Dear Tiffany, What Does It Mean to be ‘Korean Enough’?
In pretty much every K-pop group, there is the designated One From America.
November is gimjang month.
In Korea or within the diaspora, families and communities come together to make huge quantities of kimchi, traditionally meant to last a year. A gimjang is usually an all-day affair that starts the night before by quartering heads of napa cabbage and salting and brining them overnight. The next day, everyone comes together to chop or mandolin mu (Korean radish) and scallions and other ingredients, make a slurry of broth and glutinous rice, and help out in other ways.
The gimjang comes to a close with a feast of bossam (boiled pork) eaten with the remaining salted cabbage and radish filling, washed down with makkeolli and laughter. It’s a traditional thing, going back centuries to when the kimchi making was relegated to the working class as the yanbans (elites) did nothing. To incentivize the laborers, the elites would reward them with a whole pig.
Gimjang is one of the most quintessential Korean traditions, given how kimchi is a necessary part of Korean dinner tables, but I only learned that bossam was a part of gimjangs in 2021. Despite having grown up in an immigrant Korean family, there’s just so much I don’t know.
In pretty much every K-pop group, there is the designated One From America. Though in more recent years, these members have diversified—they could be from Australia or New Zealand or Canada, and, nowadays, they might not even be ethnically Korean, like Henry Lau, a Chinese Canadian member of Super Junior-M, a subunit of boy band Super Junior. The point is that they are the English speaker, the supposed foreigner who most often grew up in the diaspora and returned to Korea to pursue stardom.
They all undergo the same transformation to shed their foreignness, their gyopo-ness, and become Korean.
Despite having grown up in an immigrant Korean family, there’s just so much I don’t know.
Koreans who were born and/or raised outside of Korea are called gyopos, a word that means “nationals” but that has come to have negative connotations. Gyopos straddle two cultures, and we have varying relationships with our Korean heritage. Often, we’re less obsessive about staying pale, we do our makeup with stronger colors and contours (as opposed to Koreans’ preference for the no-makeup makeup look), and we dress differently. So when we visit Korea or stand next to Korean Koreans, we stick out like sore thumbs.
Some Korean Koreans don’t always take kindly to gyopos, assuming us to be foreigners who have assimilated and lost our Koreanness along the way. As I learned when researching this essay, it’s to the point that, sometimes, we’re referred to as “black-haired aliens.” This dislike can be even more marked when we’re women; many of my male friends have been largely obtuse when it comes to this prejudice because they’re heaped with praise and wonder and desirability in Korea when they speak English. It’s okay for male gyopos to exude their foreignness because their English speaking and supposed assimilation are seen as markers of success—an attitude that doesn’t extend to women, who are often looked down upon for not being able to speak Korean or not conforming to Korean beauty standards or simply not being Korean “enough.”
It’s no surprise then that, in female K-pop groups, the One From America doesn’t stand out. By the time she debuts, she has been transformed. Her gyopo-ness has been bleached out of her.
Tiffany was one of two American girls in Girls’ Generation, one of the biggest girl groups in K-pop history. Born in California, she grew up in Diamond Bar, and, at the age of fifteen, she was recruited by SM Entertainment from a music festival in Los Angeles. She moved to Korea on her own, leaving her family behind; trained for two years; and debuted in 2007 as a vocalist of Girls’ Generation.
Her transformation seemed flawless.
I argue that the difference between Korean Koreans and gyopos comes out most visibly in skin tone. Koreans prize pale skin, a lasting continuation of the colorism that has come down through centuries that is not about desiring Eurocentric whiteness but about social class. Historically, you could only have that prized milky skin if you were from the upper class. Laborers—the lower class, the non-elite—had to be outside, in the fields, in the sun, and their tan skin marked them, giving them away as commoners.
To this day, paleness is a criterion in Korean beauty standards. Some women will wear hats, carry parasols, and pull on gloves to cover their hands and arms while driving, all to avoid the sun and preserve their skin.
In Tiffany’s predebut photos, she looks like your average Southern California girl. Her hair is heavily highlighted, her skin tan. She wears tank tops and doesn’t wear a lot of makeup and looks like your normal sun-kissed suburban teenager, one you’d see eating bingsoo (shaved ice) and gossiping with friends in Koreatown on a Saturday night.
When she debuted as part of Girls’ Generation in 2007, she looked almost like a different person. She was pale, for one, and her hair had been cut and perfectly styled in a long bob. Her makeup was done to make her look natural, and she already assumed the aegyo and cute mannerisms expected of a young girl in Korea. She learned to emphasize her noon-ooseum (literally: “eye laughter”), the way her eyes crinkle into perfect half-moons when she smiles, and to eat daintily and adorably, hinting at an appetite that appealed to Koreans’ love for food while maintaining the body standard of thinness. You wouldn’t have known she was born and raised in the US until she spoke English, her Los Angeles accent spilling out of her mouth.
