I first levelled up my Asianness in 2003 — the year I finally tried kimchi.
I was 15, and was much older than the average Korean (and most inner city white kids) when they had their first taste of kimchi. Despite being born in South Korea, I grew up on a steady diet of spag bol and three meat and veg. This is because my adoptive parents are white: their bloodline a classic European cocktail of beige heritage. They’ve never been to Asia, and for years, their only exposure to Asian culture was the local suburban Chinese restaurant and their specialty lemon chicken. That, and having an Asian kid.
So I was relieved that I actually liked kimchi.
Having grown up on video games, I’ve always liked the idea of ‘gamifying’ my life. Vacuumed the floor? 50 Adult Points. Went to the post office without buying the wrong envelope or stamp? 500 Adult Points. Level up.
My cultural identity was no exception. I think most Asian-Australians start with at least a Level 5 advantage, but I was on Level 0.
As a teen in the 90s, at the age of “Asians swamping Australia”, I’d refused to acknowledge my Korean heritage. I exaggerated my Australian accent. When people asked where I was from, I’d snarl ‘Brisbane’ with such ferocity that the conversation would end immediately. I thought that was assimilation. Or at least it was what politicians and intercountry adoption agencies wanted. Ironically, it was also a load off my adoptive parents’ minds -- since they didn’t have to teach me about a culture they knew nothing about.
I remember my school friends laughing and calling me a ‘fake Asian’, and I’d laugh too while dying a little bit inside.
Over the years, I’ve been given multiple sidequests and monsters to battle on my main quest to being Asian. First, there were the ‘You know you’re Asian if…’ chain mails . (Remember those before memes?) Then there were YouTube videos like the Fung Brother’s Asian card test. Today, it’s the Subtle Asian traits Facebook group.
I used to give myself consolation points when people made certain assumptions about me because of my appearance. Yes, people assumed I was good at maths. Yes, my body was fetishised and oversexualised. Yes, random people made weird noises at me like “ching chong bing bong” at me in an attempt to insult a language that I didn’t even speak.
Then there were the points I claimed for trying things that almost anyone could do. In Role Play Games (RPGs) this is called “grinding”. You fight a bunch of easy monsters or do a series of short, no-brainer quests so you can get the points and level up before you go on to the next stage of the game.
For instance, I bought a rice cooker. I did Taekwondo and learned how to count in Korean. I finally learned how to use chopsticks (from my Austrian boyfriend who briefly lived in Taiwan). I signed up for a Xanga account (a pre-Tumblr social media platform that all Asians seemed to have back in the day). And when my friends commented on how all Asians were good at Dance Dance Revolution, I fed hundreds of gold coins into the Dance Dance Revolution machine — I levelled up the stages so I could level up in my life.
But no matter how hard I tried, the ‘Asian points’ I couldn’t get were the ones tied to a family and cultural upbringing I never had. I didn’t grow up eating rice every day. I didn’t speak a word of Korean until I signed up for private tutoring at the age of 24. I didn’t get money envelopes on Lunar New Year because I didn’t have any Asian relatives to get them from. I did have to take my shoes off inside the house though — but that’s because we had pale peach carpet. I had strict parents who yelled at me about my grades and made me learn piano, but they’re white and that has a whole host of different cultural connotations.
I once told a guy from a mixed race background that I loved seeing live punk bands -- he laughed at me and said it was such a “white person thing” to like. (Lose a level) Apparently, Asian Australians are supposed to like hip-hop, the music of black Americans. Who’d have thought?
At times, it feels like there’s a secret level to being Asian that I could never, ever unlock — because there were too many variables early in the game that set me on a completely different path.
In 2013, I finally visited Korea for the first time with an adoptee organisation based in Seoul, who helped my find my birth parents. With interpreters by my side, I travelled around adoption agencies and southern South Korea to find them. Unexpectedly, we made contact. My father called to arrange to see me at a cafe in Busan the next day.
When we met, it took me a few minutes to register that the middle-aged Korean couple walking towards my table at the cafe were my parents. After tears were shed in the middle of the cafe, we sat down to speak to each other via two interpreters. It was a deeply surreal experience. I had no idea what my own mother and father were saying. Our worlds were completely different, and yet we have the closest biological relationship that any human being can have with another.
Meeting my birth parents made my Asian identity ‘real’.
Later on, I decided to live in Korea for a year to get to know my birth family better.
There, I rapidly rose through the ranks of Asianness. I racked up points for riding the Seoul subway; for learning how to read Hangeul; and awkwardly (but successfully) ordering noodles in Korean. I also genuinely started to enjoy K-pop. In 2014, I celebrated Lunar New Year (Seollal in Korea) and for the first time, and I bowed at my relatives and received money envelopes. Best of all, I could walk through the city without a stranger marching up to me to demand, “Where are you from?”
But there were bad days, too. Someone might laugh at my bad Korean. (Lose 50 points) I have sensory processing issues with cooked seafood and can’t eat it, ruling out a vast swathe of Asian food. (Lose 20 points) I’d forget to take off my shoes inside. (Lose 10 points) My birth mother didn’t understand why I was struggling to eat kimchi and live octopus for breakfast, and required coffee to function. (Lose 20 points)
These days, I realised measuring my Asianness isn’t only detrimental to me, but to other Asians too. Our narrow understanding of who’s counted as ‘Asian’ often ignores mixed-race Asians, South, South-East and Central Asians; Asians with parents who thought their only chance of survival in a new Western country was to shed their culture; Asians isolated in rural areas with limited resources, simply trying to get by; Asians battling their own race trauma; Asians who don’t fit the mold because they’re LGBT+, have disabilities, have illnesses, poor — and, of course, other Asian adoptees.
In game speak, ‘Low level Asians’ are often left out of the conversation. At a time when a hunger for diversity is changing everything from work culture to movies, perhaps our perception of what being Asian actually means should change too.
I did a DNA test recently. I’m 90 per cent Korean and 10 per cent Japanese. I am terrible at maths, but that means I am 100 per cent Asian — regardless of how many points I have.
The Family Law episodes one and two air on Saturday, 12 January at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS VICELAND simultaneously. All six episodes will also be on SBS On Demand that night.
Seasons one and two of The Family Law will be available on SBS On Demand from Saturday, 29 December.
Ellie Freeman (Kim) is a Korean Australian adoptee, digital communications professional by day, digital producer for the Korean Australian Adoptees in Australia Network, and Level 2 Moon Elf Ranger in her current Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_