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outside in

Nothing about me other than my appearance gives away the fact that I was born in Seoul and lived there until I was four. My life is like that of many other Americans. I work, I’m a mom, I’m a wife. We have two cars and a mortgage and student loans. I eat Chipotle twice a week because my kids will eat it and it’s fast, and sometimes I only have time to put mascara on the eye that’s not covered by bangs. See? I’m basically you.

Except, maybe I’m not. Unless you, too, have accidentally cut someone off and then had that person pull alongside you to call you a “stupid Oriental bitch.” Or been heckled by the school bully in front of 30 merciless 8th graders for having a flat nose and “Chinese” eyes. Or had someone–who’s just “keeping it real”–tell you to your face that you probably got the job offer because you’re a minority.

I’m not complaining. Everyone feels like they are on the outside, some of the time. I’m only writing about it now because a recent incident reminded me how the scars last long after you think you’ve outgrown them. I belong to a private athletic club that I joined mostly because my husband badgered me into it. The reason I had to be harassed into joining is because, when I was growing up, that club represented everything I felt excluded from. But I’ve grown to love the club. I work out there, and my kids take swimming lessons there and shoot hoops with their dad. I’ve met great friends.

This last November, without advance warning, the club put a photo of me on the cover of their monthly member magazine. I’d been asked to take part in a photo shoot promoting the club’s upcoming fashion show. Good God that sentence pains me. Anyway, the point is that the photos, if they turned out, were supposed to appear inside the magazine. My husband can confirm that I spent all of October regretting my decision and dreading the November issue.

And then, there I was, on the cover, in my mailbox and in the mailbox of almost every lawyer that I know and work with professionally, immortalized in the most unnatural pose imaginable.

yes, i stand like this all the time

My most pressing concern was that people would think that the ruffly dress I was wearing on the cover reflected my personal taste in clothing. My next most pressing concern was that people would think I was put on the cover because I’m Asian and the club wanted to advertise that they had some. And my fear was justified.  I got more than a few well-meaning comments that were variations on “They must have put you on the cover because you’re a minority!”  Gee, thanks.

The comments were technically made in 2011, but people: it’s 2012.  2012.

After the December and January issues came out, I thought I’d heard the last of it, but three days ago, an older woman in the locker room, after asking if it was indeed me on that cover, asked what I “did at the club.” I guess she assumed that I worked at the club, because a lot of the club employees are minorities. When I stammered that I didn’t work at the club, it was hard to judge who was more discomfited: the other woman, or me.

The concept of “passing” is one that has stayed with me since I first read my Ralph Ellison. But the older I get, the less I want to pass for something I’m not. Instead, I’m taking ownership of what I am. Which is why, with this post, I’m saying goodbye to all the rest and choosing to dwell only on my favorite comment about that cover, from an older Filipina, who told me that she was so proud to see a fellow Asian on the front of that magazine. There. Progress. For her, and for me.

41 Comments Post a comment
  1. h. lee #

    I think that you look absolutely amazing on the cover and on the following pages within the magazine. I can appreciate what you’ve written and experienced at the MAC. As a fellow female, 2nd generation Korean attorney, I feel you sister! Your blog should be read by everyone, far and wide….

    January 30, 2012
    • hey, thanks h.lee! do we know each other? should we? there can’t be too many female, 2nd generation Korean attorneys in town…

      January 31, 2012
  2. Thank you for sharing so honestly. i usually get the “omg, u speak such good english.” statement :p Here’s to owning who we are…

    January 25, 2012
  3. Amy #

    I enjoyed your post. We spent 10 years as members of the club and recently made the decision to cancel our membership. Though we met lots of wonderful people and enjoyed the work out facilities (especially the swimming lessons and aquatics staff for our kids) we too felt as if we were on the outside looking in. This is something that we have grown accustomed to over the last 6 years. We have a special needs son. A happy high functioning little man on the Autism spectrum. There certainly were a few shining individuals who were true hero’s for my son, but overall we felt that as he grew the programs that he could be a part of were minimal. Tiny toys was overwhelming. Loud, chaotic Family Fridays? Forget it. Meltdown city. The only program that had special needs one-on-one instruction was swimming and we were so grateful, but alas, one program does not justify a fancy health club membership. We began to frequent the club less regularly for fear our son would step out of line, break a rule, just by being himself. I do think this place is wonderful facility for a typical developing family, but just a little to rigid for our loosey-goosey ways. Hey MAC, how about a sensory sensitive tiny tots? A loosely structured gymnastic class? A special needs bouncy house night? Food for thought. We aren’t all “typical”.

    January 22, 2012
  4. You’re on that cover because you are beautiful and you look hot in that dress! It’s really too bad that skin colour has to be mentioned at all – it’s what’s inside that counts – the rest is just icing on the cake! As for bullying and scars – we grow stronger inspire of it!