Unlike Tiffany, when I’m in a group of Korean Koreans, I often stick out like a sore thumb. I’m often too tall, for one, and my skin is too tan. My eyebrows are angled, not fluffed into the straighter, thicker lines preferred by Korean Koreans. I don’t wear makeup, and I wear the “wrong” clothes, clothes that aren’t on trend anywhere or fitted properly. I don’t even have to open my mouth before my person gives me away.
Sometimes, this works to my advantage; Korean Koreans tend to assume I don’t know any Korean because I’m clearly a gyopo, but then I can speak back to them in Korean. Korean, technically, was my first language, even though I was born in Queens, so I don’t have the typical gyopo accent but one my mother laughs at for being unidentifiable.
Other times, though, understanding the derision of Korean Koreans is not so fun.
Once, in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, I got on an elevator with a friend. I was holding a paper tray of boongeobbang in my hands, little fish-shaped cakes stuffed with paht, sweet red bean. There were two Korean Koreans in the elevator with us, and, as we ascended up the parking garage, they snickered quietly between each other as one asked the other in Korean, Do you think they even know what that is?
I promptly turned to my friend and loudly started talking about boongeobbang, how nice it was to find it here. I said it was one of my favorite pastries, a popular street food in Korea that was rare in Los Angeles when I was growing up, and that I didn’t know this cart was here. I did genuinely hope that we would start seeing more Korean pastries, like hoddeok (sweet pancakes stuffed with a sugar filling) and hodugwaja (walnut-shaped pastries filled with paht), in the US, both because they were delicious and because they were so much a part of Koreanness to me. To know these foods, to recognize and crave them, was a way to claim this identity for myself, as I pointedly tried to get across to these Korean Koreans on the elevator: Okay, I know my Korean foods, and I can speak the language; don’t try to condescend to me because I don’t look Korean enough for you. They were silent the rest of the way.
This experience, luckily, is humorous, but the experience of being a gyopo is not always so kind.
The first time I ever made kimchi was in 2019. A friend and I decided to cohost a gimjang in my Brooklyn studio apartment, even though neither of us knew what we were doing—we’d never done this before. I grew up in suburban Los Angeles, a thirty-minute drive from Koreatown, the largest community of Koreans outside of Korea, where my family had access to the best Korean food, to freshly made kimchi and ddeok, so making kimchi wasn’t a thing my family did.
I’m the odd one out in my family in that I love food. I love to cook. I started teaching myself to cook in high school, trying to pick up knowledge or advice wherever I could, and, for the longest time, my lack of formal training ate away at me. The deepest imposter syndrome I feel to this day centers around food, an insecurity that was borne from a decade-plus of body shaming that taught me to associate shame with my love for food. It is an insecurity that is heightened when it comes to Korean food.
I only started cooking Korean food in 2014, two years after I moved to Brooklyn from Los Angeles. All the Korean food I’d taken for granted—handmade kimchi and mandu, fresh ddeok of all kinds, easy access to soju—all of it was gone. Manhattan’s Koreatown (really just K-block) could barely scratch the surface of a craving, but Flushing was too far, Fort Lee and Palisades Park in New Jersey even farther—and, even when I did venture anywhere, everything paled in comparison to what I could find in Los Angeles.
And so I started trying to cook Korean food in earnest for the first time, but then there was a whole new layer of feeling like a fraud: I had grown up in an immigrant Korean family, but I didn’t know anything. My parents didn’t enforce traditions or teach me how to cook, and, sure, I knew how I thought Korean food should taste, but I didn’t know a goddamn thing about Korean ingredients, technique, or recipes. For much of my life, I had prided myself on being a bilingual, bicultural kid, but, when it came to food, to the thing that mattered most to me, I found myself falling through all the gaps in my knowledge.
I wonder often if it’s possible to exist in these blurred spaces between two identities. In recent years, at restaurants like Jua and Atoboy and at Kāwi before it closed, we’ve been seeing Korean American chefs in New York City take the food they grew up with to create something new, food that depicts the complexities of Korean Americanness with creative spins on classic Korean foods like kimbap, jajangmyeon, the entire concept of banchan. Korean American cooking gives me glimmers of hope, of new ways to be and spaces to occupy as a gyopo, but, when I look at K-pop stars, Korean Americanness still doesn’t seem desirable—Americanness, otherness, is only tolerable if it’s diluted down and masked by Koreanness.
