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

With many thanks to Lisa Madl for assisting in preparing this transcript.

Ju Hyeon

Migration actually helped me become who I am today. So I’m actually very, very grateful, 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.

Miso

my parents are not that adventurous to say, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna move and do, like, put ourselves in this really hard place of, like, having to learn the language and culture in our middle age’, like, they would have not done that had I not been disabled. So it’s something, you know, just part of who I am, can’t change it, don’t want to change it.

[Intro piano music: forthright melody accompanied by a habanera dance rhythm. Fades down while Áine speaks]

Áine 

Welcome to Disability Crosses Borders, a podcast and blog featuring the stories where disability, migration and culture meet. I’m Áine Kelly-Costello and today, I talk to two blind immigrants who started off their childhoods in Korea and who go on to live in New Zealand and the US as you’ll hear. Classical voice instructor ju Hyeon Han and disability policy researcher Miso Kwak share their experiences growing up between countries and school systems, navigating parental expectations, exploring their disability identities and much more.

[Music fades out]

I’m talking to Miso Kwak and Ju Hyeon Han. Hello, and welcome to Disability Crosses Borders! It’s great to have you both. I’ll ask you to introduce yourselves, including where you grew up and where you live now. Can we start with you, Ju Hyeon?

Ju Hyeon 

I was born in Korea, but I was sent to New Zealand when I was 11. So I grew up in New Zealand, basically, until I was in my early 20s. And then I moved to the US to attend grad school. And I’m living in New York and working as an adjunct voice instructor at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Áine 

Thank you. And Miso?

Miso 

Yeah, hi. I was also born in Korea, and my family, both my parents and my siblings, we came to the United States when I was 13 years old. Yeah, within the United States, like, I’ve lived at both the East Coast and the West Coast. So New York State, but not New York City, and also kind of suburbs of Los Angeles. So those are the places where I went to secondary schools. Now I am currently living in Boston, came to the Boston area to attend graduate school. And my current job title is policy analyst at a nonprofit research firm. I can just briefly describe it as working in the field of disability policy.

Áine 

Awesome, thanks so much. So you both went to the same school for the blind in Korea when you were kids. But you went there at different times as well. And I’d be interested to hear about your recollections from your time there. Can we start with you again Ju Hyeon and can you also tell us what years you were at the school?

Ju Hyeon 

I started in 89, and I was there until 97. So I went there through two years of kindergarten, and then grades one to six, and I left halfway through grade six. So, we followed the mainstream curriculum. But our lessons were in Braille. We also had a class, I think it was called life skills, where we were taught very basic orientation and mobility. I was very lucky in the earlier grades, with teachers who gave us a really strong foundation in Braille and academics. In grades two and three, I had a blind teacher. So that was great. Obviously, you know, his Braille skills were second to none. And he was also very good about making sure we had a solid foundation in Maths and other academic subjects.

The teachers that were hired to teach there didn’t have to know Braille when they were hired. In one of my later grades, in grade five, we had a teacher who never learned Braille, so couldn’t mark homework or exams, couldn’t check any of our work, and there were no expectations of us. If it weren’t for the private tutoring I had at home, I think I would have missed out on a whole year of academics. Even though our texts were in Braille, and the expectation was that we would be taught the same curriculum, we really weren’t taught much at all.

Miso 

I started at the same school that Ju Hyeon went, in 1998, so, like, after Ju Hyeon had left for New Zealand. And just a little for background, my mom is a middle school teacher in the Korean public school system and my dad worked corporate jobs until pretty recently. But he’s, like, obsessed with just like, education, not just for, you know, me, but for like, my siblings who are non-disabled as well. But, so, I think my parents really wanted me to go to mainstream school even from early on, but I don’t think even in the late 90s that was really possible. So, you know, they chose to enroll me in the school for the blind, and I mean, I used the word ‘chose’, but probably, it was more like a, ‘well, this is the best option that we have’ kind of choice. I think now there are more and more students, blind students, are being mainstreamed from a, yeah, like, early age. Even when I was in school, we had some instances where students would be in elementary school in the mainstream system, but then as kind of the course content became more rigorous, and you know, the amount of reading increased, people who were kind of just getting by, they would come to the school for the blind as they kind of aged.

