May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month! This resolution to celebrate initially just one week was passed by the House and then the Senate and was signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978. Then in 1992, Congress officially designated the month of May as Asian / Pacific American Heritage month!
May was a significant month to honor AAPI heritage. The immigration of the first Japanese to the United States was on May 7, 1843, and the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad was on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.
May is a month where we get to pay tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success. Just like the two women I got to interview below!
It was such an honor to chat with Joy Yoon and Bo Carney, two Korean-American women who are running businesses, raising kids and just generally being really awesome. I spent some zoom time with them learning a bit about their story, their heritage, and how it plays a role in their lives and careers. Check out the interview below!
Tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Bo: My name is Bo and I own retail stores with my husband called Mohawk General Store. And, yeah, we’ve been doing this for, like, 14 years. As soon as I moved to L.A. Yeah. We’re still going. We have a son. That’s amazing.
Joy: Don’t forget Smock Bazaar.
Bo: Yeah. You know, we have a lot of projects. That’s what we do for a living. And we’re also raising a almost five year old little boy, and we’re expecting another one in two months.
Joy: I’m Joy. I’m a writer, researcher and creative consultant. And I have written a book on Los Angeles, The Guidebook on L.A. and I’m currently working with the sustainability designer Nicole McLaughlin.
How has your heritage affected your life today? At any point did your family or you feel ashamed of your culture?
Joy: I at no point, I think, has my family ever been not very proud to be Asian. They made sure that history and culture were very much instilled in our upbringing, whether it was adhering to specific celebrations and holidays that were a part of the Korean American calendar or the Korean calendar, and just understanding kind of where traditions come from and how history and food really play into who we are. I’ve been going back to Korea ever since I was a little kid. My first flight, my first international flight was back to Korea to spend my summers with my grandparents. And that went on for years. As a mother now, it’s something that I really want to instill with my own child. Just having a basic understanding that you know, he comes from two worlds because his father’s English and understanding that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I think that growing up in America, there was always a slight stigma to what Asian meant, and it was just a very basic understanding for a lot of people that didn’t want to go past the surface of understanding culture. And for me, I always embraced it. I mean, if I could wear a Hanbok, which is traditional, Korean outfit – I wore it whenever I wanted to wear it, whether it was like going to the grocery store or going to a restaurant or just wearing it around the house. I had pride in that. I think when I got a little bit older, kind of like in, I would say high school, it was less of a priority for me in a way. There was a lot of upheaval in my life, and I think I was just trying to survive. So I don’t know if the cultural side really played into that, but as I’ve gotten older from there, just a real appreciation and understanding of the resilience of our kind of history. I’m not nationalistic in any way, but I am proud to be Korean.
Bo: We didn’t have that issue either. Our parents were always proud to be Korean. And we always, you know, we went to a Korean church. We had family around, and we embraced our culture. Growing up, I think I spent elementary school in the States and then we moved back to Korea when I was 12. But I think around elementary school was kind of hard, actually. Because there weren’t that many Korean people in our school. I grew up in Dallas, I was in Germany before that. We lived in Europe. And there I don’t really remember encountering any kind of racism. Maybe I was too young to notice. But then when we moved to the States immediately I was bullied maybe because I didn’t speak English. We spoke German. When we moved here, I was immediately bullied and I think my survival instinct kicked in and I was like, okay, I need to assimilate ASAP.
So I think I tried to like hide my Korean just to survive, but we never experienced that at home. We spoke Korean. We ate Korean food. My mom would get Korean VHS so we could continue learning about Korea. She sent us back home to Korea to see relatives for the summer. We very much embraced it at home. But when I went to school, I would like try and hide all of that. I never mentioned anything about, like, my culture. So there was that. So it’s like kind of conflicting identities growing up here. And then when we moved back to Korea, that kind of all went away. I was like, Oh, I feel actually comfortable. I don’t have to hide my culture or I don’t have to be ashamed of what I look like.
I can only imagine how confusing that would be.
Bo: Yeah, it was. It was hard growing up in America.
Joy: Especially when there’s not many people at your school or in your neighborhood that even look like you. And my parents kind of didn’t understand the concept of a sandwich when I was younger. And, you know, school was very much Kimbap with kimchi. And me not realizing it smells. But I was never ashamed of it. I just realized that I just needed to find a common item that other kids could relate with. And that turned out to be pickles. And everybody loved pickles. So if I brought enough pickles to lunch to school, then other kids would be like, okay, cool. So like, we all like pickles. And I’m like, Yeah, this is nice. But then my mom would be like, Why are all the pickles gone all the time?
Finding common ground through pickles.
Joy: Yeah. I mean, the older I got the you know, that’s when it became a little bit more difficult for people to understand because cultural differences can be quite vast. It became just like going through the motions of living and just being me and trying to figure out who me really was.
In your experience, what are some of the unique challenges you feel like you have faced as Asian women in your field of work?
