Building Bridges as a Disabled Korean Immigrant
The summer when I turned thirteen, my family of five – my parents, two younger brothers, and I – moved from Seoul, Korea to a small city in central New York. This was more than 12 years ago, but I still vividly remember some parts of this drastic transition: my family had more than 20 pieces of luggage when we flew from Seoul to New York; my parents did not have a car, let alone driver’s licenses for the first few months, so we had to rely on others to go anywhere; my academic performance went from consistently getting As to frequently missing homework assignments because I couldn’t understand that they had been assigned in the first place, and literally failing quizzes and exams.
More than anything, however, it was my blindness that allowed me to experience perhaps the biggest impact of this transition. Being able to attend a “regular” school as opposed to the school for the blind and take classes with sighted peers every day, becoming friends with classmates who have different types of disabilities, having Braille placards by every classroom door at a school not intended solely for only blind students, meeting blind adults with various jobs – ranging from chemist to statistician to lawyer – was my new reality. Even as a teenager, I knew it was a great privilege to be in this new reality – America, where there were laws in place to protect the rights of disabled people to live, study, play, and work alongside the nondisabled. At the same time, this reality began to feel like a multi-layered burden as I began to form and understand different elements of who I am: a disabled, 1.5 generation Korean-American immigrant*.
The first layer I can name is pressure – pressure to fulfill the “American dream” – to attend a prestigious university, climb the social ladder by getting a stable job, and do good for the world. The idea of making the “American dream” come true seemed to be always present in my family. Ever since I was in the 8th grade, my parents began taking me to college fairs that took place at Korean churches in New York City – a 5-hour train ride away from where we lived at the time. I was still labeled as an English language learner and was barely keeping up with my coursework, but my parents seemed to believe that I would have a shot at getting into “great universities.”
The pressure only intensified after I entered high school. Much of the conversations with my father throughout high school I can recall were about my grades, college rankings, and career, at times in a harsh tone out of frustration. I longed to talk about something else with him, but I honestly don’t know what that would have been. I liked the idea of doing well in school and attending well-renowned universities but I often felt trapped by the seemingly narrow definition of success. I did not know this at the time, but now I can name this as the “model minority myth,” that Asian American students are expected to be obedient, always do well in school, attain higher education, and achieve upward mobility.
I also felt pressure through the occasional family road trips which always included visiting universities. In these trips and conversations, I heard these messages over and over, loud and clear: “Because you have a disability, you have to work harder than people who don’t have a disability,” and “America at least gives equal opportunity to people with disabilities.” I felt as though I had to achieve one thing after another, to live up to my parents’ expectations, to show everyone that I was maximizing the opportunities, and to prove to the world that I may be disabled but I am still a valuable person to the society. In retrospect, I realize that my parents were intentional in how they spent their limited resources to encourage me to pursue higher education. They expressed their love through high expectations so that I can have more and better opportunities than they ever had. I am deeply grateful to my parents. I believe that their unwavering faith in my potential and capabilities served me well. Nevertheless, I still find myself often wondering if who I am and what I am accomplishing justify my parents’ sacrifices, and counteract the negative stereotypes on disability. I also wonder, at what point I would feel like I fulfilled the “American dream” for my parents and dreams I had for myself.
Going hand in hand with the pressures are wonder and guilt. Why was I given the opportunity to live, study, and work in the United States? Could my parents have had more comfortable lives if it were not for my disability and their desire to give me something better in America? What about my friends from Korea with whom I went to kindergarten and elementary school at the school for the blind? Don’t they also deserve to live in an environment where their rights as disabled people are protected? How can I pay forward and carry on what I have been given? How much of it did I earn, and how much of it did I get because I was lucky that my father could work in the United States, and because disabled activists who came before me paved the way?
Above the pressure, wonder, and guilt, I find disconnect – disconnect between my disability and immigrant identities. I began taking Disability Studies courses in college. The Disability Studies courses fueled my heart. I finally had words to describe what I have been experiencing all my life as a blind person living in the sighted world, and more broadly, as a disabled person living in the world primarily designed for nondisabled people. I was learning about disability history that I had never been taught before. I was learning about the laws that enabled me to have a seat in a world class university lecture hall as a blind student. Most important, I felt like I was given the permission to celebrate and embrace my disability. I felt empowered.
