Share Your Hapa Story: William

William Photo 1

Share Your Hapa Story: William

In a valley with rolling hills to the north, the gentle slopes fade into pear orchards. To the south, pine-covered mountains that bring shade too early on winter days spawn babbling brooks of the Lithia springs. These features formed the backdrop to my childhood. Growing up in the Rogue Valley of rural Southern Oregon shaped how I grew up.

William - Parents

My Dad is white, he hails from Pasadena, California a musician and a free spirit. He followed a group of hippies to Southern Oregon and ended up settling there. A construction worker by trade, he is the hardest working man I know. My Mom is Korean, and grew up in Busan, South Korea. She has a knack for learning languages, piano, and loves traveling. Love led her to the Rogue Valley. By chance, my parents met while they were both on vacation on the island of Oahu.

William Photo 2

As early as I can remember, both my parents have always told me “You’ll have the best of both worlds. You can take the best parts of being Korean and American.” My first word was “nabi,” the Korean word for butterfly. Unfortunately but understandably, my mom was worried that I wouldn’t learn English, so she stopped speaking Korean around the house. Not knowing Korean made visiting family in Busan a little bit more difficult, but luckily I have several relatives who speak English that could translate for me. Although I haven’t been able to learn Korean, I hope to find the time one day to do so; not knowing how to speak it has been something that has made me feel like I’m “not Asian enough” at times.

Southern Oregon is mostly white. My mom tells me she volunteered to watch me at recess in kindergarten because teachers said I was being bullied, but I don’t remember any specifics. I mostly remember being busy and feeling afraid I wouldn’t do well in school. My mom kept me busy with supplemental schoolwork. She always valued education and would often tell me “your Korean name is Cho-Ho-Sung. That means you will become a doctor or professor.” (Cho is my mom’s surname and Ho-Sung roughly translates “great success.”) This instilled in me early on that to be a good Korean son, I would need to work and study hard. 

William Photo 3

In contrast to my studies, my Dad passed on his love for sports and the outdoors. We often camped together, my mom opting to stay at home away from the messes my dad and I would eventually make. I played baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track, skiing, and swimming. My dad often coached my teams. To me, being part of American culture meant being athletic and outdoorsy. Always busy with school and sports made it easy to brush off little odd comments like “of course you're good at math” or gripes from classmates about the “smelly” and “exotic food” my mom would sometimes pack me for lunch.

I fondly remember potlucks with the other few Korean families in the area. I loved the delicious and bountiful foods. Helping my mom in the kitchen, I learned how to make Japchae, (a sweet potato noodle dish), Galbi (Korean barbequed short ribs), and Kimchi, which helped me feel connected to my Korean culture. Whenever I visit home, I’ll bring Korean ingredients from Sunrise Market in Eugene because there aren’t any Korean grocery stores in Southern Oregon. I can always count on my mom to lovingly make my favorite meals and teach me her cooking tricks. I love making Korean food despite not being as good of a cook as my mom. When the weather starts to get cold, I enjoy making a hot and spicy bowl of Kimchi Soondubu Jjigae (spicy soup with kimchi and soft tofu). 

Towards middle and high school, I began to notice that I wasn’t quite the same as my classmates. As the hills shook off their blankets of snow in exchange for purple heather, the changing of the seasons always meant baseball season–the most exciting season for me. I loved playing while I was growing up. I did think it was kind of odd that when playing baseball with my cousins in Korea I was a “Yankee” with big eyes, yet back in Oregon I was “the Asian kid” with small "squinty" eyes. I didn’t dwell on those comments for long because I loved playing the game, and being part of a team forged strong bonds that made the few moments of teasing lose any sting they might have had. 

After an injury in high school, I stopped playing baseball and stopped hanging out with my baseball player friends as much. Without baseball, I gravitated toward art and science classes. I fell in love with painting, much to my Mom’s dismay. The first few paintings that I brought home and wanted to put up on the walls, my Mom protested with, “get this sh*t out of my house!” She would rather have me focus on the sciences and continued to hope I would become a doctor or professor. Only after teachers’ praise and support, did my Mom start to understand my passion for art. 

William with Mom

During undergrad, I pursued a path that some would say is more stereotypically Asian. I went to the University of Oregon to study Chemistry as a first-generation college student. It was a little bit hard to adjust to college life in the beginning, but having art as my outlet was my saving grace. Being the only chemistry major amongst art majors at some of the art shows I had work in, I was often questioned about why I was interested in art when I studied science. I believe that being mixed-race has inspired me to look for similarities rather than differences. I’ve never viewed art and science as different; both take creativity and I am passionate about both.

William Photo 5

William Photo 5

I think art is a way to bridge cultures because it allows different views to be represented in a safe and accepting environment. I believe art and science both question the perspective used to understand reality and, in doing so, they uncover typically overlooked aspects of life. My passion for art and science is fueled by the notion that there is something more to reality. From my perspective, both science and art are a means to gaining a deeper understanding of nature and each other.

After both the passing of a close cousin and graduating from undergrad, I began to think about pursuing a career in medicine. I am currently a third-year medical student. No, I wasn’t brainwashed by my Mom into becoming a doctor. I’m motivated to be a physician by my love of art and science. I'm fascinated by the ways in which medicine integrates scientific principles with deeply personal and human aspects, emotions, motivations, and social behaviors. I'm also driven by the opportunity to serve my community as a leader and the hope to be part of the process that could prevent someone from losing a loved one in the way that I lost my cousin.

William Photo 7

I like to think that I have the “best of both worlds.” One week I could be celebrating Chuseok (a Korean Thanksgiving-esque celebration) and teaching some of my friends about the holiday and traditions, and then another week I could be showing friends how to make jiffy-pop for the first time on an open fire or organizing a mountaineering trip.

William Mt St Helens

From my mixed background, I find it easier to see the connections, especially between art and science. There are times when it can be easy to fall into a negativity trap, like when I was reminded this year by one of my attendings (a physician that in addition to practicing independently teaches medical students), who jokingly told me “you don’t count as Asian.” I don’t check all the boxes for being Asian or white, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m hapa and proud.

William Photo 8

Also published January 28, 2021, on Instagram, #ShareYourHapaStory047