So I was there from 1998 to the spring semester of 2007. So I started from like, preschool age to the first half of the seventh grade. And I definitely credit being at the school for the blind for like, my strong Braille literacy, and also kind of forming my identity as a blind person. I think, you know, at the time, I didn’t really think about that, but, yeah, in retrospect, I think, having grown up kind of surrounded by other blind people, and knowing that that was, like, fine, I think that probably, like, helped a lot. And also, when I was there, like, we had a principal who was a blind person, and I think that also kind of made me realize, like, well, people could be really successful in a way. So I think those were really, like, positive experiences, I think there are definitely, like, points that were lacking, as in terms of like, rigor of academics. And again, having, you know, parents who are really invested in education, they would, similar to what Ju Hyeon shared, like, would send me to, like, tutoring places, or get me a tutor at home, to kind of enhance the academic skills. Yeah, like, I think my parents really valued, like, giving me experiences with sighted peers. So like, those are things that I got because of my parents.

I went to, like, math and English group lessons growing up, and for those places, like, my parents did have to advocate for me to be there And, like, essentially, they were responsible for getting the materials in an accessible format. So sometimes, you know, for something like English, my mom would, before the days of like, Braille notetakers, she would, like, manually braille some of the books. For math, like, we had to like, buy the books, and then send it to what would be like equivalent to, like, Braille Press in the United States, and then pay them and then have them transcribe the math books, and in large part because of like, they would be able to have the tactile diagrams made more professionally than from home. It was like, a lot of, like, my parents’ efforts, honestly, in order for me to have, like, these experiences.

Áine 

And that’s interesting, because it is quite a strong emphasis on the educational part, which might be then a mix of the cultural values on that and also your family, in your case, Miso, as well. Can you both tell me about the decisions to migrate? What were some of the sort of enduring memories that you have as well from those early years, just, or, you know, straight after you ended up moving? Do you want to start Ju Hyeon?

Ju Hyeon 

So in my case, I was sent but my family stayed in Korea. I believe the decision was made when I was around nine or ten. Part of it was that my parents were getting extremely frustrated about the lack of academics and lack of support available at the school. They also learned that when I reached high school, we would be taught massage and acupuncture and there’d be very little academics offered, which would have made it almost impossible for me to go to university. That really horrified them.

But my parents never looked into emigration because my father had a business in Korea that, you know, he had to maintain, and my father, also, he is absolutely against parents sending their children overseas and studying there by themselves, he’s still really against it. He said, ‘I only did it for you because we had no choice’. Even then, as a child, you know, going to school and not being taught much, I realized that this was a good opportunity for me and I had to make it work, no matter what. So I don’t remember having any negative feelings about it, even though I knew I was going to be sent across the world and expected to stay there without my parents in a boarding school type situation.

So I was sent to New Zealand as an 11-year-old, I did have a legal guardian who oversaw everything to make sure I was okay. My father did come with me to settle me in. But essentially, I was left at the school for the blind there, which, it wasn’t really the same kind of concept as school for the blind in Korea. The students, the blind students boarded there, but they went to local schools that were close to the school for the blind. I remember, it was a huge culture shock. I’d actually had private English lessons for several years before moving, but unfortunately, my English teacher didn’t really teach me conversational English, it was lots of memorizing from books, sentence after sentence after sentence. And so most of it was really no use to me when I went to New Zealand and started going to school. So I remember feeling completely overwhelmed because I didn’t even have enough language to ask for even the most basic things, like a drink of water Or, you know, even saying something like I was hungry.

To begin with, I wasn’t mainstreamed like I was told, I was put in a special class at the school for the blind. And I was told that I had to stay there to learn English and to learn Braille. Even though I had actually learned English Braille through a private tutor before I went to New Zealand, my parents really did try their best to prepare me as much as possible. So I was put into this class where there was very little done to teach me, so it was kind of low expectations again. It was like a kindergarten class where we spent most of the time singing songs and doing little hand motions and playing with blocks. And it was a huge shock for a very academically able 11-year-old. I was horrified, actually, because I knew how much it was costing my parents to keep me there, and here I was playing with blocks. I remember getting punished really badly at that class because they asked me a question. We were doing some action songs, and they asked me to choose an action. I didn’t have the language to choose one that hadn’t been chosen. And the teachers decided I was just being difficult. And she stopped the class for good 45 minutes, we did nothing until I came up with some answer.

