Ann Arbor is a bubble-community. A bubble community as in perfect-looking from the outside and the people on the inside keep to themselves. Most people living here seem to be nuclear families with white-collar jobs. When I was younger, I assumed the rest of America was pretty much just like Ann Arbor. On family vacations, my family would avoid any “dangerous” parts of cities, as if to shield me from the realities of the world. Not every place was like Ann Arbor. Detroit was always the place to avoid. (Think: “The Lion King” where Mufasa tells Simba to not go to any place the sun does not touch.)
Ann Arbor is also home to the University of Michigan, heralded as a liberal bastion and where some of the state’s most progressive ideas sprout. The place where Democrats come to give their echo chamber speeches and start their campaigns. It doesn’t take long to look up Ann Arbor’s awards on the city’s website, where one can find all the accolades a city can achieve. No. 1 most educated, best city to live in America. The list goes on.
For a young, 3-year-old Korean boy, Ann Arbor is also the place I have called home for the past 18 years of my life. Born in Jeonju, South Korea, I moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., when I was 3. My earliest memories include snow, waist deep, fall leaves and the maize block ‘M.’ (Yes, there are plenty of pictures of me as a baby with Michigan clothing on.) I was also pretty much the only Korean kid. The few Korean friends I had always moved back to Korea or other places across the country with more diversity.
You would expect having grown up in a place so well educated and known for its quality of life that I would have had a blessed childhood. On one hand, yes, I am enormously thankful for the opportunities afforded to me by living in this city. Perks including the gorgeous city parks, all the educational opportunities the University puts forth, etc. Many of my classmates’ parents were educated and many worked for the University as doctors and professors. It was harder if anything to find someone who had not completed a postsecondary education. All big pull factors for my parents to choose to live in Ann Arbor.
However, there was a flip side to all this perfection. In this seemingly utopian place that I grew up, I still struggled. As a Korean American growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I had many moments where I felt like an outsider, when I became cognizant of my race.
For starters, I’ve always had all the typical questions asked of me as an Asian American. Think of the questions such as “Where are you from?” As if they really want to know what ethnicity I am. Questions that signaled to me that there was no possible way I could have really been just an American. It was usually never OK that I just said Ann Arbor.
One of the first indicators was my name. In elementary school, I took piano lessons with this white teacher who refused to pronounce my name right. She always called me “Yoong.” No matter how many times my mother would try and correct her, she seemed so confident and sure that she knew my name better than the woman who had given birth to me and chosen that name for me. Moments like these did not stop there, whether it be the moments in Panera when I spell my name out for the cashier, and I get back receipts spelled “Yung.” It is as if the other person was expecting a misspelling because my name obviously meant I was from a foreign country, and my parents did not know English spelling. There were also the many times people would refuse to even attempt to use my first name and settle for my last name Lee. Literally no effort given.
In second grade, I was also randomly called one day to go to English as a Second Language. Unsure why I was being called out of my class, I followed a woman into a room with the alphabet plastered all over the walls. I sat there even more confused when I was handed a worksheet with the simple sentence “The dog ran.” This sentence was accompanied by a colorful, tacky graphic straight out of a book for toddlers. As I enunciated all my English words perfectly, I was deemed “acculturated” enough to resume my school year with the rest of my class. I wonder what kind of assumptions those people had about me based on my name and color of my skin. If they even ever cared to check or ask my teacher if I was proficient in English.
Feeling like an outsider didn’t stop there. There were also the many times during school lunches where I dumped packed lunches or let them run cold in my lunch box. I would starve or pull out the few “appropriate” snacks for lunch I would have that included packaged crackers and sliced apples. The few foods that wouldn’t garner judging looks and wrinkled noses. How desperately I just wanted a brown paper bag and a PB&J sandwich.
Then there were the moments in class where I knew I didn’t belong. In my music class in elementary schools we covered American singers. Our music teacher would always encourage us to go home and ask our parents about the singers we learned in class. As a diligent student, I tried to ask my parents, but they never knew what I was talking about. I would ask them earnestly with eyes begging for some sort of connection, anything. I would have taken it even if they had remembered a different band with a similar sounding name. Instead, my mother would tell me about her favorite Korean singers growing up.
After elementary school, there were no talks about my heritage. The diversity nights stopped. It was only about preparing ourselves for college.
In high school, I remember opening a textbook to try to read anything about Korea. As a textbook from a world history course, I safely assumed there would be at least one chapter or even a page about Korea. Something that for the first time would tell me that who I was mattered in my academic studies. I scrambled through the pages before opening to the index, heart beating faster as I flipped to the appropriate page numbers. What I found was but a small sliver of a paragraph about the shoe industry. I am not sure what was the sadder part. The fact that it was only that paragraph or that I was not even shocked or distraught, having been so used to the sharp barrier of my Korean home life and my time in school. During that same “world” history course, we spent two days on the ancient Chinese civilization (at least I had the same skin tone) before spending the entire school year on other history.
I remember learning about the civil rights movement, but I do not remember any conversations on the place of Asian Americans in it. I did not know or ever learn who Grace Lee Boggs and her contribution to the movement were. Never did I learn about who Vincent Chin was, brutally targeted and murdered for taking away supposed jobs from white union auto workers. No one celebrated Asian History Month (It’s in May.) All moments where I learned that my identity was not important or valued enough to be learned.
From elementary school through high school and my entire time in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system, I had never been taught by someone who was Asian. The closest I got to an authority figure who looked like me was a lunch supervisor named Mr. Lu in elementary school. Mr. Lu was a pretty chill guy, and I felt as if he also felt a bond with me being one of the few Asian students. In his broken English, he would always try and ask me questions. Though I struggled to understand him, I felt a bond with him like no other.
It wasn’t until college where I had a community who understood where I was coming from. Being surrounded for the first time in my life with enough Korean Americans who I could see daily, it was validating. All those experiences I had faced before college would not be questioned of me again. College was where I felt for the first time I could meet people who looked and grew up like me. Who understood me. Where I could now just be myself and present my personality instead of combatting a stereotyped image of who I was for the first few weeks of class.
Looking back, these were all moments where I should have spoken my mind. However, I just took it to be the way things were, never given the space or tools to critically think through these experiences.
Some of the places that need the most reform are the places you’d least expect it. The places where things seem fine from the outside. The places where diversity is being celebrated may also be the places where it is being noticed the least. For a city that talks a lot about being accepting, there has been plenty that has been glossed over. The utopian image that is oft shed on Ann Arbor was certainly not the experience I had. The bubble my parents hoped I would be brought up in was popped by the realities and thorns of stereotypes, biases and assumptions.
Tolerance should never be a mask for recognizing or highlighting our differences. In fact, tolerance is more damaging. Diversity nights should not be Band-aids placed over lack of representation in course material. To be clear, the message I received growing up was not one actively seeking to ostracize or demean my culture, but one that never taught me to embrace and celebrate it. If Ann Arbor claims to be the progressive beacon of light it makes itself out to be, it’s time to step it up. Talk is cheap.