I was an angsty teenager, a budding Korean-American chick who felt oppressed in Maryland. I revolted against strict parental controls implemented on every media device, house rules that enforced social isolation, and an inconsistent model of what it meant to be Korean in a white community. I had no allies, just me and my thoughts — and my music.
During a trip to the CD store at the local mall, I scored Blink-182’s Enema of the State. Fond of the chorus and the promise of the future, I played “Going Away to College” on repeat on my Walkman. “I haven’t been this scared in a long time/And I’m so unprepared so here’s your Valentine/Bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody/The world’s an ugly place, but you’re so beautiful to me.” I couldn’t wait to get out.
Despite my internal struggles, I was a dedicated student and a varsity field hockey player. At the beginning of every practice, my teammates and I ran laps around the field to warm up. At one of those practices, an older student I admired recounted her college trip to Northwestern University. Mocking one of her roommates, she told our group: “I wanted to say, 'Ugh, you’re such a loser. You’re so Asian.'” I, the only Asian girl on the team, stood near the back of the cluster. My heart pounded loudly, the beating overwhelming my ears. I was ashamed and angry. I held back hot tears and wanted to scream. There’s nothing like the adrenaline that surges during a racist encounter. But in that moment, I couldn’t say anything.
Infuriated by how my Korean identity made me a target, I numbed myself with work, pouring myself into my academics, piling on more extracurricular activities. But even my coping methods came under scrutiny: I battled the myth of the model minority, having to be apologetic for my strengths because they made other people feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to get away, to start over, and shuffle off the coil of my Asian-ness.
My battle with depression also began during my teenage years. When all the anger of racial injustice quieted, when I wasn’t burying myself in work, Blink-182’s “Adam’s Song” played softly in the background: “I laughed the loudest who’d have known?/I’m too depressed to go on/You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” As a Korean-American girl with attitude and ambition, I was told I didn’t have a place in a white world. There were only two options: escape or perish.
I escaped. But it took me a long time to recover and to start feeling comfortable with my roots and native tongue. Looking for an education and sunny days, I moved to Miami in 2015. But because the Korean population in the Magic City was only 0.1 percent, I was confronted with the same racism I had grappled with when I was growing up in Maryland. In Miami, I grew tired of hearing people whisper “chinita” behind my back as if I couldn’t understand, being asked whether I was from North or South Korea, and seeing people stretch the skin around their eyes at me. That instinctive reaction to racism roared again in my chest, and I felt disillusioned.
But after some time, Miami began showing interest in Korean culture, especially K-pop. In 2017, the K-pop artist G-Dragon played to a packed American Airlines Arena. The multicultural K-pop boy band NCT127 performed at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables earlier this year. And I noticed more Korean-fusion restaurants opening across the city.
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Next up, the K-pop band Day6 is slated to perform at the Fillmore Miami Beach Wednesday, September 18. Though the group's music is classified as K-pop, its sound is reminiscent of the punk-pop bands I played during my teen years. When I hear the momentous rhythms, the sharp staccato of the drums, and the anthemic vocalizations, I’m transported back to the angst of my high-school days. In the song “Shoot Me,” from the group's 2018 EP, Shoot Me: Youth Part 1, the band sings the explosive chorus: “Bang, bang/I’m OK/Baby just hurt me/I’m OK/It hurts so bad.”
I always wanted to see someone in pop culture who looked like me, spoke my language, and actualized my story through their art. For young Miamians of Korean descent, particularly those who are struggling with the same feeling of isolation I felt as a teenager, seeing Day6 could provide a catharsis and a haven. There’s nothing like feeling seen by your own culture. If more bands and cultural figures like Day6 were popular when I was growing up, my relationship with my Korean-American identity would have looked quite different.
Being a minority in the United States is not easy. Racism is something we battle every day. We must send the message that discrimination and bigotry of any form are intolerable. We must help all those struggling with the mental health effects of oppression. In times of strife, in times of hurt, and in times of trauma, music is a refuge.