Áine 

Being punished in that way and being shown up is a pretty awful experience to have, more or less by yourself, in a new country. Those action verbs, something like stomp your feet or shrug your shoulders or rub your hands, they’re actually not common, like, first words that you might learn at all.

Ju Hyeon 

Fortunately, though, I was only there for a month, thankfully. I did actually start complaining about it from day one, saying this isn’t right for me to my father. And I don’t know what was done or said, but I was then sent to the local middle school to get a proper education. And finally, things started to look up. And I had a good TVI and was taught the beginnings of adaptive technology. And so, finally, my journey started on the right foot.

Áine 

And I’ll just pop in there to say that a TVI is a teacher for the visually impaired as well. Miso, can we go to you? Same question to you.

Miso 

Yeah, sure. So first of all, I don’t think it was, like, necessarily my decision as in like, I didn’t really, you know, know. I think though, like, many Koreans in general, like, really kind of have this, like, yearning about what America is, what America is supposed to be. So I think, like, I, like, I knew about America from a very early age from, like, watching TV and video and just talking, you know, hearing adults talk about it. And especially, they would say, like, oh, like, America’s like paradise for the disabled, that’s like a kind of phrase that I used to hear a lot growing up. And I knew that my parents were very interested in America, like, in large part because they, like, believed that it would give me more opportunities as a blind person. And I think the expectation, honestly, like, even though it was like, never really spoken explicitly, that if, you know, even if my parents didn’t decide to move themselves, like, I probably would have been encouraged to at least, like, come at a short term to like study English, and things like that. I think my parents are very interested in it. But they’re not, like, as adventurous to say, ‘we’re just gonna pack up and go’, I think we only did it because my father’s work opportunity came.

As a family we’d sit down and say, like, here are options in terms of exactly where we settle down. I think my parents and I were on the same page about going to a local mainstream school rather than going to a school for the blind that would have been several hours away from our new place. But I think in terms of school, similar to Ju Hyeon, even though, like, I had been, you know, learning English from a young age, like, obviously, I wasn’t going to turn up to an American school from a Korean school, speaking like what typical seventh-graders would. So, like, I had to kind of just sit through a lot of lessons without understanding what was going on. You know, it was like a sink or swim kind of situation, and I think I just tried my best to survive, basically. And luckily, I was young enough to learn and absorb quickly. But yeah, I think it was hard. Like, I think the adjustment period was probably very hard.

Áine 

And I think when you combine the disability aspects with that, as well, so you’re dealing with learning a new language, and needing to have, you know, your materials in accessible formats and things like that to actually be able to, you know, participate in the education, is there anything that you would sort of give advice to school teachers, including English as a foreign language teachers, but also just more generally, to maybe assist blind students who are new to the country, new to the language, to have a bit of an easier time of kind of integrating?

Miso 

I really wish that there was more of, like, a scaffolding to kind of introduce me to like, ‘oh, this is how you get your accommodations’ or ‘this is how, like, we decide what’s like, the best for you’. Because I attended a school for the blind, everything was kind of set up catered to me, like, as in, you know, Braille books would show up every school year. And like, I didn’t have to set up anything like that. But here, like, we had to sit down in a meeting and then decide that Braille was the best format and this, like, X amount of O&M, orientation and mobility instruction, and things like that. And I think that was really hard. But to school districts’ credit, they would, like, I don’t know, like run a translator or something, and then give these, like, legal documents in Korean to my parents, and I don’t know, like, if they actually read anything, and if the translation was any good. But for me, it certainly, like, I didn’t know about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is the law that kind of governs K-12 education for disabled students, and what essentially made everything kind of possible. Like, I didn’t know that until I went to college and studied it for myself. I don’t think my parents actually ever knew that, like, either. I told them about it after I studied it. And honestly, also, it could have been the case that I was able to get by, but we may have been able to get more support, and we just didn’t know that. So I mean, I don’t know.

Áine 

Yeah, there’s often that gap I think, where it’s seen as no-one in particular’s responsibility to make sure that immigrant families actually receive information about how a disabled student can thrive at school and what supports are actually available. Having sort of people who can navigate or connect to you in those processes seems super important. Ju Hyeon, do you have anything you would add?

