Rose: Tell us about your cultural background and upbringing. What childhood experiences have had an impact in shaping who you are today?
Hyuna Emily: I had a very traditional, but somewhat progressive Korean upbringing. Art was prevalent in our family. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a jeweler, my mom is a ceramic artist, my dad was a director, all of which played a lot into how my upbringing felt different than everyone else’s. I also think that may have been why I felt that my mom was a bit ahead of her time. She was strict; she made sure I did all the after school clubs and activities, including “after-school school," but there was also this empathetic, nurturing and creative side to her that was driven by her art and desire to create. She shared her love for cooking and learning about different cultures with us, which was eye-opening for me at a young age.
When we moved to the U.S. everything shifted. I had to drop everything, learn a new language and go through the culture shock of moving to a new place — but it didn’t feel so scary to me. The way that my mom exposed us to other cultures very early on, made elements of our new home feel familiar, and I always appreciated that.
What has the Asian-American Immigrant journey been like for you?
It’s funny – looking back now, it doesn’t feel like it was that tough despite knowing that it was, in fact, difficult. You’re just a kid, trying to make it through day by day, and the newness of each day made it feel more exciting than it was. I had a difficult time learning a new language in grade school and adjusting to the cultural differences and nuances was especially challenging. This was all exacerbated by trying to decipher how my peers spoke to our teachers, their parents, their reactions…all while trying not to feel ashamed of myself for not understanding everything. I was basically just trying to fit in.
While I never experienced any physical bullying, there was passive-aggressive bullying in school: verbal sneers and stolen looks just for being different. I was one of just a handful of Asian kids, both in my entire NJ suburb town and 2000+ student high school. I never really understood what passive-aggressive bullying was to be honest. I only came to realize what all of that meant after I was old enough as an adult to be educated on what those comments meant. It’s like you’re retro-actively going through these moments of trauma over again – not necessarily to be at peace with it, but to understand it!
On top of that, I wasn’t the only one in my family that was trying to navigate and understand a new culture – my parents were too. So that was another battle of its own. I spoke Korean at home per my parents request, so that I wouldn’t lose the language, and I’m so grateful for that. But I craved to be accepted by my friends and to be able to just hang out with them without having to argue with my parents trying to convince them that it was okay to loiter at malls and sleep over each others’ houses. Not fully understanding how to balance these experiences, especially at a young age, is something that I’m still dealing with now.
Our names are integral to who we are. You’ve recently started to use your Korean birth name, Hyuna. What was the inertia behind this?
Honestly, I had never even thought about going by Hyuna (in the US, that is). Just because I’ve been Emily for so long and Hyuna was my “Korean” name, just the name my parents called me. It was purely by chance when my coworker started at our company earlier this year and was getting to know everybody – he asked about my name. I told him the whole story of what my name means. He innocently asked me, “why don’t you go by your legal name, if that’s the name your parents call you?” And I was literally like, “wait yeah…you’re right, why don’t I?”
In a way, it felt like I was hiding my identity by choosing to solely be referred to as Emily vs. Hyuna - like I was not even giving Hyuna a fair shot. It was easy to go by Emily because that was my shiny new American name that everyone knew me as. It was easy to not even ask myself about how I felt about being Emily vs. Hyuna. Ironically I realized that I felt my truest self whenever I was at home with my parents as Hyuna.
So that day, I updated the signature of my work email. It felt – and it still feels – different, uncomfortable. I still sign off with “best, Emily” out of habit but I’d love for there to be a day where I reflexively sign off with Hyuna.
What does Hyuna mean?
Korean is obviously its own language but its characters' meanings are derived from traditional Chinese characters. Hyun (hyeon) can mean a sword or the color black and A (ah-) means beauty. I still have yet to learn the full story behind why they chose that name for me - I need to dig into that a little more.
To what extent has the integration of this part of you changed the way you see yourself in the world?
Because I moved here at a young age, everyone in my adolescent to adult life has only seen the “American” side or version of me. Now the act of embracing my name as an adult is a constant reminder to be kinder to myself and to be more open about sharing the Korean aspects of my life with people. I want to merge this part of me with the rest of my life because it’s something personal and different that I have that no one else has. My heritage is something that I should value, not hide from the world.
Does it feel like you are meeting a new version of yourself or does it feel more of a homecoming as you reclaim your name and embrace your full identity?
