My parents always have been hyper-aware of what it meant to be a minority and to be Korean immigrants in the United States. From a young age, my mom told me there are times we need to stay quieter than others to make sure we don’t stick out, and other points when we need to speak louder to make sure our voices are heard.
At times, my parents had a sense of hyper-patriotism, and at others a sense of strong shame of their heritage. These emotional extremes are ingrained in the heart of Korean culture. When the country made the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, national pride was off the charts. People became obsessed with soccer. I often heard my parents shout from across the house when they read articles about some Korean-American who accomplished something great in the U.S.
On the other end, Koreans place incredible value on reputation and perception. The country’s defamation law is among the strictest in the world regarding slander. Public figures who make mistakes often are forced to give public apologies during which they have to bow in shame toward television cameras at a 90-degree angle. Apathetic stances are few and far between.
While this culture permeated my upbringing, one major area of American culture in which this sense of hyper-awareness failed to exist was sports. While my dad watched baseball from time to time, with his interest peaking during Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 seasons, there was never really a reason for him to care strongly about sports. Asians currently make up 1.2 percent of major league player personnel in a country in which Asians make up nearly five percent of the population, according to a 2015 racial and gender report on the majors conducted by researchers at the University of Central Florida.
That changed in 2003 when Byung-Hyun Kim came to the Red Sox. My mom didn’t know Nomar Garciaparra from any other man on the street, but she sure knew who Kim was. One of the main reasons my dad sat me down to teach me the basics of baseball was that Kim was on the mound against the Yankees. After that initial introduction to the game, I fell in love with baseball, which subsequently lead to my interest in football and basketball.
I remember my excitement when the Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka because, finally, I could regularly watch someone I felt that I could relate to, though Matsuzaka’s heritage was Japanese. As a pitcher in youth baseball, I finally had a player my friends and I could pretend I was while on the rubber.
But even with Daisuke (and we now know how disappointing he was), there was still a missing sense of national pride while I watched baseball. Kim was never a star in the majors, and while Hyun-Jin Ryu certainly has performed well in his first couple of years in the big leagues, he hasn’t been a star. I was five years old at the peak of Chan Ho Park‘s career. The rise of Shin-Soo Choo happened at a time when I didn’t have access to baseball games outside Boston. Twitter wasn’t really a thing yet, and baseball coverage was significantly less pervasive than it is today.
When the Red Sox claimed Hee Seop Choi, the first Korean position player in the majors, off waivers from the Dodgers and assigned him to Triple-A, my family made the nearly two-hour drive from western Massachusetts to Pawtucket to watch the PawSox, a trip we’d never made when we lived much closer in Boston. My mom, a person who goes to baseball games to eat hot dogs rather than watch the players, made a point of bringing her camera and took pictures of Choi throughout batting practice and warm-ups. To this day, the only time this side of my mom comes out at sporting events is when there is an opportunity to support fellow countrymen.
I used to loathe when substitute teachers came into class. Yeah, it did mean there was a decent chance my class was going to watch Forrest Gump or E.T. for the hundredth time, and yeah, it did mean there usually was no class work accomplished during the day, but that didn’t rid me of the embarrassment.
As the substitute’s eyes rolled down the page and they slowly approached the letter L, I would tense up. Just a glance at her face would reveal that she had come to my name on the class list. Joon-Yeop Lee. The teacher’s eyes would open wide and a look of bewilderment or confusion would spread across her face. One of two responses would stumble out of her mouth.
“Uhh, I can’t pronounce this name. Who is Lee?”
And every time, I would raise my hand timidly. The teachers who made an attempt had a similar success rate to those who gave up before even trying. A selection of the names volunteered included Juno, Jo-ON and Joon-Yepo. At a certain point, I just gave up and raised my hand at the look of confusion before they even opened their mouths.
I lived in a suburban town in western Massachusetts where three percent of the population was Asian. My family moved out from the shadows of Boston when my dad accepted a job to teach at a college in Springfield after he completed his doctorate. At school, only two kids looked like I did, and both had “American” names. In more than just moniker and appearance, I stood out like a sore thumb.
Before moving to the suburbs for fourth grade, I never quite understood why my mom always felt she needed to go above and beyond to get what she wanted and accomplish what needed to get done. When I lived in Boston, being Asian never seemed like my defining characteristic. My elementary school supported a program that particularly focused on Japanese immigrants to the United States, which included a Japanese language and culture program for every class. As a result, the fact that I didn’t look like the rest of my friends never really crossed my mind.
