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How Being Half Korean Defined One Artist’s Search for Identity

John Kim Faye live (Photo courtesy John Kim Faye)

When John Kim Faye deserved a good scolding as a child, his mother lapsed into her native Korean, leaving him somewhere between bewildered and amused.

Sure, he was half Korean, but Faye didn’t speak that language, having been born in Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.A. in 1966 and raised in Delaware, U.S.A. among an English-speaking enclave of distinctly non-Asian neighbors. 

As the words tumbled out of his mother’s mouth, Faye was unsure of their meaning, although over time, he says, he did pick up on Korean curse words, so that was handy.

John Kim Faye (photo courtesy John Kim Faye)
John Kim Faye (photo courtesy John Kim Faye)

“To this day, when people ask me if I speak the language, my answer is that I don’t, but I can tell when I’m being cussed out,” Faye says. “Most of the time, I knew it wasn’t serious, because she was fighting back a smile as she reprimanded me.”

That momentary language barrier — as insignificant as it was — was emblematic of the ambivalence Faye faced growing up half-Korean, half-Irish in 1970s U.S.A., dreaming of being a rock star even though “when most people picture a rock musician in their heads, that image doesn’t look anything like me.”

To this day, when people ask me if I speak the language, my answer is that I don’t, but I can tell when I’m being cussed out.

But that puts him in good company because plenty of celebrities these days are mixed race and have openly discussed their experiences, how the world perceives them, and how they have come to terms with their multiracial identities.

Now Faye (www.johnfaye.com) is bringing his story to the world in a recently published memoir, The Yin and the Yang of It All: Rock ‘N’ Roll Memories from the Cusp, as Told By a Mixed-Up, Mixed-Race Kid.

The book details Faye’s childhood, his brief flirtation with fame in the 1990s as lead singer of the alternative rock band The Caulfields, his professional musical experiences since that group disbanded, his mother’s death in 2012, and his eventual and uplifting embrace of his heritage.

FINDING HIS PLACE IN THE WORLD

Growing up, Faye didn’t feel particularly connected to either half of his ethnicity. He had Irish roots from his father — but wasn’t really Irish. He had Korean roots from his mother — but wasn’t really Korean. And in his formative years, Asian influences such as K-Pop, Pokemon and Squid Game had not yet erupted on the U.S. scene to give him solace and an aura of cool.

John Kim Faye live (Photo courtesy John Kim Faye)
John Kim Faye live (Photo courtesy John Kim Faye)

“In the 1970s, America had nothing that would make growing up Asian, or even part Asian, seem remotely appealing,” he says. 

Today, the United States even observes Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month in May, and Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States. 

That growth brings at least a little more attention. Just recently a Stanford University panel discussed the challenges facing Asian Americans, including how underrepresentation in health and health care has negatively affected Asian communities.

In the 1970s, America had nothing that would make growing up Asian, or even part Asian, seem remotely appealing.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center survey explored how members of the Asian community in the United States describe themselves. That survey showed just 28% use the label “Asian”: 12% using it on its own and 16% call themselves “Asian American.”

More than half of the survey participants — 52% — said they most often use ethnic labels that reflect their specific heritage, either alone or together with “American,” such as “Chinese” or “Chinese-American,” “Filipino” or “Filipino-American.” About 10% use “American” on its own.

NOT AN EASY JOURNEY

But for Faye the importance of representation and ethnicity isn’t relegated to one month a year, and although he learned to come to terms with and embrace his mixed-race heritage, the journey wasn’t an easy one.

John Kim Faye live (Photo courtesy John Kim Faye)
John Kim Faye live (Photo courtesy John Kim Faye)

The fact his father died of cancer when Faye was 6 did not help. As a boy, Faye was just one more young person searching for his identity, enduring bullying along the way, including racist taunts that revealed ignorance and disregard for which Asian country his mother’s side of the family came from.

“It was pretty clear that none of them had the slightest desire, maybe not even the ability, to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese and Burmese,” he says. “To be honest, I wasn’t making a lot of distinctions either.

“And while I thought for a time that I was no different from any other American kid — I loved apple pie, I can tell you that — enough ignorant people planted enough seeds of doubt in me that I became convinced I was different, and not in a good way.”

He recalls that a friend’s grandmother once asked him what part of China he was from. After a brief uncomfortable pause, he replied, “I’m from America.”

It was pretty clear that none of them had the slightest desire, maybe not even the ability, to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese and Burmese.

“I didn’t bother to correct her presumption of my being Chinese,” Faye says. “This was a tactic I came to use a lot, whenever people would ask me where I was from. Regardless of their intentions, even if they were genuinely curious about my background, I always viewed this line of questioning as suspect, an attempt to paint me as the alien I already felt I was.”

FINDING MUSIC

Eventually, Faye found his identity — and his salvation — in music. 

“Music gave me my voice — not just the transmitter of lyrics and melodies from the songs I write but my place in the world, my sense of belonging somewhere and believing in something,” he says. 

Even that didn’t happen overnight and he was well into adulthood before he truly came to terms with his identity, his heritage, and “all the complexities and contradictions inherent in the unlikely union between the parents who made me,” he says.

Faye even found a way to permanently symbolize his dual heritage. One day he walked into a tattoo parlor. When he walked out, across the entire width of his upper arm was tattooed a black-and-green yin-yang symbol, but with shamrocks where small circles usually would be.

“Taken individually, the yin and yang and the shamrock are the visual clichés of each side I inherited,” Faye says. “But together, they represent something unique.”

John Kim Faye (photo credit: Randi Anderson)
John Kim Faye (photo credit: Randi Anderson)
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