Step out of Koreanness and betray your foreignness, and some Koreans won’t let you forget it.
In 2008, a year after Girls’ Generation’s debut, Tiffany came under fire constantly for being “rude.” Her haters would declare that she was one of the most hated members in the group, and she was called out for not addressing those senior to her with the proper honorifics, for teasing them on variety shows, for this and that, for being an airhead Californian. Tiffany could speak flawless Korean and deploy aegyo naturally, but even she wasn’t immune from being a target for not being “Korean enough.”
I wonder often if it’s possible to exist in these blurred spaces between two identities.
Today, Tiffany calls Los Angeles home, and she is focused on a career as a soloist and actress. She released an all-English EP in 2019, and she seems more relaxed, more herself, jumping between the States and Korea. She’s still a member of Girls’ Generation and is still close with the other members. But she’s no longer with SM Entertainment, the company that signed her, shaped her into the K-pop idol she was, and controlled her image for ten years. Maybe it was a natural split, one that would have happened anyway, but there was this: In August 2016, while in Japan with Girls’ Generation for a concert, Tiffany posted a photo with two friends with a caption that simply said “babes” followed by the emojis for the Japanese flag and a heart. She shared a photo on Snapchat with a location sticker that said “Tokyo, Japan,” the second o filled in with the rising sun, an image of Japanese imperialism.
August 15 is National Liberation Day in Korea, the day Korea was finally released from decades of Japanese occupation, during which Japan systematically sought to erase Koreanness, from forbidding Koreans from speaking Korean to forcing Shinto customs to breeding out native strains of Korean rice. Tiffany slipped in showing her ignorance of a major celebration day in Korea, in showing her foreignness as someone who hadn’t been born, raised, or educated in Korea and had moved to the country into the bubble that was the K-pop machine.
Soon after, it was announced that Tiffany was pulling out of her variety show. She issued two handwritten apologies on social media. She disappeared from the public eye until the furor died down and she could safely, quietly take part in Girls’ Generation’s new album in 2017. Later that year, as Girls’ Generation was renewing their contracts, ten years after their debut, it wasn’t a surprise when Tiffany was one of three members who didn’t renew her contract.
Girls’ Generation hasn’t officially disbanded though; any new appearances or recordings as a group are now negotiated by various companies. In September 2021, they reunited for their first group appearance since 2017 as guests on the variety show You Quiz on the Block. After a few years of watching Tiffany promote music as a Korean American soloist in the US, I was awestruck at how easily she slipped back into her Korean self, at how natural it is for her to move between worlds. I almost envy her that.
And, so, kimchi.
In 2019, a friend and I decided to cohost a gimjang. Neither of us had made kimchi before, and, after I did a quick Google search and lazily scrolled through a few recipes, I thought, Eh, to hell with it, and just decided to wing it. I might not have made kimchi before, but I knew how I liked it to taste. I’d been doing more cooking of Korean food over the years, so I had a sense of ingredients and how they come together. We’d figure it out.
I dare say it was a success. Our gimjang wasn’t perfect, but our group of eight was pleased with the results. For a first attempt, our kimchi was pretty good, a base from which I’d go on to continue making tiny batches of kimchi periodically, tweaking as I went.
As exciting as it was to be making my own kimchi, my insecurities continued to haunt me as I kept coming back to wondering, Am I doing this right? What am I missing? How much will Koreans judge me and think I’m a screwup for not knowing how to make kimchi? Am I not Korean enough? I learned in 2021 that Koreans eat bossam after gimjang, but I didn’t know why—and I felt stupid for not knowing.
In 2021, as I planned my next gimjang, I also kept asking myself, Does it matter if I’m doing this “wrong”? What does “wrong” even mean? And, if there is a “wrong” way to make kimchi and I’m doing it wrong, so what? No one taught me how to do any of this, just like no one taught me how to cook, just like no one taught me how to be Korean. No one expected me to hold on to the language, to love the culture and entertainment, to find so much comfort in the food. I taught myself how to be. Just as Tiffany seems to have settled into her idea of who she should be (at least as a K-pop star), maybe I have too.
And then, there’s this—when we don’t grow up with traditions, we have the freedom to make our own.
Part of that, to me, is trying out these traditions with friends who are also curious and figuring it out together. For our 2021 gimjang, I squirreled away information Korean chefs had shared of their own gimjangs. I watched YouTube videos by Korean chefs and cooks about how to make bossam, a dish I’d never made before. I tried to fill in the gaps in my knowledge while learning to be okay with them because these gaps, too, are a part of who I am.