Joy: We don’t have a voice sometimes. You know, it’s odd. When I was working in corporate, being in the room and sometimes being the only woman or only woman of color and speaking up, challenging questions. And the question I would always get asked is, Joy, why do you have so many questions? And it’s because I’m interested and curious. I mean, there are so many instances in life where we kind of just nod our head expecting to know the answers for everything. And I didn’t feel comfortable being in that kind of position. So, yeah, I kind of got a reputation for always questioning things and I would have to explain why. And once I understood because I genuinely wanted to learn, that’s when they would ease up.
I don’t know what it is, but I had a gentleman I used to date like a long time ago in my twenties, and he’s just like, you’re really not passive aggressive. And I was just like, What’s that supposed to mean? He’s just like, I hear, Asian women in particular, they just hold things in and become extremely passive aggressive. No. Not at all. But I’m also terrible at math. There you go. So.
Bo: Yeah. Oh, gosh. I mean, I don’t know. I moved here 14 years ago and I’ve never been an employee. We just started our business pretty much right away. So I’ve never had to deal with any kind of corporate environment. For the most part, I feel like it’s fine because I’m self-employed, and if anything, I work with vendors and employees and I haven’t really experienced any kind of weirdness around me being Asian.
Joy That’s a good thing!
Bo: All of the microaggressions that I just brush off because I’m like, I can’t deal. I can’t deal with all of the little aggressions that come at me. So it doesn’t even register anymore. You just train yourself to not let little things, little comments, little aggressions bother you as much. I work with my husband who is an American white guy. Nobody talks down at me or tries to take advantage of me in that way just because, you know, we work together and like they would never do that to Kevin.
One thing I notice is when sticky situations come up when you run a business. And the way that I handle it, the way I approach these situations as a woman or an Asian woman – we’re kind of trained to not rock the boat too much. Respect others first, save face for everyone. Don’t speak up too much. Otherwise you’re going to embarrass yourself and the other person. It’s just not proper. Like, that’s a cultural thing. So some unpleasant situations in business when they come up, I would be like, let’s just do this because I don’t want to, you know, create drama. But then my husband, who also has like a say in how to handle things, he would just be like, What the f***? No, no, nobody talks like that. Nobody does that. And he would just, you know, say exactly what he feels, doesn’t care if the person is offended or not. It’s like many, many times I realize how different it is for a white American person. They they can just feel comfortable saying whatever, doing whatever does not care about repercussions or like how the other person will react and how that’s going to affect. I was just I was like, whoa. I could never do that. I could never talk to somebody like that because it’s been ingrained in my culture and as an immigrant to not be the cause of drama. Keep your head low and just go with the flow. Be pleasant. If you have a problem, bring it up like in a very nice, passive way. And then, you know. Deal with it.
Joy: I just get up and I just get up and leave now. I think what the past three years have taught me is like, no. I just get up and go. I mean, I feel like a lot of a lot of people are fed up now and they’re like, okay, now we need to find our voice again. And we’ve been pushed around for too long this hasn’t really helped us in any way. It’s like the more you give, the more people take, the more you compromise, the more you get taken advantage of. I see that happening a lot and I feel like a lot of people are just kind of fed up with that. So now they’re just like speaking up more, which I think is good.
We have like a set amount of energy that we can give at a certain point in our younger years. We’re just like, okay, we have enough that anybody can take whatever they want. And then you become a parent and you’re just like, shit, like I’m exhausted all the time. Like, how do I then categorize these things and a level of importance. And then with the pandemic and everything else happening. For me personally, I’m just like, this is it. This is it for me. I almost treat it like my over my ovaries. This is the set amount of eggs I have and this is how much energy I can give today. And then that’s it.
Bo: Well, my son does that to me all the time.
Joy: Oh, well, yeah. He’s so cute, though. How can you say no? I can’t even say no to that.
Bo: I don’t. I just don’t want him to become entitled.
Joy: I worry about that with all of that too.
I feel like that’s all of us as parents. We’re just like, just please turn out to be a decent human, right? Well, speaking of kids, how do you how do each of you, weave your unique heritage into your everyday lives? How are you instilling and passing all of that down to your kids?
Bo: I feel like language is really important, and food. We had a Korean nanny for the first two years of his life. So he was actually mostly exposed to Korean because he spent most of his time with the nanny and then me and then Kevin. So it was maybe 20% English, 80% Korean exposure. And then once he started preschool, the nanny went away. Then that kind of flipped. So it was just all on me to, you know, provide Korean language exposure to him. And it’s really hard if your partner doesn’t speak it. So now he doesn’t speak Korean anymore. He will understand it when I speak to him. And if I forced him to say things, he will say it, but he won’t speak it naturally. So I’m really sad about that.
My plan for that was to visit Korea every year for a month to just get used to it. And I think that’s the best way to learn a language anyway. But because of COVID, we haven’t been able to do that either. But other than that, he sees his grandparents and a few Korean friends who speak Korean to him. We talk about fun things we’ll do when we go to Korea. And he gets excited about that. We eat a lot of Korean food. So he grew up eating like soup and rice. And our nanny was always saying he has the palate of an old Korean man because he likes things like traditional soups with rice and he’ll just, like, slurp it like an old man.