Ju Hyeon 

Yes, similar to Miso, I think my parents received information in little bits and pieces here and there, and it took them a while to figure out how the system worked. And I don’t think even to this day they really understand how I received my education. I think part of it was, they weren’t there to really oversee anything. So financially, they worked very, very hard to make sure I was provided for and they paid all the bills they were sent, even if it created extreme hardship. But they weren’t really told what they were for, why it was needed. They were just told it was needed. Literally, they were responsible, financially, for every page of Braille, every piece of adaptive technology equipment, everything. In my case, I wish there’d been more effort put in to reduce the costs as much as possible. Because for instance, if I needed a Maths book, did they really have to pay $20,000 to transcribe a Maths book for one year? Or could we have borrowed a book, a book that was already transcribed from the library, because the costs were astronomical, it was unbelievable.

I also wish that people working with me, and I’ve seen this in other cases too, not just blind, but other students who were learning English as a second language, I wish they had some training themselves on how to work with us. Because even in the mainstream school, I was staying at the boarding school, you know, 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. But you know, it’s tough the first six months.

Miso 

Yeah, I’ve gotten an F in my progress report in middle school. And that was, like, my first F ever, hopefully the first and last F that I’ll get, and it literally, you know, it was sent to home. And it said, yeah, like, my grade was like, 60, or something like that. And we were, like, all shocked, because we, you know, we can understand that number. And so like, my parents read the thing, and like, you know, looked up in the dictionary and stuff, and basically it said that I wasn’t turning in my homework consistently. But I was like, ‘Hello, I didn’t even know there was homework!’ So you know, it’s kind of funny now, in retrospect, but I think, you know, that’s like a common experience that I hear of from, you know, people who had to go through this, like, language transition. We were not doing the work, not because we didn’t want to, we just simply didn’t know that that was required of us.

Áine 

Yeah. But after immigrating, for both of you, how did you find navigating any sort of differences between your parents’ expectations and maybe assumptions and also sort of your own intentions, goals, dreams? Do you think that, like, your understanding of blindness and what you wanted to sort of do with your life and achieved shifted when you were immersed in the New Zealand and US environments that you were migrating to?

Miso 

Absolutely, I think, you know, the environment, obviously like, influences us in different ways. And I remember distinctly in third grade, one of my childhood best friends who has low vision was mainstreamed at the time. We would meet on Saturday afternoons and, like, my mom would tutor us, like, in mathematics, and my friend’s mom would kind of lead like arts, like, origami and things like that. At the time, we told ourselves that we would go to Harvard University, we had no idea what we were talking about, we just… Adults told us that was the best university in the world. But it was probably, like, a kind of childish ambition, right? But after we came to the US, my father especially was very, like, interested in sending me and my brothers to, you know, so-called, like, prestigious universities. And so, like, the occasional times that my family would go on road trips, we would always, like, visit colleges. The way that my parents explained was, you know, if you’re exposed to these, like, environments, you may be more motivated to study harder in school. And the funny story is, after all that years of kind of my parents, like, telling me both explicitly and implicitly, like, their expectations of like, high academic achievement, and going to this, like, whichever institutions that may be, like, prestigious schools, I didn’t apply to Harvard intentionally as a defiance against my parents when I was in the 12th grade. And I think in my mind, it was kind of just like, well, like, you’re, you know, making me do something that I don’t want to do, and like, I’m going to go chart my own path. And I think at that point, absolutely this kind of American ideal of like, we do whatever we want, and you can do whatever you want to do, versus, like, more Korean ideals would be, you know, honoring your parents and doing what your parents want you to do. So I didn’t apply to Harvard University, like, in large part because my parents seemed so, like, forceful in a way for me to even, like, try that. Obviously, like, they knew that it was really hard to get in. I did end up studying at Harvard for my master’s, but it was absolutely with my own accord. My parents were obviously excited. But it was nothing to do with my parents, really.

And it’s not just me, I think a lot of, like, people of Asian descent especially, struggle with this, you know, value of honoring our parents and doing something that seems like a way to upward mobility, versus like, something that I really want to do and pursuing, like, what I’m really passionate about. Yeah, so I think that’s really hard. Especially as a young person, I think that was something that I struggled a lot. I struggle with it a little less now, now that I kind of understand. And my parents have become, quote unquote, Americanized in a way that, you know, they’ll say, like, yeah, as long as, you know, you’re doing something good, and you know, you’re able to be like, financially independent, and things like that, like we want you to do, like, we can’t live your life for you. So, you know, I think we have come, kind of, we’re trying to really meet each other in the middle ground. But yeah, so that’s something I think a lot of adolescents including myself struggle with.

