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COMIC: Korean American books inspired one artist to redefine her identity

A young girl is drawing a dog as adults look over her shoulder asking "Do you think of yourself as Korean or American?" Illustrator Dabin Han says, it's a question that I've been asked since before I knew what it meant to be either.
My relatives would ask me follow-up questions, like: "Do you dream in Korean or in English?" "Are you going to marry someone who's Korean or American?" "What language will your children speak?" You'd think that an either-or question would be easy to answer, but for some reason, it's taken me years to figure it out. Young Dabin looks up at the quote bubbles with her relatives' questions.
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As a child, I got the sense that the adults around me already had their minds made up about me. I tried my best to avoid later-generation stereotypes by: Speaking Korean at home and insisting on bringing Korean food to school. But the verdict seemed clear. For now, I was Korean, but inevitably, I would become American. Images of young Dabin speaking Korean and her lunch with kimbap and kimchi.
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A large white person looks at young Dabin who is in a glass container with some leaves on the bottom. The person asks "What are you?" It was never anything I actually thought about — I didn't want to think about the way other people saw me... You know what I mean?
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The question has entered my life again — not because anyone has been asking me, but because I've been asking it to myself. I've been reading books by Korean American authors and I notice myself connecting with the writing in ways that I had never experienced before. It was as if they had given voice to the thoughts I'd never say out loud. Images of writers Cathy Park Hong and Michelle Zauner.
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Seeing these books in window fronts and on bestseller lists was liberating. Dabin walks by a bookstore window and notices the book covers. The conflict of wanting to lie low and not be seen. Dabin yells "hey" in a crowd. And the desire for my experiences to be acknowledged felt not only worthy of discussion, but necessary to the larger discussion taking place nationally.
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Because of these writers, I'm finally reading experiences that are about living in the murky area of being neither distinctly Korean nor American. I'm learning about the history of the term "Asian American" and finally understanding why that label has always felt too vast and too limiting. I'm learning about the complicated history of Asians in America that goes beyond whiteness and assimilation.
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What I'm learning is that I can't choose between being Korean or American because they are not separable identities. It is a relief to hear complicated answers to a question that has always been posed so casually. But the answers also give rise to new and uncomfortable questions. The edges of an American and Korean passports are seen.
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For the first time, I feel eager to ask the questions: "What does it mean to be Korean?" Dabin is seen reading a book.
/ Dabin Han for NPR
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Dabin Han for NPR

Dabin Han is an illustrator and comic artist based in Seattle.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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