    January 21, 2012
  5. Colleen #

    This is such a well-written, authentic post. I saw you on the cover of the magazine and immediately recognized you. Not because of your descent, but because I often see you at Zumba dancing like a rock-star and envying your figure. You wouldn’t recognize me as I am hiding in the back trying not to trip over my own two feet! My point being, ignore the ignorant and believe what I thought when I saw you on the cover. “Oh, there’s that woman who is totally fit and enjoys the classes and facility.” And you’re right, I knew you have more style than that dress! (ps. You still looked great in it!)

    January 20, 2012
    • hey colleen–i think the zumba community is a large part of why i feel at home at the club, despite run-ins like the ones i described. samba: the great equalizer. look forward to meeting you in person, and thank you for your comment. it was a lovely way to start the day.

      January 20, 2012
  6. You look amazing on the cover! I can’t believe people thought there was another reason behind you being there.

    Such an honest post :). It’s hard to believe you had to go through that – all from a magazine cover!

    January 20, 2012
    • i know! so many emotions from such a piece of fluff.

      January 20, 2012
  7. When I was little, my mum (who is white, I am not) was brushing my hair in the mirror and I asked her, “Why is everyone else’s face funny except mine?”

    It can be hard for me to hold onto that perspective when people, including family members, think that it’s okay to tease me about my button hole eyes just because they love me.

    But. I think you should be asking, “Why are there so many ignorant idiots around except me?” It seems to be easier to brush it off when you realise it’s those other people who have the problem.

    January 19, 2012
    • I appreciate your perspective, especially in light of the fact that my five year old is starting to talk about whether he looks more like Mom, or Dad…

      January 20, 2012
  8. K How #

    That is so stupid. It makes me sick knowing that there’s still so much ignorance about other races. It’s even dumber that you grew up in the same culture that the rest of us did and you still have to endure such stupidity based on your looks. I think you’re beautiful. My dad is like that. He freaked out when he found out I liked a black guy and he constantly warns me not to bring him a black grandson. Whatever.
    And I totally stand like that all the time too. Only awesome people stand like that. 🙂

    January 19, 2012
  9. Rosalyn Liu #

    You’re not the only one….I was called a “stupid Oriental bitch” by a crazy man on a bike when I was about 6 months pregnant minding my own business walking down NE Broadway last year.
    And It was either in 7th or 8th grade that my fellow classmates decided to nickname me Connie Chung and of course say it in that making-fun-of-asians-speaking way. I just chalk it up to the fact that there are a lot of really stupid ignorant people out there and my experiences just make me be a better mom, wife and person.

    I think its great that you made the cover, for whatever reason. Asians represent!

    January 19, 2012
    • wait a second, has “stupid Oriental bitch” jumped the shark? hope mila is awesome!

      January 19, 2012
  10. Grayson Dempsey #

    Emotional and brave. Thanks as always for your honesty. Love you.

    January 19, 2012
  11. Pat #

    Dear Yoona – tell whoever wants to know why you are the cover girl – tell them its because YOU ARE A COVER GIRL!!!! I loved the photo of you and it never entered my mind that there was any other reason for it but that you make a stunning model!! I think you are awesome and a great Zumba dancer and you are one of my “PEEPS!”

    January 19, 2012
  12. Cafe23 #

    Hey Yoona! Sorry to hear about people’s dumb ass comments, but you know they’re probably just hating on the fact that you’re better and cooler than them =P .. You look awesome and I absolutely love that colour on you!!

    Btw, I was wondering if you’d be willing to participate in a post I’m working on. I’ve been asking several bloggers if they would mind giving me a 3-5 sentence response (could be shorter or longer if you want, really) to the question: Why do you blog? .. Something you said in reply to a reader’s comment compelled me to ask if you’d mind participating. I’d quote you and put a link to your blog 🙂 Thanks!

    January 19, 2012
    • I’d absolutely love to participate! Thanks for thinking of me. And it WAS a fun color to wear, for ten minutes. 🙂

      January 19, 2012
      • Cafe23 #

        Yay, no thank you! So all you need to do is send me your answer to the question Why do you blog? .. can email me at or just reply right here if it’s easier for you.

        And if you can think of what category you feel best describes your blog, I’ll add that too!

        Thank you so much!

        January 20, 2012
  13. Courtney #

    1. Stop outing me for my road rage. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m a bad driver too, and of course it’s because I’m a woman. As Venn diagrams go, you’re just in a smaller circle of even worse drivers than me.

    2. The powers that be at the MAC put you on the cover because you’re good looking and slender, and can manage even to make really Talbotsy lame clothes look decent. And they’re plainly desperate to appear diverse, which probably accounts for the cover selection but not for your inclusion among the models. Frankly they should emphasize the 3 or 4 non-Caucasian members because maybe it will encourage a more diverse crowd to apply. That place could use it.

    3. If you’re South Korean, why are you so obsessed with Kim Jong Il?

    4. Hey, I’m just keepin’ it real . . . but I wonder how long it will take you to delete this along with other things I post on your various pages?