A little bit of both, but more so a homecoming. When I was young I was very hard-headed, sure of myself and confident. My identity and my confidence were tied to being engulfed in my culture through things like Korean music, and definitely Korean food. Reconnecting with my name and rediscovering that part of me feels like a homecoming because I’m embracing all of that all over again, and I get to introduce that part of me to everyone in my life.
When I moved to the States, that confidence completely dissipated and the insecurities stemming from that experience still chips away at me. I was unsure if I’d be accepted by the people around me, especially when they already have their own perception of me. I’m learning to embrace my insecurities and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What do you have to surrender to allow for Hyuna to be seen?
I still feel embarrassed – or as if it’s a huge burden on someone – to ask them to correctly pronounce my name. Like I don’t want to inconvenience them.
I think that is something I need – want – to surrender: that I can’t please everybody. I am worth this other person making a little bit of an effort to say my name correctly just as much as I’m making an effort to learn their name. I’m aware of it but I think once I finally relinquish that feeling of my name being a burden on someone, then I can fully be confident with who I am and how I present myself to others.
What would shift your mindset of your name being a burden on someone? Not all English names are easy to pronounce but we do not think twice about taking the time to learn them.
Well for starters, having friends, family, and loved ones around me remind me that it's not a burden. It sounds cheesy and simple, but it’s more impactful than you think. I think the other is that my relationship with this country is currently shifting. It sucks to be here right now – it’s on fire (literally) and in 2022, women and people of color are not being treated as equal humans and I don’t want to be here. I think that’s charging a lot of the emotion behind how I carry myself. Like you said, English names are hard too. Why is it that those names are exempt, yet names like mine have to go through all this extra crap to be able to even just say my own name out loud?
My relationship with this country ebbs and flows constantly; it’s really easy to get angry about how I feel about America as a country. But instead of choosing to use anger for more anger, I’m trying to divert that energy to fuel more education around names like mine and cultures like mine.
"The act of embracing my name as an adult is a constant reminder to be kinder to myself and to be more open about sharing the Korean aspects of my life with people."
What experiences have brought a sharper focus to where you are in your journey of self-discovery?
Two things come to mind immediately.
My college experience at NYU was also my first experience being around so many Asians in one environment (excluding Korea for obvious reasons). My freshman year dorm was an international dorm, so it was full of students from all over the world. I was initially taken aback at the demeanor of some of these international Asian students – they seemed to only hang out with each other, solely speak in their native languages with each other - it almost felt like they drew an imaginary line between me and them. I started to resent them – even if they were Korean – because I couldn’t understand why they weren’t putting in the same effort to use English as I was. Now looking back, it was me projecting my insecurities and stress around their perception of me and my Korean-ness at them.
The other experience was last year, when I was verbally attacked by a very angry man on the subway on my way to work. He didn’t touch me or hurt me, but he was yelling, cursing, and even followed me into the next car. This was still when no one really rode the trains, and everyone who did was wearing a mask, except for him. He became angry and he zeroed in on me because, of course, I was the only Asian in the car. Thankfully the train stopped and I was able to get away from this guy, but it was terrifying. I was like, “Holy shit, this is real!” You just never think it would happen to you. You see it on the news and then…even when I think about it now, I’m kind of dumbfounded. It feels like a dream.
The part that really hit me was the lack of empathy I received when I was seeking help. I went to the attendant booth to notify them but the woman behind the window showed no concern. It was easier for her to not deal with me, than to try and help me. Despite that being a traumatic incident, it helped to empower me to stand up for myself as an Asian woman.
Where are you on your journey of self-discovery?
To be honest, I’m a little lost at the moment.
I’ve changed so much as a person over the years — the way I think about the world and view myself - so it’s sometimes hard to keep track of how I “really” feel. One thing I do know is that I’m extremely hard on myself and it’s something that I’ve been working on with my therapist for years. I don’t know how to relinquish that part of myself and it takes a massive toll on me mentally and physically. I also don’t know how to actually take care of myself in a way that isn’t just a face mask or getting my nails done. I’m trying to prioritize my mental health and allow my mind to heal too. I’m working on it.
My work is also a big part of my identity and it’s one of the more solid aspects of my life. But sometimes, I’m not sure if I know what’s next for me. There’s always that part of me that craves something more creative, like how I was growing up. Time is escaping from me and I don’t want to regret not having explored the world in other creative ways.
How does it make you feel knowing you can set boundaries for yourself?
