I vividly remember the day my daughter came home from kindergarten, sat at the kitchen table, and demanded the full attention of both her parents. She asked with amazing frankness, and a slight touch of edginess, “What percentage of Chinese am I and how come no one told me that I was part Chinese?” Beth and I looked at each other, exhaled for a moment, and my wife calmly explained that she was a combination of several different ethnicities and races: Korean, Irish, Polish, French, and a few others. However, Chinese was not any of them – for her or her less inquisitive brother. After asking what brought about this sudden curiosity for our daughter, she told us it was an innocent classmate who proclaimed that Ryan Marie was a nice Chinese classmate.
It did cause me to wonder what race the next generation of our family will be classified as, if any.
Let’s step back a bit. As I have proudly told the story many times, my parents have the most amazing love story ever told. My Dad, who has family tracing back to Wicklow, Ireland, grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. After graduating high school, he was convinced by his two best friends to join the Army and see the world. His two buddies were sent to Panama and Germany and my Dad landed in Seoul, South Korea, for an extended period of time. My Dad spent 6 years in the Army, a good portion, as he tells the story, where they have the coldest winters on the Earth – Korea. After some time, my Dad met a young woman, Young-Ok Han, a war refugee from North Korea.
My Mother was born in 1938 from two North Korean parents in a small village in Wonsan, North Korea. She was one of nine children and as she entered her teenage years, things in their village grew from destitute and poor, to violent, unsettled and uncertain. After two of my Mother’s brothers were kidnapped by the North Korean forces, interrogated and tortured, my then-13 year old Mother told her parents it was time to leave and flee to South Korea, which many in her region were doing at this time during the beginning of the Korean War.
After a very perilous trip, mostly traveling at night time, my Mom and some of her family made it safely across the border. The trip was confusing and some of the family split up as they dodged discovery from the marauding soldiers. My Mom tells of one particularly harrowing story of getting detained by a group of North Korea soldiers. The soldiers discovered the fleeing group and identified my Grandfather as the leader of the group. No trial, no judge, no jury, my Grandfather was up before a firing squad. As my Mom used to tell the story, she and her sisters threw themselves at the feet of the soldiers and literally begged them not to shoot their father. Oddly, after some pleading and begging, the soldiers relented and let the group move along. I still get chills listening to that event.
After some time, my refugee Mom settled in her new country and found herself working for the South Korean Army, mainly washing their clothes in a river and cleaning up after soldiers.
As told to me, many times by my parents, my Dad, a dutiful soldier for the United State Army, was walking down to the river with his laundry when he spotted this young woman. That was the start of their taboo relationship. They “dated” for a period of time, but my Dad was sent back to America. He reenlisted with the sole purpose of going back to Korea to marry his true love. This chapter of their lives requires a lot more time and I will save for another day. The end of the story finds my parents getting married in 1957 (actually three different ceremonies – once in Seoul Town Hall, another on the boat that brought them to the States, and finally when they were on American soil). My Mom applied for a Green Card and was later awarded her citizenship.
While my parents’ love story was not entirely accepted in Korea, the road in America wasn’t much better. Upon arrival in Kansas City to finish out his commitment to the Army, my parents wanted to move into a house in New Jersey. After a few failed attempts to secure an apartment, the reason being that landlords didn’t approve of their interracial marriage, my parents got an apartment in Bloomfield, and then bought a house in Cedar Grove in 1962. My Irish American Dad and my North Korean born Mom were realizing the American Dream.
It never truly dawned on me the significance of growing up, at a time in the 60s and 70s, as one of seven kids in probably one of the only bi-racial families in our town. Sure, our family looked a little different and the food we ate smelled a little different (that damn Kimchi), but we fit in as best as we could.
At some point I decided to run for local office and that ambition was not met with universal support. I was told by a few that an Asian American had never run for local office – whatever, we ran and won.
I ran for reelection to the State Assembly in 1997 and will never forget the Union County State Committee person who stood up at a convention in Summit and told me not to put my photo on any campaign literature as it might cost me some votes – “let them think that you are Irish.” I wasn’t the only one insulted; my Assembly running mate, Joel Weingarten, and State Senator, C. Louis Bassano, were told that the three of us didn’t reflect the district. It was understood she meant ethnically and religiously. It is almost funny to now note that that insult wasn’t the worst thing to come out of a convention. Two years earlier, in 1995, I was called up early to meet that same mean spirted state committee person, she inquired if I was the O’Toole that was the candidate for the Assembly seat in District 21. I said yes, and she leaned over the podium, pulled her eyes back to create squinted eyes and added “you can’t be an O’Toole if you have these” – some big tent I thought.
When I won my Assembly seat a Star Ledger article noted that I was the first Asian American ever elected to the State Legislature. When I won the State Senate seat, a state house reporter noted that I was the first Asian American elected to the upper house. Despite the fact that I have 50% Korean blood coursing through my veins, I never felt I was anything but an American, because aren’t we all?
We have come a very long way from the 1950’s and 1960’s, where the ethnic resentment and polarization was very omnipresent in our society. More to the point, we have come a long way from 1967 when the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Loving vs. Virginia case that the state’s anti-miscegenation statute was illegal. That case centered around a law on the books since 1924 which made it illegal for two separate races to marry.
If we take a moment to be honest with ourselves, whether you arrived on the Mayflower or later, unless you can trace your lineage back to the Wampanoag people – we all came from someplace else.
I hope that as we have this debate in our country about immigration reforms and border security, we not let the debate devolve to the point where someone is made to feel embarrassed because they look a little different. This is one of those times when history should NOT repeat itself.
This column originally appeared on InsiderNJ.