    January 19, 2012
    • 1. I THOUGHT that was you.
      2. Talbots is the new Chicos. Also there are lots of Asians at the MAC, which you’d know if you ever used your membership and went there.
      3. I don’t even have a response to this.
      4. I don’t delete the good stuff, love. XOXO

      January 19, 2012
  14. Emily Jones #

    I think the MAC should have asked you before putting you on the cover. But I agree with Suzanne: They may have liked that you made them look diverse, but they chose you because you looked hot! Even in that ruffled blue dress.

    January 19, 2012
    • I wonder if I have a suit for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress for not getting a heads up. Hope Campbell’s on the mend!

      January 19, 2012
  15. Suzanne #

    Yoona! You were put on the cover because you are a fucking knock out and your confidence and personality comes sailing through in that photo. I would never guess that you didn’t love blue ruffly dresses. For what it’s worth, the commentary is ALWAYS about the other person and their poop. Glad you’ve chosen to not take that on.

    January 19, 2012
    • You can’t tell from the photo but it was one-shouldered. So, blue, ruffly, one-shouldered. I miss you!

      January 19, 2012
  16. Min #

    Hi Yoona – not sure you remember me, but I went to the big green, too, and I’m sure we exchanged at least a few pleasantries at the always entertaining Tri-K parties. I discovered your blog through a series of tastemaker links, and was happy to see your face. I’m glad you are writing – you have a terrific voice. I’m a lawyer too, but work in-house in publishing – does that make it better? 🙂 On the side, to beat the rut of life, I help design my friends’ apartments, not so hard to do in NYC since they are all so small. Congratulations on the blog, and keep at it – I really enjoyed this post. I swear, I was on every brochure/website page of the firms I worked at, and even now I’m asked to contribute “quotes” along with my profile picture. In fact, before I even started at my first job, the NYT interviewed incoming female associates, and I contributed some horrible quote about sometimes “feeling negligible”. I was embarassed about falling prey to the reporter so easily, but now I embrace that comment as truth, at least at that time. You look terrific, and couldn’t be more proud that a fellow Koreana is gracing the cover of this particular club magazine!

    January 19, 2012
    • Of course I remember you, Min. Your job sounds AWESOME. Please tell me you get free books. I love your story about the NYT article–feeling embarrassed, and then owning it. Do you have a design blog? I just started this thing three months ago but it’s been a great outlet. Glad to reconnect.

      January 19, 2012
      • Min #

        I get free books! No blog yet, but many projects like that in mind. Glad we reconnected – see you on facebook!

        January 20, 2012
  17. I think you must have been put on the cover because you’re adorable and photogenic. It’s hard, but ignore the haters and try to enjoy being a bona fide cover girl. (Not sure what it says about me that I think the ruffly blue dress is cute.)

    January 19, 2012
    • Carole, a lot of people thought that dress was cute. I think it was just foreign to me. I’ve never worn a dress like that before. It was fun, except for the sucking in…thanks for posting.

      January 19, 2012
  18. Kristin Corcoran #

    I really love this post. Some people are so blind in their thinking and have no idea how it effects others. I like to think that with more families join the club of all kids, that there will be more people aware. With that said, I think the club needs to learn how to set more of an example. I base this statement on an article I saw in the magazine.
    Your fab and so above that “lady”…

    January 19, 2012
    • Kristin Corcoran #

      Ok! So, I can’t type on my phone well! What I meant to say is, I’d like to think with more families and that join the club, there will be more progressive thinking in every aspect. Maybe I set my expectations too high, but one can only hope!

      January 19, 2012
      • Hey Kristin! Things can’t change overnight, right? But I look around on a Family Friday and it’s increasingly a more eclectic mix, so I think you’re onto something. Here’s to traditions, and change. 🙂

        January 19, 2012
  19. Jeanne #


    Wonderful post–I may be emotional because maternity leave is ending but I may have teared up a bit. Anyway, when I saw the magazine I thought you were on the cover because you are gorgeous and have charisma. Didn’t occur to me that you were Asian. It baffles me that people would say anything different. Perhaps these people wish they were attractive enough to be on the cover of something?

    January 19, 2012
    • Ugh, when is your leave over? That is a rough, emotional time. But I’m sure Henry will LOVE the socialization at St. James. My babies were bored with me at home. Hang in there, lady.

      January 19, 2012
  20. Frank Aum #

    1. People who wear blue ruffly dresses should not be doling out fashion advice.

    2. You look like the photographer caught you thrusting on the squash court. Or doing a limbo.

    January 19, 2012
    • 1. duly noted, frank. duly noted.

      2. it’s called the beyonce behind-the-back-snap. and ladies don’t thrust, on squash courts or otherwise.

      January 19, 2012
  21. Meredith J #

    Thanks Yoona! I too have been invited to participate in photo shoots, and sit at banquet tables representing my organization for my “status”. Thanks for giving me a chance to laugh and not take myself so seriously, but hitting on a real issue at the same time. LOVE LOVE LOVE the blog!

    January 19, 2012
    • isn’t it true, though, that the older you get, the more you want to be different? that’s one cliche that’s turning out to be true for me. in any event, i say we attend those dinners and request that our placecards say “mascot.” hope you and the girls are well, meredith!

      January 19, 2012

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