Growing up between Korean, NZ and US cultures, with Ju Hyeon Han and Miso Kwak

Two headshots of Asian women with black hair, both smiling. Ju Hyeon wears a dressy black top, soft pink lipstick, and silver necklace and earrings. Miso wears a white- and plum-coloured plaid flannel shirt.
L: Ju Hyeon Han; R: miso Kwak. Photos/supplied

Navigating an English-speaking middle school environment as a Korean kid with very limited English who’s also blind is no mean feat. That’s one childhood experience that classical voice instructor Ju Hyeon Han and disability policy researcher Miso Kwak share, after attending the same school for the blind in Korea as children.

Miso immigrated with her family from Korea to the US when she was 13. In Ju Hyeon’s case, at age 11 she was sent to New Zealand to live and study, while the rest of her family remained in Korea.

listen to the full conversation or read the transcript.

Ju Hyeon says it’s critical that school teachers and aids show empathy for those experiencing this transition.

“Being punished for not answering or doing something incorrectly because I didn’t understand was very common for me. And teachers getting frustrated. For whatever reason, my aide at school was never told that I didn’t speak English. And she would get so angry because I wouldn’t answer her when she talked to me. So I wish there had been more explanation given to people working with me at the time. That no, I wasn’t lazy, no, I wasn’t being difficult, I simply didn’t understand. And I was working really hard to catch up.”

Miso, too, describes the shock of receiving her first F for failing to complete homework she hadn’t realised was set.

As both got older, their parents maintained high academic expectations for them throughout school. In her final year, Miso intentionally avoided applying for Harvard, pushing back against her parents’ first choice of university.

“I think a lot of people of Asian descent especially, struggle with this, you know, value of honouring our parents and doing something that seems like a way to upward mobility, versus something that I really want to do and pursuing what I’m really passionate about.”

For Ju Hyeon, her parents also had to pay significant sums of money for the transcription of her textbooks, music and other materials, only adding to the pressure she felt. All the while, she was losing her sense of Korean identity.

“I was also actively discouraged from using Korean, reading Korean books or listening to Korean music. All of that was very actively discouraged because my parents were just desperate that I learn English and study as hard as I could and start getting my straight A’s!”

In different ways, music provided relief from some of the pressure. Miso found that playing flute in bands throughout school was a welcome outlet and a social icebreaker. When she was 15, Ju Hyeon’s father gave her permission to follow her passion to become an opera singer.

That permission came with the caveat about aiming for nothing but the best, and at 22 to pursue graduate study, Ju Hyeon moved across the world again, this time to the US.

“It was just one of those things that we all knew I was going to do. So I didn’t even think about it. During my last year of undergrad, I just started applying to all these fancy conservatories in America. Actually, there was some debate as to America or England, but, I was told that America was the land of plenty and opportunities for anyone with a disability. And that’s why I decided to go to America. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. But that’s another story.”

One less rosy part of that story involves the difficulty of going about daily tasks like shopping or catching a train when judgemental, demeaning and invasive comments and actions from members of the public may present themselves at any moment.

 “I’m manhandled all the time, touched inappropriately, you know, screamed in my face,” Ju Hyeon says.

“And people assume for whatever reason that I won’t understand what they do. And they’re often surprised when I fight back and speak in full sentences, using vocabulary that’s more advanced than what they used on me.”

Ju Hyeon and miso emphasise that their intersecting identities come into play and it’s often not apparent which one or combination seems to be causing someone to lash out. Miso adds that feeling at home as an Asian person in disability spaces, and vice versa being a disabled person in Asian spaces, is a challenge.

Both also speak to the struggles of holding onto their names. Miso, eventually, is glad she held onto hers.

“I would ask my parents, like, oh, ‘can I get an English name?’ And they will say, ‘Well, why would you get an English name? Your name is not that difficult. And, you know, this is who you are you’re Korean’. In my teen years, I really wanted to get an English name. … But even when I had an opportunity to formally change my name, I actually decided to keep my name, I just removed the space that was between I and S, just to make my life a little easier.”

Ju Hyeon regrets not adopting an English name, because her name brings with it layers of confusion and uncalled-for questions.

“I call myself a Kiwi, even here [in the US]. And then people see this Asian name and they really don’t understand. But even in New Zealand, my name caused a lot of issues because people couldn’t say it. It was one aspect of my Korean identity I wanted to hold onto very strongly because it was my name. But … Changing my name would stop these really invasive questions I get from people about who I am, and where I’m from, and why I have this name.”

Both explore their disability identities more fully as they get older, in Miso’s case by stumbling upon the academic discipline of Disability Studies and discovering a rich source of history and community.

“Getting to understand how other disabled people thought about it, how much disabled people in the past in the United States, like, fought for things like the Americans with Disabilities Act, it just gave me kind of, ‘Oh, this is about, you know, my community, and me’. And so that’s where I became really interested in and passionate about this field.”

For Ju Hyeon, developing a positive disability identity has been challenging.

“In my line of work, the way I use my ears, my hearing, it’s actually to an advantage because I can hear things about my students singing that my sighted colleagues cannot. But to see that as a positive, rather than, ‘Oh, as a blind person, I’m hired at this university, I might be a burden to my supervisor’, it’s still a struggle for me. …

“I wish there was more support for students with disabilities to develop a positive identity about who they are, and not, you know, see themselves as burdens that society has to support.”

For both, their identities and experiences as disabled people and immigrants are closely bound up, which they see in a positive light.

Miso: “But honestly, for me, this migration of my family, and my disability, it’s so closely linked that … I really doubt that had I been non-disabled, my parents would have felt the need to seek work in the States. And my parents are not that adventurous … It’s, you know, just part of who I am, can’t change it, don’t want to change it.”

Ju Hyeon: “Migration actually helped me become who I am today. Migration helped me to have a very positive view of my identity as a disabled person. … despite the trauma, and, for me, the huge financial sacrifice of my parents, I’m very grateful that I was sent to New Zealand as an 11-year-old. Because I think if I had stayed in Korea, I would see myself very differently, in a much more negative light.”

You can visit Ju Hyeon’s website and follow @misokwak on Twitter.

By Áine Kelly-Costello

Blind freelance writer/journalist and campaigner from aotearoa NZ.

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