After I moved, sometimes people in school would ask me if I knew some other Asian kid from some other random place or school somewhat relatively nearby. I never did. There were the times kids would ask me “what type of Asian” I was, which seemed similar to when they inquired about what kind of string cheese another kid brought for lunch. There was the time I dropped a piece of dried seaweed (otherwise known as the thing that wraps around sushi) and a girl screamed because she thought it was puke.
There were little situations that bit away at my consciousness when I knew the color of my skin played a factor. None of the other Asian kids in my grade ever wanted to play football or knew how, so when I tried to play during recess during the first couple of years, I always was chosen last and never thrown the ball. It was only after I joined organized football and made a couple of league All-Star teams playing baseball that balls began to be thrown my way during recess.
Near the end of my last year in the suburbs, I sat in English class, counting down the hours until my family finally moved back to Boston. By then, most of the unpleasant interactions had faded away, and I had established myself as someone kids would come to for advice in fantasy football and baseball and, admittedly, was a goody two-shoes who always came prepared with his homework and tried to avoid trouble. Our first English teacher had retired halfway through the year, and her replacement was just out of college, was in way over her head and had no idea how to control a class of hormonal middle schoolers.
I remember seeing a guy tease a girl from across the aisle, making some jokes about something she was wearing. The girl decided to respond, giving the kid a good hard kick in the nuts. The guy fell out of his chair and began to writhe in pain on the ground.
“What happened?” the teacher asked.
Without really thinking, I spoke up. “Well, she kicked him in the nuts.”
The girl turned around and looked at me.
“How would you even be able to see that with your small eyes?”
When the Pirates signed Jung Ho Kang this past offseason, I remained hesitant in my excitement, remembering the “betrayal” of so closely following Matsuzaka as a middle schooler. That hesitancy further grew when the Pirates used Kang sparingly to start the season.
But when Josh Harrison went down, Pittsburgh gave Kang an opportunity to play every day, and a torch was lit. Kang has not only quieted the doubters since coming over from the Korean Baseball Organization, he has absolutely flourished with the Pirates. Kang is tied for the league lead in fWAR (4.0) among shortstops with Brandon Crawford, and has squeezed into the top 30 among all position players. In his first season playing halfway around the world from his home, Kang has quickly established himself as not only one of the best values in baseball, but one of the best players at his position. Seeing the day-to-day progress Kang has made has been an eye-opening experience.
As an aspiring journalist, the reality of the situation is that I’m going into an industry in which there is an incredibly small number of Asians. Whenever my parents tell another Asian family that I’m intending to pursue a career writing about sports, I’m often asked why I’m not studying to become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer. One Korean father told me that if I were his son he would make me switch to a major that would lead to a more financially lucrative career. Seeing Kang succeed in an area in which few of his ethnicity have made a major impact before just accentuates my desire to pursue a career in sports journalism.
Watching Kang’s success makes me, for the first time in my life, proud to identify myself as Korean-American. There’s a certain feeling of excitement whenever I can catch a Pirates game on MLB.tv or I see a tweet describing Kang’s importance to his team. It’s a feeling I never knew existed before the 2015 season.
In Jung Ho Kang, I see aspiration for Korean-Americans. I’m no longer a kid who watches baseball, idolizes athletes and has posters of baseball stars hanging on my wall. But there’s surely a young Korean-American kid somewhere in America right now who plays shortstop for his baseball team, dreams of playing professionally, and looks at Kang and sees the human manifestation of his dreams.
In Jung Ho Kang, I see establishment for Korean Americans. For many people, an athlete such as Kang could be their only exposure to someone of Asian-American descent. Kang can normalize the abstract for some and inculcate the idea that the new Asian kid at school could be as good as, or even better than, the star jock in class. That, yes, even with the appearance of narrower eyes, Asians can hit baseballs as well as just about anyone else.
In Jung Ho Kang, I see normalcy for Korean-Americans. Some kids in middle school once asked me why I never changed my Korean name to something more “American” when I came to the U.S. They asked me why I didn’t have a name like “Kevin” or “Steve” or “Kanye.” As his name is heard and read during baseball broadcasts across America, Jung Ho Kang is instilling the idea that names like Joon-Yeop Lee are as American as any other name in the phone book.
Jung Ho Kang gives me the hope that, one day, a substitute teacher will look at my name and not even hesitate.