Áine 

And how about for you, Ju Hyeon?

Ju Hyeon 

For me, I keep going back to the financial aspect of my education, but it really was a huge part for us. Because the cost actually increased every year as, you know, the books became more extensive, and I needed more adaptive technology and so forth. But because I knew every penny of my education was being paid for by my father, we actually had the same sort of expectations of me that nothing but the best, always nothing but the best. If it wasn’t A or A+, it wasn’t good enough. 100%, nothing less. And I put that pressure on myself and my father put that pressure on me. So if I, when my reports would come up and I didn’t get all 1’s and A’s, you know, I would get a phone call and be questioned very closely on why not. So I was this model student throughout my middle school and high school years. And that expectation has stayed true all the way through my university career.

One thing I was very lucky on though, was that from a very young age, I was musical and I wanted to sing. At first I wanted to become a pianist and then I said I want to become an opera singer. And I didn’t… I kept up this, I wouldn’t call it a demand, but this dream and told them constantly, this is what I was going to do with my life. And when I was 15, my father finally gave permission for me to pursue music as my career. Wild expectations, straight A’s, 100%, none of that changed, I was allowed to do what I really loved to do and follow my passion. So I think that made it a little easier for me to stand this pressure, especially as a blind student, most of the time, I would be in school with half my books not in Braille. So I was always having to catch up, doing all-nighters because I would get my books, like, two days before an important exam, after three months of having nothing. So the pressure was enormous. But I think because I had the end goal of, ‘I can go to university and get a music degree’, it made it bearable for me to withstand that and try to be the straight A student that didn’t always get it, but try to be the straight A student that my parents wanted me to be.

Áine 

You really have pursued, you know, music very, very strongly. Do you want to just talk through what you did when you finished school? So you did a music degree?

Ju Hyeon 

Yes, I went to University of Auckland for my music degree. There I think, one other thing… I was a little bit lucky in that New Zealand doesn’t have Harvard and Princeton and Yale, University of Auckland is, at the time, was seen as the best university. So it was expected that I would go there, and I expected myself to go there. So I didn’t have any of the pressure of ‘oh, you got to go to Harvard, Juilliard or whatever’. So I went to University of Auckland, but then for grad school, I was expected to aim for the absolute best. And so that was a little catch, saying ‘yes, you can pursue music, but you got to go to the best schools, and you need to get your doctorate’. And I guess that’s what I did. *laughs* Although getting the doctorate was my choice. But there was always pressure there, like when I applied to get my doctorate, it was like, ‘well, you know, you need to apply to the best schools again’. So Juilliard and places like that. And there was some disappointment from my father when I didn’t go to Juilliard for my doctorate or any other prestigious music school, and I went to a state school, even though for me, that was the perfect decision. And I think that’s because I went to the state school where I was so well supported that I am the teacher I am today, and I have the job I have today.

Áine 

When you were initially making those decisions, to go to, you know, to try and apply to grad schools, you were also, you know, straight away looking at going to the States and then making quite a substantial move as well, because it’s not an easy thing for… even as adults to sort of just pick up your life again, do you want to talk a little bit just about that decision?

Ju Hyeon 

I didn’t see it as a choice. My parents and I both saw it as a given. But 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, *laughs* long story. But so yeah, nobody really thought anything of it. But I will say yes, even as a 22-year-old, and even after experiencing move as an 11-year-old which was highly traumatic, it was a tough thing to pack up and leave everything I knew and come here and start all over again. But I do think because I had the experience as an 11-year-old, the move wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been.

Áine 

And so now you’re both living in the US and Cultural and disability identities obviously intersect as well. And I’m wondering, are there particular times that you feel like you’ve kind of faced discrimination, or microaggressions where those sort of, you know, Asian, Asian American, disabled, women, like all of those identities are sort of, you feel like they’re conspiring against you in terms of how you ended up getting treated?