I try to buy him Korean books. I buy Korean speaking toys. We try to do a couple holidays. Like the Korean Lunar New Year. It’s not that bad living in L.A. cause you can be exposed to a lot of Korean people and Korean things, food, culture. I try and show him a lot of Korean cartoons. I want him to be comfortable in Korea if we go because, you know, he is Korean.
Joy: I think he’ll do well. Bowie is so smart. He speaks French too. So he’s trilingual.
Bo: Technically. Yeah, he does. Like the French learning I think is helpful with learning other languages. So hopefully he’ll be into learning another one.
Joy: I’m grateful to have [my friends] to kind of understand not so much what I’m doing right or wrong, but kind of learnings on how I could try to incorporate culture and language into how I raise Alden. He’s been learning Korean since he was a child. I mean, since he was a baby. I tried to incorporate the language in whatever he was doing. But granted, I was also lazy as well because it’s like sometimes saying Apple is easier than saying “sagwa”, you know, because it’s just muscle memory that you want to say it in English before you say it in Korean.
My husband doesn’t really speak Korean, although he’s gaining a very strong understanding of it from all the k-dramas he watches. So sometimes I used to talk about him on the phone with my mom and my sisters, and now he kind of understands what I’m saying, which is not great. But I was in the same boat as Bo. Like, you know, I spent my summers in Korea when I was younger, and it really reinforced the language and the culture and everything there. And because of COVID, we weren’t able to do it. Actually, our last trip before lockdown, we were in Korea for the first time, so Aldem could meet his great-grandmother. And then after that, we’ve just kind of been waiting to go back and we talk about it quite regularly. We watch Korean programs, although like Bo’s child Bowie, Alden’s not really interested in it because of the language barrier. So if we’re watching Tayo the Little Bus, it’s understanding what Tayo means.
He does have a palate like an old man as well. He loves slurping his seaweed soup and eating all sorts of things. I’m grateful that he really likes kimchi because my nephews don’t really like that.
I went to Korean school when I was younger, and spent my summers in Korea and then obviously in high school, you either have a choice of French or Spanish. So it’s not like you get the choice of learning your own native language. So I did it in college. I took Korean in college, unfortunately also took Japanese and I did better in Japanese and my dad was not happy about that, but it’s constantly kind of just allowing Alden to see and hear it. Bo and Bowie bought Alden the little microphone so he can sing Korean songs, which has kind of backfired because all he does is yell and do it like death metal.
Joy: It’s hilarious because I’m trying to teach him the words as he goes. I love it. And I have no problems when we’re in public settings using Korean as well, because I don’t want him to think that that’s something that we do in private. When we’re at the supermarket, when I’m talking to him at daycare when he’s with his friends – I always use Korean as a means of just reinforcing it. Sometimes kids only pick up the bad words of foreign languages first. I don’t want him to associate Korean in that way. I don’t want him to associate it with him being scolded. I want him to understand that it’s a part of his everyday life.
K-Pop also helps. By the way.
What’s most important for you to leave as a legacy? And in the same realm, what’s something that you’re really proud of that you’ve done other professionally or personally?
Joy: Gosh, I don’t think about legacy – it’s almost like, I would say a New Year’s resolution, but it’s been an everyday resolution for as long as I can remember. Just try to be a better person. And, you know, there were moments that we’re obviously not going to have the best day, but just trying to take into consideration how to be kinder, how to be more thoughtful, how to be stronger. And I don’t know. I’m super grateful that people have allowed me into their lives. I think friendships are the things that I look for. When I think about the kind of like things I’m proud of – that I’ve been able to make strong friendships. I think for my parents, if I had become a doctor or an acupuncturist, they would be super stoked. That’s not going to happen. So right now I, I kind of let them know that in my life I have good people around me. I have good people that love me and are there for me if I need them. And that’s the thing that keeps me going.
Bo: My legacy. I mean, if there’s anything I would like to leave for Bowie and this new one, I would say….I had a weird upbringing when I was growing up in America. I hope that our kids don’t have to feel that weird conflicted identity around their culture. Probably a lot of Asian Americans do feel this, but this generation doesn’t need to feel that. They should just, you know, be proud and embrace everything. There’s already so much going on that sucks in this world. They don’t need to also be worried about, oh, my culture is inferior. I just don’t want my children to feel that ever. So that’s what I would like for them. And yeah, as far as achievements in my life, I think I’m very grateful to have a great community too. We started a business and we’re doing our work, but like what keeps it going? Exactly what Joy said, it’s the communities that you build around yourself. That’s pretty much the driving force of what we do. If it was purely about money or achievements, it won’t be fun. You’re focused on these all external things. That doesn’t really matter. So yeah, I’m proud of the community that we’ve been able to build.
Joy: And just to build on what Bo said, our kids are are not only Korean American, they’re half Korean and half white. So, you know, they’re going to face potentially different obstacles. To make them feel safe and assured that it’s okay to be different and to be really proud that they’re from two different backgrounds is really important. I hope our kids feel safe and happy in who they are when they’re growing up.
Hopefully the fact that these conversations are happening more now. It’s just one step closer to that.
Stay up to date with everything Bo and Joy are up to!