbs around the fireplace, I began to lose my nerve about Oki altogether. What if Hannah rejected the Asian doll, even if it came from Santa? Worse yet, what if the whole thing cast doubts on Santa’s existence due to its striking similarity to Mommy’s Korean Cultural Education Campaign?

I awoke Christmas morning convinced Oki was a mistake. In a panic, I threw on my bathrobe and tiptoed to the living room before the girls woke up clamoring for their presents. I took a deep breath and quickly switched the two dolls, giving the more obviously ethnic doll to three-year-old Chloe, who still seemed blissfully oblivious of race. I called out “Merry Christmas!” to the backs of the girls’ heads as they stormed the hallway and made a beeline for Santa’s delivery by the fireplace.

“Mommy, look at what Santa brought!” Chloe twirled around the room, fluffing her doll’s pink ruffles with glee. I looked over at Hannah happily fingering her doll’s spiky pigtails…Oki’s spiky Asian rocker-girl pigtails! Had Santa come and switched the dolls back?

“Santa gave this one to Chloe,” Hannah explained, “but we traded because she loves pink. And polka dots!” The girls bumped into each other in a fit of giggles. “Plus, this one looks like me!” Was it possible that our tireless cultural crusade wasn’t for naught? Hannah proudly clutched Oki to her chest, her Cool Asian Chick with Attitude. Relieved, I looked at her, thinking: At last, now we can stop being über-Koreans.

Filed under
Share

Related Content

Article

Heart Song

12/08/2008 By Eric Scigliano

Article

The Divorce Next Door

12/27/2008 By Emily White

Article

Swim with the Fishes

12/28/2008 By Langdon Cook