Feels so weird and strange! Who knew setting boundaries to help yourself was this hard? Haha. I was brought up in a culture where you basically weren’t allowed to have boundaries period, it’s not natural for me at all. But I am very proud of myself for setting boundaries for myself. I would have never even thought of doing that several years ago.
You are a very private person and in this interview we dove deep into vulnerable parts of who you are. How does it feel to share your story?
Definitely uncomfortable. Knowing that people are going to read some of my more private thoughts is somewhat unnerving, but I’m trying to feel excited about it too. Exercising the ability to tell my story – and better yet, not be ashamed of it – is special. There’s freedom to it, but it’s through my words and no one else’s. It’s like a breath of fresh air.
How do you lean into trusting your intuition as you are going through this journey?
I like to remind myself that a big portion of my life was always dictated by others. I followed other people’s suggestions and rules. I’m developing trust in myself where if I know something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right. I’m learning to trust and follow that feeling in my gut.
We haven’t talked much about career but how is your experience with embracing your full identity impacting and shaping the work that you do?
I’m lucky and grateful to be at a point in my career where I work with clients and brands to create a positive impact. As we’ve experienced in the past several years, brands are no longer just a brand name – they have a relationship with their consumers and carry a social responsibility that is more important now than ever before.
I’m proud to share that the projects that I’ve worked on for my clients have been in an effort to amplify marginalized voices and share the brands’ platforms with those who deserve them. When I find myself feeling lost, especially when I get stressed out, I try to remind myself that it’s not always just about selling more product – it’s about what the brands represent and what place they have in our society right now. Knowing that I can have a hand in how we communicate that message out into the world and having the privilege of working with some incredibly talented people along the way is pretty amazing.
Are there tenets guide you?
This is an oldie but a real good one: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated. It goes such a long way – you never know what someone is going through or what they are feeling. I watched my parents put on a brave happy face for YEARS each time they left our home to go to work, even when I knew that they were struggling inside and were dealing with a lot of sadness and anger. You never know what hardships someone might be hiding, just to get by.
Who inspires you?
My mom. Always my mom. I truly don’t know how she’s standing after all these years, given what she’s accomplished in her life. She’s incredible. She moved to a new country, went through the same culture shock that I did, chose to pursue a physically demanding job, balanced her marriage, us, her health…without wavering. She’s the most solid, confident, sharp yet graceful person I know.
What does community mean to you?
It’s the family that you never had or it can be the family that you’ve always had. Your loved ones are your community and to have a community that looks like you and that are like-minded, really allows you to share a deeper understanding that goes a longer distance. You can lean on them and they understand where you are coming from.
What grounds you?
I’ve really been trying to value my mental and physical health a lot more during the past few years. Putting that as my number one priority has helped ground me and gives me a sense of calm when everything is so influx.
How do you define success?
I’ve had a tough relationship with the concept of success. As a Korean kid, the pressure is put on you very early, so there were times where I resented the idea of needing to become someone successful. My definition of success, when I was younger, was to make “a lot of money” and be able to afford nice things. I equated that kind of success with freedom, which was something that I felt like I did not have. And while that personal and financial freedom is great, I now just want to be able to take care of my family. I think having that security in being able to support my family will help me find the emotional freedom that I’m looking for.
What about for yourself?
For me, I think I'll feel like I've reached success when I don’t have to sacrifice a part of myself for someone else.
What does chasing sunshine mean to you and how does it manifest in your life?
Through self gratitude and finding value in myself again. Whether that’s through happiness, feeling vulnerable, or letting someone in. A big portion of my life was hidden behind closed doors because I just had to trek on, conform to my peers and society, and do what I was told was right. Because of that I lost a lot of self-confidence and the ability to prioritize myself first. Now that I'm rediscovering my identity, I’ll hopefully be at a place where I can fully be comfortable, not just sharing who I am, but being comfortable with who I am.
Do you feel like there are parts of your life where this is starting to manifest?
This interview, for one. This process of sharing my story is something that I probably would have never done years ago. Taking a vacation (laughs. Working with my therapist for years and giving myself that time, welcoming compliments and positivity and not deflecting them away out of insecurity. In little ways it’s manifesting, slowly but surely.
Words of wisdom to share with those who are in pursuit of their sunshine and are in the journey of self-discovery?
No one really knows what’s going inside of you other than you, and sometimes, you might not really know what’s going on within either. Part of this self-discovery journey is that you have the power to decide what you want to share with others or keep close to your heart — just make sure to give yourself the time you need.