Miso 

You know, it’s hard to sometimes like, pin down, right, it’s like, oh, this happened to me because I’m I don’t know, because I’m, you know, young, obviously, like, young-looking woman, or is it because I’m blind? And I personally became hyper aware of it in the wake of COVID-19, when kind of anti Asian sentiments were popping up honestly everywhere, not just in the US, but I think this has been, like, a global phenomenon, especially in the western, you know, western hemisphere, and just culturally western countries. But yeah, I think the hard part, like, honestly is, you know, I do wonder if, like, I’m, when I’m out and about, especially if I’m by myself, like, obviously, like being, appearing as this kind of, like, pretty small in terms of, like, my physical build. And also, like, I’m Asian, and a woman. So I do sometimes wonder, like, yeah, like, I mean, I feel like I have to be, like, extra visual. And so I think that’s like, one kind of daily thing. Another aspect of it is like, when I’m in the Asian kind of circles, I feel like people don’t really know what to do with me because I’m blind. And then when I’m in the blind and disability community, people don’t seem to really care about, like, my Asian background. So I think just trying to figure out how to blend and merge different parts of my identity is something that I’m still figuring out.

Ju Hyeon 

Yeah, I think for me, I’ve been living by myself for the last nine years, and I have experienced a lot of what you’re describing, the microaggressions, discrimination. It is hard for me to know whether it’s because I’m blind, Asian, woman, I think all of the above. What I find most difficult is the lack of respect for me as a human being when I’m out and about in public. And this was way before COVID as well. I’m manhandled all the time, touched inappropriately, you know, screamed in my face, and people assume for whatever reason that I won’t understand what they do, I don’t understand. 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. For me, I feel like a lot of it is because I am blind, but who really knows, people will, you know, say the most ludicrous things to me, and expect me to believe it. An example, I went to the grocery store to get some bamboo shoots. And after being told to wait for 20 minutes, one of the employees came and said, ‘you know, bamboo shoots are actually called asparagus, that’s what you’re looking for’. She expected me to swallow that! So yeah, I do feel like I experience that quite a lot. Unfortunately, because I use a guide dog as my mobility aid, there is even more discrimination because of that, you know, in terms of being denied rides and being kicked out of restaurants, places like that.

Áine 

One other thing I wanted to just go back to was when you were both, after you migrated as kids, and you were, you know, having to deal with that whole language barrier, but also, like, kind of forming your identity as, you know, all teenagers go through a phase of figuring out kind of who you are and how you kind of relate to the world and everything. How did you find that from the kind of social point of view?

Miso 

In middle school again, it was very hard and I don’t really remember, like, a lot of how the day-to-day was like. But I think for me, honestly, the saving grace at the time especially was that I played the flute and I played it, like, decently that, you know, like, I joined a band at the school, and that allowed me to feel like, well, even if I’m, like, not understanding everything that’s going on in my other classes, at least, like what, every other day I can show up and do this, pretty okay, and teachers say I’m good, so that’s good enough for now. I think that was honestly hugely helpful.

Middle school and high school are hard times, for anyone and everyone, but I think, like, just moving, kind of, little more frequent moving and also, like, being one of the very few blind people at my school was really hard in terms of, like, making deep friendships. Because, you know, you’re at that point, you’re also like, especially in the public school system, you know, you have, like, people who grew, up like, since kindergarten, like, all the way to high school, so, you know, you kind of have to insert yourself into already existing social circles, right? So I think going to college was really refreshing because I knew that a lot of people, like, so many people are starting all over again. And, you know, by the time I felt a little bit more confident in who I am. And so I think, yeah, the social aspect was definitely difficult. And I’m really grateful that at least I had, like, music as a kind of mechanism to get me eased into, like, you know, this, like, group activity of being in ensembles. But yeah, I honestly don’t know how else I would have, you know, made my way into this, kind of, circle of friends.

Áine 

I think that speaks really powerfully as well to the importance of, you know, I think sometimes music can maybe be seen as sort of an extra or a thing just for fun or whatever. But I think both of your experiences, Ju Hyeon, you have been doing it professionally, but Miso as well, in terms of as social aspect, really speak to it having actually a lot of really important and valuable functions.