Yet, I sometimes felt a void as I tried to find something that would help me make sense of ways in which my disability and immigrant experience are intertwined. In my mind, I felt like my family’s immigration to the United States and every joy and hardship that came with it are by-products of my disability. Had I not been disabled, would my parents have uprooted their lives to come to a country where they would experience enormous cultural and linguistic barriers? Did any of the disabled activists who have come before me and whom I was learning about share these experiences and sentiments with me? It seemed as though white was the default lived experience of the disability rights movement, much like most other things in America. I wanted to dig deeper into the disparity that exists among the disability community because of people’s racial identity and immigration status. I wanted to learn more about how different communities of color perceive and understand disability, and how that influences young disabled people growing up in these communities.
After many years of living and reflecting on these complex layers of feelings, I have come to accept that the ambivalence and tension I feel will likely be a part of who I am for the rest of my life. The idea of “the American dream” will always feel elusive and centered on nondisabled, white standards. The questions on what might and might not have been for my family, childhood friends, and myself may never get answered. However, I am hopeful that I do have the agency and power to work through my desire to merge my disability and Korean-American identities.
Ever since I gained fluency in English, I have been interpreting for my parents at doctor’s offices, at my own IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings, at the bank, and countless other places. Many of these situations are challenging. Sometimes I am anxious that I might make a mistake in my interpreting; sometimes I barely understand the topic I am interpreting; and at other times, I just feel tired of doing it. At the same time, I feel a great sense of gratification and responsibility to be a bridge between my parents and America that often fails to be accessible to people like my parents who are not fluent in English.
I want to expand the bridge. I hope to be a bridge that connects not only my parents and America, but also the disabled and nondisabled, immigrants and those who were born in America, and the disability community and immigrant community. I am confident that expanding the bridge and encouraging others to build more of them can start in practical ways for all of us.
First is showing up as we are and making the space. Showing up is a step that everyone can take in many different ways. For some, it would mean being on the front line, for some it would mean being at the behind-the-scenes, and for others, it would mean simply holding the moment and the space. Whatever it may look like, I firmly believe that each person’s presence makes a difference. Each one of us has a place in this world, and when that place does not seem so clear and easy to get to, we must make the space by showing up.
Second is speaking our truths, especially those that are often unspoken. When we show up, each one of us brings a unique set of identities and lived experiences. This means we all have a story to share; this means we all experience each issue and situation differently. To the extent we can, our stories and perspectives deserve to be told. When opportunities arise, I am intentional in sharing my lived experience as a Korean-American immigrant in spaces that are more focused on disability. Conversely, I speak up about accessibility needs and disability inclusion in spaces that are focused on people of color and immigrants. In sharing our stories and perspectives, I am confident that different communities will draw closer to one another, acknowledging differences and finding similarities.
As we show up and speak our truths, it is critical that we listen to one another. I am here today because a few of my high school teachers patiently listened to me as I struggled to make sense of my blindness. I am here today because of my friends who empathetically listened to me as I grappled with the in-betweenness of being a 1.5 generation immigrant. Similarly, I learned a great deal whenever my friends and colleagues who kindly gave me an opportunity to listen to them talk about their unique experiences such as what it feels like to be a dyslexic student in a demanding university and what it is like to have grown up in Native communities.
As I reflect on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am reminded of the various bridges that were built to make the ADA possible. People with different types of disabilities across the United States mobilized as one disability community to advocate for the ADA, and congressional members from both sides of the aisle came together to pass the ADA. I believe that by expanding my bridge and encouraging others to do the same, I would be able to carry on the spirit of the ADA. I eagerly look forward to the day when people of diverse backgrounds not only cross the bridges to simply visit other communities, but also meet in the middle of the bridges, hand in hand, to care and advocate for each other.
*I identify as a 1.5 generation Korean-American, because I immigrated to the U.S. in my early adolescence, and therefore have cultural and linguistic understanding of both Korea and the U.S.
Miso Kwak seeks to use research, education, and the arts to make communities more inclusive and equitable. While studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she started Disability Disclosed, an inaugural student publication on disability at Harvard University. She was also an Equity and Inclusion Fellow. In this role, she facilitated intergroup dialogues and training to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the university and surrounding communities. Currently, she works at the Human Services Research Institute, primarily supporting the National Center on Advancing Person-Centered Practices and Systems. In her spare time, she enjoys making music, running, and writing.
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