Child of an immigrant, proud Korean-American Airman

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Michelle Chang
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

I am the child of an immigrant.

I went to a private, Lutheran, predominantly white, upper-middle-class school during the week, and a Korean immigrant church on Sundays. My communities primarily consisted of upper-middle-class white friends from school, and mostly middle-class Korean-Americans from church. I became very used to code-switching: I was as close to white-American as I could get during the school week, and a bit more Korean-American on the weekends.

When I was younger, I often prided myself in not being fully immersed in the Korean-American culture like my peers at church. Many of them went to school at predominantly Asian schools and, in my mind at the time, I was “more American” than them. I considered myself “whitewashed” and felt I had succeeded in assimilating into the American culture better. I would brag that most of my friends were white, and that I hardly ever hung out with other Korean-American kids. Growing up in a Korean household, however, made it difficult to fully flee the culture all around me. Both of my parents had a whole other lived experience prior to donning the American identity, as they both grew up in the greater Seoul region of Korea and did all their schooling there. They both immigrated to the states in their 20s, which is now close to 30 years ago.

A family friend (a now retired lieutenant colonel in the Army) encouraged me to join the military when I was in high school, and after a year in college, I decided join the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. I found it intriguing that my Korean-American parents were pushing me to join the United States Armed Forces. My dad had been forced to serve in the Korean Army and I would have thought he would highly discourage serving in the military, but that was not the case. 

Around the time of my grandfather’s passing in 2019, I began to learn more about my grandparents and their lives. Both of them grew up in North Korea before the war broke out, but had been endangered by the communist regime and were forced to flee. From a young age, their loyalty to South Korea and the U.S. was founded on its association to their safety. The North threatened the well-being of their families while the South and the U.S. offered a safe place to land. My grandfather also served in the South Korean Air Force in World War II and would occasionally mention it from time to time while I was growing up. To think, that I ended up following in his footsteps, just in a very different context decades later.

It then made sense to me historically, culturally, and within our family context, that my family would encourage military service. So I did. It was difficult at times to understand that there weren’t a lot of people in my circle who joined the military or that even looked at the military positively. Save for a couple of individuals, I didn’t see a lot of cadets that looked like me, and felt a bit lonely at times. But with the love and support of my family and friends, I made it through the program.

While in college, I began to explore more deeply what it meant to be a Korean-American. I took ethnic studies classes and started to learn about the history of immigration in the U.S., and the relationship between Korea and the U.S. following the Korean War. I realized there was a large consensus in Korea that looked upon the U.S. very fondly, but also that there were small groups that did not. My family, along with most immigrant families, naturally, fell in the camp of being pro-America. 

Throughout my college career, I spent quite a bit of time exploring and understanding my ethnic identity and what that meant to me. I traced back the memories in which I had felt proud to shed my ethnic identity and began instead to embrace and celebrate it. I began to accept my parents and the fact that they would never be like my friends’ parents who spoke perfect English and could converse easily with my other friends. Being a part of a multi-ethnic Christian fellowship on campus helped me realize diversity is something to be celebrated, not to be watered down. The flavors and experiences we can share in a room full of representation is what makes America, America.

I used to think being American meant being white-American. “Traditional” American. I realized that I, as a second generation Korean-American, born and raised in the U.S., am just as American as my peers. Migration is a natural progression of human nature. America was founded on and grew on the basis of migration here. The strength of America is its diversity. 

With all that has been coming to light in recent months, I realize much of the conversation around diversity and inclusion are actually about belonging. Who belongs here? In America, in California, in Washington, in the Department of Defense, in the Air Force. I am an American, just as much as the next, and to think that I could be questioned because of how I look is frustrating. I proudly serve my country, understanding its strengths and weaknesses, and desperately wanting a future where people who look like me will no longer be questioned or seen as the foreigner.

One of Air Mobility Command’s primary focuses is diversity and inclusion. For all the time periods in the history of the military that I could have joined, I’m so glad it’s now. We’re not perfect by any means, but I am proud to serve in a force where we are able to swallow our pride and acknowledge our problems. I am proud to serve in a force that encourages us to embrace one another in all of our differences, and come around the table together.

As a minority woman in the Air Force, I understand I will not often see myself represented, and have had to come to terms with that. I understand it might not be so easy as to have many shared experiences with other officers for that reason as well. But one of my strengths has always been pushing my comfort zone and I thrive in new environments. I learned to make friends, and converse with people who might not think like me. I push forward, knowing and trusting that I have something to offer; that my unique experiences as an Asian American will benefit my work and the work of the Airmen around me.