Ju Hyeon 

Funnily enough, musically, I was excluded more than included at high school. So that wasn’t a social icebreaker for me at all. I was left out of a lot of musical activities by my music teachers who didn’t feel a blind person belonged there. So music was something I did outside of school. When I was sent to New Zealand I was sent to a school where there were no Korean students. There were no ESL classes. And I mingled with New Zealanders, we call them Kiwis, right away. And because I was also at a boarding school, my parents were on the other side of the world, I started to lose my Korean identity and lose my language. And 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. *laughs*

So by the time I reached high school, I saw myself as Kiwi, not Korean. But I did have a group of friends that I was very close to throughout my high school years, which was very lucky. They’re all Kiwis, they accepted me as one of them. And even during middle school, too, I was accepted as a Kiwi rather than a Korean. But it was interesting when I came here, because it seemed that people seem to see me as Korean rather than American. And I had a lot of questions about my Korean identity, but because I spent 11 years in New Zealand, hardly speaking Korean and hardly doing anything to do with Korean, I think I struggle with who I am today because I don’t see myself as a Korean. I can hardly speak enough Korean to string a sentence together. And I can’t read in Korean anymore. So I still see myself as Kiwi and American more than Korean, but I think other people find that very difficult to understand. I was also very lucky to meet a small group of friends who accepted me as how I saw myself.

I do regret actually, and it’s a sad thing to regret, but I wish I had given myself an English name when I moved to New Zealand, because people really struggle with that, and it creates confusion, because I call myself a Kiwi, even here. 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 in some ways, I wish I’d given myself an English name. 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, and, you know, all sorts.

Miso 

I will say, like, I feel very appreciative and, you know, in a way proud that you kept your Korean name. Actually, I think that’s something I struggled with as well, and there was a time that I wished that I, like, would have an English name. And then I would ask my parents, like, oh, like, ‘can I get an English name?’ And they will say, ‘Well, why would you get an English name? Like, you know, your name is not that difficult. And, you know, this is, like, who you are, like, you’re Korean’. And you know, and in my teen years, I really wanted to get an English name. And I would sometimes joke with my friends like, ‘This would be my English name’ or ‘that would be my 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, but I think I’m very, like, grateful that my parents were like, ‘No, like, you shouldn’t get an English name just because people can’t say it right’, or something. And…

Ju Hyeon 

My parents were actually the opposite. They said, ‘It’s your decision, if you want an English name, get an English name. And it was me the 11-year-old who said no, but for me, I it is a regret, I cannot change it now because people know me as Ju Hyeon Han the singer, it is something I’ll probably struggle with for the rest of my life, never mind that people cannot pronounce or spell, and yes, that space, it creates problems almost every time I go somewhere and I have to spell my name and show them how it’s written.

Áine 

You know, it’s just incredible, that people, you know, are not willing to take that little bit more time to really just listen, to understand, you know, okay, this is someone’s name, this is how it’s pronounced, respect that. And also, like, respect where you said that, like, what you identify with in terms of, you know, being Kiwi in your case, or Kiwi American. One final thing that I don’t know if… you particularly wanted to talk to Miso, because I think I’ve seen you write about it. But just coming, like, more to terms with your sort of disability identity. Because, you know, you talked about going to the school for the blind in Korea and sort of having some kind of grounding and feeling comfortable in your skin, I guess, as a blind person. But then you studied and sort of worked in disability research and policy. So I wonder if you can kind of talk about that a little bit.

Miso 

I, like, literally kind of stumbled upon, no pun intended, like disability studies. I went to UCLA, again in large part because that was the, quote unquote, most prestigious school that I got into and that’s where my father wanted me to go to, that was not necessarily my first choice of college, but it actually ended up being really good because I, like, I realized, like, one quarter into my studies there, like, somebody told me like, ‘Hey, we have a disability studies program, did you know about that?’

And I was like, ‘Oh, interesting. What is that about?’ And then I realized people are talking about stuff that, you know, I kind of struggled throughout my adolescence, in large part, like, you know, suddenly being one of very few blind people in my own high school, of like 3000 kids, like, I was one of the, like, three or four blind kids who were there. And realizing that, you know, I did have, like, disadvantages because of my blindness. Like, I felt like I was studying so much harder than my sighted peers. And, but then my parents never like, talked to me about like, ‘Yeah, this is actually really hard for you to be a blind person’, they presented themselves as, especially when I was young, like, you know, ‘You can do whatever you want if you work hard, like, it doesn’t matter that you’re, you know, a blind person’. And I think to a degree that was really healthy, in that I never felt like I couldn’t do something because of my blindness, necessarily. And, you know, obviously, there are some, like, internalized things that I started having to experience in my teen years, like, for example, like feeling like I was spending so much time trying to understand these, like, scientific diagrams and things like that, whereas my sighted peers would, kind of, it seemed like they could, you know, take a look at it and understand it right away. I’m sure that wasn’t really the case, in retrospect. So like, kind of getting to understand, like, how other disabled people thought about it, how much, like, disabled people in the past in the United States, like, fought for things like the Americans with Disabilities Act, or more commonly known as the ADA, it just gave me kind of, like, ‘Oh, this is about, you know, my community and me’. And so that’s where I kind of became really interested in and passionate about this field.

