In Buddhism, it is believed that life is a form of suffering. We all go through pain, but what type of pain we experience is determined by how we are brought up into this world. My family immigrated to Canada when I was four years old. My mom and dad grew up in Korea when it was still an impoverished country. It wasn’t unheard of to lose a friend from starvation.The mindset was to survive by whatever means necessary.

Because of that, you learn to see the world for what it is rather than how it should be. People lie, people cheat and people steal to make ends meet. Especially from those they trust and those they love. My mom and dad didn’t want my brother and me to go through that, so they left everything behind and aspired for opportunity even if it meant living in the most heavenly parts of hell.

Kim Buddhist Temple

Michelle and her family celebrate Buddha's birthday at the Seu Kwang Sa Buddhist temple in Surrey, BC 2002. (Courtesy/ Michelle Kim)

I can't imagine how humiliated my dad felt having a Masters in Engineering, yet no one was willing to give him a chance. When opportunity came, he went from being an engineer to a pizza delivery man. They looked down on him by treating his accent like a disability and viewed him as incapable. With time, I would hope progress would come and that one day he would be more accepted into society.

However, even as a corporate employee, my father is doing the day-in and day-out grunt work while they easily promote Americans within two years to a managerial position despite only having a high school diploma. Ironically enough, my dad became an American not too long ago, though is still not seen as one.

It is beyond my comprehension to understand the dilemma of slowly having your dignity robbed away by being forced to train those who will eventually boss you around and feeling forced to stay because the world is showing you that there is no better alternative. It must be the kind of pain so profound, it fools you into believing that it is better to feel nothing at all. Knowing that I am the root of his anguish, as my father experiences hopelessness day after day for the sake of my brother and me, is an inescapable guilt that I have cowardly chosen to suppress.

I encourage him to find a new job, where they will appreciate him for who he is, but in the back of my mind I wonder if he will even be given a chance to prove his worth. I know they’ll keep judging him for his accent and for being different. Just like how my dad would show his love by hiding the truth for the sake of protecting me, I notice that now I’m doing the same for him.

As a four year old, I did not understand the complexity of the situation. All I knew was that people made fun of me for looking different. I was not welcomed because I spoke a different language and some people would throw rocks at me. And that was my introduction into this world: Society teaching me my value was less than because of the way I looked and putting me in my place for thinking otherwise.

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Michelle holds a picture she drew when she visited her grandpa's house in Busan in 2004. (Courtesy/ Michelle Kim)

Getting treated that way only made me feel hatred towards myself and shame for things I could not control. I rejected every fiber of my being, such as the shape of my eyes, how I spoke, my culture, my religion and my traditions as well as developing a deep resentment towards those who bullied me, yet simultaneously longing to be and look like them just so that I could feel beautiful and accepted.

And that’s what set me behind. When I was 5, my kindergarten teacher met with my parents because I was the only one who wouldn’t talk in class. Why speak when the world was teaching me my voice didn’t matter? When I was 8, I was learning how to read Dr. Seuss while everyone else could read “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

During my early adolescence, when I needed my dad the most, he was far away in Georgia working once again to make ends meet while my brother, mom and I stayed in Vancouver. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder but never mention how that yearning may be expressed through melancholy and sorrow. It wasn’t until high school when I was reunited with him by moving to Georgia, but I was held back a year because my high school in Vancouver was underfunded and lost its accreditation.

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In September 2019, Michelle became a citizen of the United States. (Courtesy/ Michelle Kim)

Constantly growing up in an unstable environment where I was forced to move from one place to another, saying goodbye to old friends and making anew time and time again gave me no sense of security nor belonging. Now while all my classmates are able to find internships and full-time jobs, I am teaching myself that the past does not define me, and I am developing the confidence to love myself and recognize that I am just as capable.

I wonder if my family’s sacrifices were done in vain. Am I living in the world that they aspired for? Just like how my dad worked hard so that I could have a better life, I do the same to honor what he stands for and the values he instilled in me. I don’t expect handouts, I work to sustain my livelihood. But when I clock in and put my name tag on at the Dining Hall, they still call me Stacey, the other Asian girl. I’m told we look the same, but they never say that about Susie and Danielle who have the same hair and same style of clothes.

I’m asked, “Where are you from?” and “ Are you not from America?”, which are reminders that no matter how hard you try to run away from the painful past, it still finds a way to creep up behind you.

Why love if I am constantly objectified, fetishized and dehumanized? Why vote if I am told that I am statistically insignificant? Do we even matter if schools do not educate us on the historical oppression against Asian Americans when they do so for other marginalized groups? Why work hard if the fruits of my labor will not be recognized and be limited by the bamboo ceiling? Why speak when I am silenced?

For too long, Asian Americans have been swept under the rug. We aspire to be fighters but end up being the punching bag. We work tirelessly to be the sharpest knife in the kitchen but get treated like the cutting board. When we cry for help because our grandmas and grandpas come home with broken bones and bruises, those who are supposed to serve us turn the other cheek.

We get murdered just to make headlines, and those who could have been my mom, my sister or even myself get reduced down to a number. “But was that really a hate crime?”

He had a “sex addiction.”

What if you told me that your daughter was raped and the first thing I asked you was, “Well, what was she wearing?” What if you told me you lost your dad in a car accident, and I asked you, “But was he the one drinking behind the wheel?”

Wouldn’t you want me to say, “I’m sorry she had to go through that” or “I’m sorry for your loss.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what she was wearing or if he was drinking. What matters is that someone you love, someone whose life is sacred and valuable was ripped away in an unjust manner, and society is spitting at your face and showing you that people who look like you don’t matter because pity is given to the murderer for having a bad day.

What about Randy who was playing League of Legends, then suddenly got a phone call telling him he’s gotta be the one raising his little brother because his mom, who was the sole provider is now dead? What about Xiaojie Tan who wouldn’t be able to celebrate her 50th birthday with her daughter anymore? What about Gwangho Lee who can’t work right now because hearing about how his wife Soon Chung Park is no longer living, was just too much?

I’m tired of trying to keep the peace. I’m tired of hiding who I am, hoping others will view me as an equal rather than “the other.” I shouldn’t be afraid to pack noodles for lunch and worry about being called a racial slur for eating it. I shouldn’t have to wonder why the reason Jack is only talking to Robert and Chelsea and not me is because he thinks of me as less than. I’m tired of feeling like I’m a burden. No more are the days of being dismissed as the model minority. Enough is enough.

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Michelle poses with her classmates at a picnic hosted by the music school she attended when she still lived in Busan, South Korea in 2000. (Courtesy/ Michelle Kim)

I want change. I want to look back on my life and be comforted by the fact that I did everything I could to make sure my kids grow up in a world better than the one I was brought into. Just like what my parents did for me. And to get there, I need your help. I need you to show me that I won’t be judged for being different, but rather accepted. I need you to show me that you will try to understand and in return I will do the same. Please reach out to me when I am in a time of need and in return, for you I will make sure it is received. I know what it’s like to be heard but not listened to.

All I’m asking for is to help set the stage so we know what it's like to be the lead role in a play. Don’t tell us how to be Macbeth, but let us show you from our perspective. Just like how you may say “every gray cloud has a silver lining,” we believe it is “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” As Asian Americans, we have been put on the bench for too long and all we ask for is a chance to shoot our shot.