What Being Asian American Means to Me

  By Grace Minjeong Sur Smith

I got on my first airplane right before my 백일, 100th day birthday, which is historically a big day in Korea as it marks the survival of a baby in a country that endured brutal colonialism and an equally brutal civil war before catapulting to one of the largest economies in the world overnight. My father was a junior 직원 (loosely means “corporate subordinate”) of a Samsung subsidiary, and they tasked him to boost international sales based out of Los Angeles. Both my parents learned a bit of English in high school and university in Korea but as anyone who has learned a new language knows, speaking it or even trying to understand it amongst native speakers is a whole other ball game.  It is not only intimidating but can be deeply isolating and lonely.  Thankfully there was a well-established Korean community in and around L.A. and we made the trip to K-town every weekend. My mom found community at the local Korean church while my dad had to entertain clients, even on weekends.

My parents rarely talk about the difficulties they endured in a completely new world with no friends or family as young parents to my three year old sister and newborn me, but my siblings and I have picked up some clues along the way.  Particularly from our own moving around as kids.  My father’s international assignment ended when I was in the second grade and we moved to Seoul only to move back to L.A. the following year (a story for another time!)—we finally ended up in New Jersey, where you can still see the lone Samsung building in Fort Lee from the highway.

Making new friends and building a community are not easy things to do personally or professionally but I’ve learned that they are crucial in surviving and thriving.  Unless you’re cast on that fantastically entertaining reality TV show “Alone,” making connections, working together, leaning on each other and paying it forward, not only make the world go round but make us progress and succeed.  You’d also be surprised what you may learn (and have in common) by having a conversation with someone!

Ultimately my parents sent me to boarding school in 1998 when Samsung needed my father to return to Seoul permanently.  There is a funny story my best friend likes to tell where I went around all of orientation asking fellow Asian students if they were Korean.  Some of these people, Korean or not, are now family to me and for the last two decades, I have felt passionately about contributing to and participating in Asian communities whether that’s the Asian students associations at my alma maters, Asian bar associations for lawyers, or a group of fellow mothers in the neighborhood.  As my introverted husband likes to remind me, approaching new people or forging new relationships can be frighteningly uncomfortable, but throughout my 39 years of life, time and time again, my communities have provided support, advice and opportunities that I otherwise would never have found.

As a new-ish working mom post-pandemic, I’m pretty tired.  But what gets me going every day are the communities that I’ve built personally and professionally.  Duane Morris is truly a diamond in the rough.   Where actions speak louder than words, money is put where mouths are, and the Asian lawyers, particularly the partners, invest their time and resources in the Asian community throughout the firm.  I have often felt alone trying to forge an Asian community at work to show others the benefits of investing in diversity and inclusion, so I’m truly grateful for landing at a place where I’m shown by leadership that our Asian community matters, and guidance, opportunities, or even an ear to hear my thoughts, are just a call or email away!

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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