In pursuit of the “American dream,” Paul Park’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s.
“[My dad is] the oldest son of eight kids. He’s from a rural, agricultural village in Korea. He grew up very low income. Sometimes they didn’t even have enough food to eat,” the alumnus shares.
Park, BS’04, MD’09, was born and raised in a predominately white Indiana community. His friends didn’t look like him, and they couldn’t relate to his family’s Korean heritage, he says.
“The first time I ever saw Asian Americans hanging out together in cliques was at IU,” he says. “[The campus], relatively speaking, had more diversity than I’d ever seen.”
Park, who now works in nonprofit medicine and is a Harvard Medical School instructor, found his footing as an Asian American activist while studying at IU Bloomington.
“In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch put out an entire line of shirts with racist caricatures of Asians. There were protests across the country. I always had an interest in political activism, but that really sparked something,” he says. “That’s when I first engaged with Melanie Castillo-Cullather, MA’08, at the Asian Culture Center and learned about some of the campus issues.”
With the recent rise in incidents of racism toward the Asian American community, we asked Park to share his story—and the reality of being a minority in America.
Can you describe what it was like to be Asian American on the IU Bloomington campus?
Paul Park: It was really in the second half [of my undergraduate career] that I was able to explore my Asian American identity. I started becoming friends with other Asian Americans through the Asian American Association. There was an immediate, intuitive camaraderie. I quickly realized how whitewashed my upbringing was. A lot of my Asian American friends would call me a “Twinkie.” Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
I’m grateful to IU [for the] opportunity to explore my identity, but I learned that Indiana University was still well behind in terms of its advocacy and promotion of diversity. I think a lot of institutions struggle with this, but I think IU was, and maybe still is, a bit archaic in the way they view diversity—that it’s very “black and white.” That type of approach, it’s not inclusive, and it actually feeds into pitting minorities against each other.
Did you experience racism while attending IU?
PP: I [attended] the IU School of Medicine. During my family medicine observation clerkship in Terre Haute [Ind.], one of the patients, a young white man, looked at me and said, “Oh, no, doc. I don’t do well with Orientals. I don’t want him here.” My professor asked if I could wait in his office—and I lost an opportunity to learn. Two other times, walking through the hospitals in Terre Haute, I was called “Yao Ming.” I wasn’t happy about those experiences, but it was not the first or last time I faced racism.
When you were growing up, did your parents teach you how to handle anti-Asian hate?
PP: This is a well-known debate between first- and second-generation Asian Americans. The first generation typically believes that the best way to deal with racism is to keep your head down, work hard, and do whatever it takes to support your family. The second generation is the opposite. We, in many ways, criticize the first generation for being too quiet and too complacent. It has, in some ways, debilitated our capacity to be seen as a vocal, loud, and emotional minority group.
We are often seen as the “model minority,” and are idealized falsely by the white community. The model minority myth is rooted in white supremacy and pits minorities against each other. [White people] will say to other communities of color, “Why can’t you be like them? Work hard, don’t complain, and live the American dream.”
Did your dad pass along any advice about achieving the American dream?
PP: My father never felt like he was considered for a promotion or respected because he spoke with an accent. He told me, “Paul, if you want to succeed in this country, you have to work twice as hard as your white peers.” And then he said, “But there’s one thing that’s more important than how hard you work, and that’s who you know.” It’s ironic—you have to work twice as hard as your white peers, but if you want to move ahead, those same white peers are going to help you get ahead.
This article is part of our Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month series, Honoring the History of Our Asian American Alumni.