And I mean, as a blind person, I have kind of no choice but to be, you know, seen as a blind person, it’s not something I can hide. And so I think I became just, over time, very comfortable in who I am. And because I guess the other part would be, the other option would be always, like, feeling like, I don’t know, like, what to do with it. But I’ve kind of come to terms with, ‘Oh, this is who I am, and if you can’t deal with it, then so be it’.

But honestly, for me, the, you know, this migration of my family and my disability, it’s so, like, 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, like, my parents are not that adventurous to say, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna move and do, like, put ourselves in this really hard place of, like, having to learn the language and culture in our middle age’, like, they would have not done that had I not been disabled. So it’s something, you know, just part of who I am, can’t change it, don’t want to change it. And I don’t know, just gotta live with it at this point. And I’m just really interested in how other people think about their disability because of my experience.

Áine 

Yeah, Ju Hyeon, do you want to add anything on that? About sort of your experience and how you think about disability at all?

Ju Hyeon 

Yeah, so I’m very glad that Miso’s parents always had such a positive outlook on your life and your disability. But it took a lot of work internally for me to become comfortable as who I am. I never really struggle with, ‘Oh, I want to see, I want to get my sight’, whatever.

But it took a long time for me to be proud of who I am as a blind person. So to see my disability in a positive light, I think I still struggle with it to this day. Especially as I do experience a lot of microaggressions, discrimination in my daily life.

But, you know, in my line of work, the way I use my ears, my hearing, it’s actually to an advantage because I can hear things, but my students seeing 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. And because I know he doesn’t see me that way. He would not have hired me if he thought that way. But I see myself that way, so I wish, you know, 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.

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. So I’m actually very, very grateful, 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.

Miso 

Yeah, I was just thinking about that, as we’re having, you know, just now this conversation. You know, would I see myself so differently had I stayed in Korea? And I think that answer could be yes, in that… Yeah, I think probably because of my personality… Well, I don’t know, it’s hard to say, like, what came after what. Being in the US and kind of being exposed to this culture of, like, ‘you do you’, individualistic kind of mindset, absolutely influenced, like, how I view myself too. Korea, personally, I think has come a long way in terms of, like, how people view disabled people. Obviously still has a long, long way to go. But that’s, I mean, that’s similar for the US as well.

Ju Hyeon 

I will say I am, I was very pleasantly surprised to hear how far Korea had come, even in the time that you, Miso was at the school for the blind. And it actually made me very happy to hear that because when I was there, going to mainstream school was viewed as a punishment. If you misbehave here will kick you out and we will send you to mainstream school, and you’ll never be able to cope. And it was actually something one of the teachers almost carried out to a bullying student with low vision. So just to hear, even within the year that I left and you started going there, where students were actually taken to mainstream schools and were allowed to study, I mean, that’s a huge change.

Miso 

I have lots of hopes for both Korea and US. Honestly, I think that’s probably the optimistic nature of who I am, but yeah, I don’t know. There’s always work to do but lots of hope for sure.

[In background, outro piano music: forthright melody accompanied by a habanera dance rhythm.]

Áine

Thanks so much to you both for your time and for coming on Disability Crosses Borders. I really enjoyed and appreciated this conversation.

Ju Hyeon and Miso [speaking at the same time]

Thank you / Thanks for having me!

Áine

If you’re enjoying Disability Crosses borders, could you share it with a friend? Go to disabilitycrossesborders.com to support the show, for transcripts and to share this episode. Till next time!

[Outro music fades out]

By Áine Kelly-Costello

Blind freelance writer/journalist and campaigner from aotearoa NZ.