Basement Babes Zine

Basement Babes Issue 9: “My Asian Grandma is just as Asian as your Asian Grandma”

A piece on family and culture by Olivia West


My Asian Grandma is just as Asian as your Asian Grandma.

By Olivia West

My grandma is a legend. She was this cute-n-tiny Korean lady; but don’t be fooled. Her eyes could scorch you with one look and her body was home to a soul with power beyond your wildest imagination. Even coming from one of the most literate nations in the world, my grandma never learned to read or write. At the age of four, she worked alongside her mom in the rice paddies. Her father had passed away, so her mother needed her help to support the family. When she got older, my grandma started her own business selling knick-knacks, while her siblings went to school. She sold her trinkets to American GI’s, and that’s how she met my grandpa. He would always come in to buy things, but was too shy to speak to her. One day he mustered up the courage, and the rest is history. She traveled around the world with him while raising three children, until they finally settled in WA state. She was one tough cookie; living in states where it was just legal for her to be married to my grandpa, and where she could verbally communicate with no one.

(IMO = aunt on your mom’s side of the family // AJUMMA = sorta like Mrs., a term to describe a middle aged woman)

In her later years, my grandma made fun of the other ajummas for power walking with their arms in the air, getting silly perms and getting cynical. She kept her sanity by working all day, every single day, at her brother-in-law’s grocery store. Boo Han is a Korean grocery, cooking supply, and just a general east-asian market. It was started by my great aunt and uncle in the 70’s. My grandma was the spirit of Boo Han Market. Everyone called her a workaholic, and begged her to slow down. She didn’t need people telling her what to do. She worked at Boo Han everyday because that is where her family, friends and community were. That is what made her happy. If you go to any Korean establishment in the south sound, and ask someone if they know Boo Han Imo, they will immediately tell you all of the hilarious memories they made with her. She was the healthiest and liveliest person I have ever met. When she died, she was on the front page of newspapers and had multiple articles written about her. In the words of my uncle,  “Everyone loved Imo, well not everyone, about 90%.” Badass.

Well, growing up I had a minimal amount of friends. I spent my summers and school breaks working with grandma at the store. She would make me burnt sweet potatoes in a tiny pot, tea to soak my feet in, and hella rice cakes. Working with her at the store made me so happy. I felt important and productive. Coming back home after spending weeks with her was horrible. I would get stuck in the Konglish lingo, and couldn’t pronounce my words correctly right away. This would have been fine, if I hadn’t gotten a lot of shit from my peers telling me that I was a wannabe Asian, rice cracker, or a liar. Because apparently a person cannot be Asian if they are not 100% *rolls eyes*. There is still a kid in my home town that tells everyone I am pretending to be Asian, that I made up everything. It is actually hilarious how much they care about it. It is comical now, but back then I felt so alienated. When they tried to beef with me, it was because I made them uncomfortable. They put me down because I didn’t fit their ideal of a perfect Asian. We come in different colors and sizes than the beige box they put us in.

Whenever anyone tells me that I am not Asian, and asks why I am involved in my community, I tell them I embrace my culture because I am honoring my grandma. I am honoring the people in my family who came before me, and lived their lives with these values and ideas. If I were to just throw away everything she taught me and ignore my culture, I would be so disrespectful. Ignoring my culture to conform to mainstream, Eurocentric ideals is giving into the colonizer. My culture is deeper than my skin.

I am mixed. I don’t speak perfect English. I am grounded.

  No one can tell me how I can identify. My narrative is mine to define.

       Deal with it.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019