When Deb Walker called me and asked me to speak at the Celia M. Howard Fellowship Luncheon on the topic of diversity, I was immersed in diversity issues because I was helping the ISBA’s Task Force on Diversity launch a statewide Diversity Survey and I had diversity pouring out of me. I immediately thought I could talk about diversity and the importance of diversity to the ISBA and our local bar association, Peoria County Bar Association, all day long, especially to you.
Then as I learned more about Celia’s own life and what she faced being a square peg in a round world and not being able to attend Harvard Law School even after being awarded a scholarship from the school because of her gender, I thought that talking about the stereotypes and barriers that I faced as a female Korean-American growing up in Iowa would not only be in line with Celia’s courage, but also highlight the fact that we still have a long road ahead of us even years after Celia.
I was a square peg in a round world. When our family immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1977, we didn’t end up in a diverse city like Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago, we ended in a tiny rural town in the Western part of Iowa. There were about 300 residents who were outnumbered by cows and other farm animals. I think the farm animals were more welcoming than the majority of the residents. There were only a small number of people in the community who accepted us. We were the only minority and we stuck out like a sore thumb. At school, we endured the daily comments on our Korean names; I was called “King Kong” because my Korean name was “Kyong” and for some reason kids thought this sounded like “Kong.” We endured comments on our eyes; kids including the youngest ones would pull the skin next to their eyes to mimic our slanted eyes. We endured the comments on the way my parents spoke Korean.
I don’t know exactly when I started to think in English. I was eight when we immigrated to United States and soon after my older brother and I started attending school I noticed a gradual change from thinking in Korean, which I assume that I did, to thinking in English. When this happened and I started to learn about God, it suddenly dawned on me that God played a cruel trick on me by putting my white soul into this brown-colored, slanted-eyed, jet-black-haired girl and planting me with an Oriental family. I vividly remember staring endlessly into a mirror thinking that if I stared hard enough through the mirror, my true white form would appear with ivory skin, blond hair and blue eyes. It never happened and the cruel taunting racial words kept coming and the pain became worse.
The only way we knew how to be accepted, at least by teachers and administrators, was to excel in school. My brother, sister and I spent more time in the library than at any school parties and the only way of escaping from my unpopular physical looks was through the pages of worn library books.
I went through the stereotypical Asian’s track to education, with a biology major with medical or scientific graduate school in mind. I loved art and showed enough talent for my high school art teacher to notice and try to get me into majoring in art, but that was not what Asian parents would want from their children. I also found out that I had to fit into a stereotypical peg. I was taking a calculus class in college when my TA, a recent Chinese immigrant with heavy accent that garnered snickers, took me aside when one of my quiz grades dropped off dramatically. I would have to confess that this was due to late-night partying. The TA scolded me and told me that she expected better from an Asian student who should be good in math. Her comments angered me into studying harder and getting an “A” in that calculus class, but it also startled me into what Asians were expected to be.
Yes, I did a high school theme paper on Asian-Americans being labeled the “model” minority and being pressured into perfection by not only their parents, but society as well. During college, I realized that I did not love science, biology, or chemistry, but instead loved reading about history and culture. When I had to ask my molecular genetics professor to sign a waiver to quit his class because I was failing, the professor looked at me in disgust and echoed the same comment that he expected more from an Asian student.
As I finished my degree in history, I knew that a history degree would either lead me to a career as a teacher or a professor. I realized that these two choices did not fit me, so I thought of law school. When I did, I realized that I was starting from scratch and had no idea what a law degree entailed.
When I entered law school, again I was a square peg in a round world. I was one of four Asian-American students at Northern Illinois University College of Law when I started in 1995. When I graduated from NIUCOL, I worked for my father-in-law for a few months then was offered a job as an assistant public defender in juvenile/neglect court before getting my dream job of working for the City of Peoria as a city prosecutor.
During the first month as a prosecutor for the City of Peoria, again I was hit with the harsh fact of being a square peg in a round world. At the closing of a bench trial on a noise upon the public way ordinance violation case and as the judge announced his finding that the defendant was guilty, the defendant commented under his breath some derogatory “Chinese”-mimicking words. I was very familiar with those words, those words were the same words that the kids had wickedly mocked at me earlier in my childhood. Suddenly I was hurled back to the hurt little girl crying in her closet and wanting the cruel words to stop. All the hard work and years of studying to become an attorney were shattered and crushed by the cruel, racially motivated slangs uttered by the defendant.
As I was recovering from my shock, I heard the judge ask the defendant to repeat what he had said to me. The defendant did not deny saying the cruel racial epitaphs, but instead said that he was not talking to me directly. The judge then found that the defendant did not deny saying the racially motivated words and that the judge heard the comments and found the defendant’s comments directed to the prosecutor as an assault to the court and the judicial system and held the defendant in contempt of court, sentencing the defendant to 30 days in jail, to be served immediately.
My hands were trembling so much that I don’t know how I ended up writing up the order, but I felt the wind knocked out of me and then someone breathing life back into me. I realized that although I have been afraid to confront all people who teased me, made the “chink” jokes, talked derogatory “Chinese”-sounding words, and pulled the “oriental eyes” at me, there were people out there who did not accept this behavior as a part of our society and did not accept this behavior as kids being kids.
Being one of only a few Asian-American attorneys practicing in this area, I know that I am a square peg in a round world. Like all of you and Celia M. Howard, we all have come up against the stereotypes, even some racially motivated ones. I was never pegged to be an attorney and Celia was never supposed to be a successful female attorney during her time, let alone a federal district judge, but she touched enough lives to have a luncheon in her honor. Since all of you are successful women who went against the stereotypical barriers against women, you too can make a difference in inspiring the younger generations to continue to break down the barriers.
I am a square peg in a round world, but I have many different ideas to offer, many different ways to look at problems, and offer diversity in a round world. We all have preconceptions based on someone’s looks and gender, but we need to look beyond those stereotypes. I implore you to go out and not only be successful in what you do, but inspire and mentor others who are trying to break through the same barriers that Celia, that I, and that you went through. Perhaps then, we could accept all the different shapes of pegs.