For my oral history project I interviewed Dr. Donna Ko, a close friend of my parents who currently lives in Los Angeles, CA. Donna is a practicing dermatologist, wife, and mother to three children: Samantha, Matthew, and Steven. Most importantly, she is a Korean American woman who immigrated to the United States at the age of ten years old.
Donna Ko immigrated from Korea to Los Angeles, California, at the age of ten years old, along with her parents, younger brother, and younger sister. Donna and her family lived in an apartment in downtown Los Angeles, in which her parents worked in a factory, and she and her siblings attended elementary school. At the time, she was only in fifth grade when she moved to Los Angeles and did not speak any English. Donna went to ESL classes, also known as English as a Second Language classes for one to two years, and had Korean friends who tried to help her learn the language while adapting to the American schools. Donna recalls the change from Korea to America as being “pretty significant”, and had to repeat the fifth grade due to her limited knowledge of English.
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I asked Donna to tell me a little bit about the neighborhood she grew up in and her some of her early childhood memories. Donna recalled fondly her close relationship with her parents and her siblings, also stating that she was a bit of a “latchkey” kid. With parents that worked long hours in a sewing factor from six A.M until six P.M six days a week, Donna and her siblings were independent from an early age, and Donna took care of her younger brother and sister during school days or would often spend time with family friends or neighbors, and would even work in the factory with her parents. Donna spoke passionately about her parents, expressing that they were incredibly hard working and had a very close-knit relationship.
She also recalled that her neighborhood growing up in Downtown Los Angeles was predominately made up of minority families and people of color, including large populations of HIspanic, African American, Asian, and very few white families. She later moved to Temple City in Los Angeles, where she observed that there was a larger population of white people.
As an Asian American woman, I was curious to compare stories and experiences with Donna about growing about as an Asian American. Although I am not an immigrant, I immediately remembered my sense of self-consciousness towards my identity as an Asian girl at an early age, and wondered if Donna had shared a similar experience in recognizing an idea of being “different” from other white, American kids in her school. Donna explained that in high school, she began to become more conscious and aware of her identity as an Asian American, due to her predominantly Caucasian neighborhood.
After asking Donna about her personal experience becoming conscious of her Asian identity, Donna recalls: “Probably in high school, just because like I said in the neighborhood there was very few Asian people, it was mostly a Caucasian neighborhood and actually all the neighborhoods around it, everyone from Arcadia to La Canada–all of those neighborhoods are predominantly white. And I think that you stood out a little bit more as an Asian because I was one of the kind of newer immigrants I wasn’t highly involved in other types of activities at the school aside from academics”
This idea of “standing out” as an Asian American resonated with me on a personal level, but also made a distinct connection with the poem, “When I Was Growing Up”, written by Chinese American author Nellie Wong. Wong’s poem discusses important themes about the idea of ‘foreignness’ and ‘difference’, highlighting the challenge of growing up against hegemonic norms and a status quo narrative of whiteness, and feeling conflicted by the idea of an “American” identity as an immigrant. The poem has poignant and heartfelt lines reading: “When I was growing up, I read magazines and saw movies, blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips and to be elevated, to become a desirable woman, I began to wear imaginary pale skin […] When I was growing up, I hungered for American food, American styles, coded: white and even to me, a child born of Chinese parents, being Chinese was feeling foreign, as limiting, as unAmerican” (Wong 137), and I had asked Donna if she had ever experienced similar sentiments in growing up as an Asian American woman.
Donna explained her experience learning about the English language and American culture through television, where her parents would encourage her to watch T.V. to learn English. In her exposure to American television, Donna said that they would watch many shows of beautiful blonde woman, and her younger sister had later named herself “Susan”, after one of the actresses with long blonde hair and blue eyes on a television show they used to watch. Donna recognized that many of her perceptions and knowledge about American culture had come from spending time watching American television, and she was additionally curious about other American novelties, such as the new food that she didn’t have at home in Korea. Donna had said, “We were curious about McDonald’s and KFC–all those things we don’t usually get at home and when we got those things it was actually a special treat.”
Because Donna’s experience learning through television was such an integral part of her childhood, I wondered if she had felt any impact by the portrayals she saw on T.V., or if she saw representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the media. Donna had told me that the only Asian person she saw in the media was Connie Chung, and that she doesn’t remember many other Asian people on television. Laughing, she brought up an Asian caricature called “Long Duk Tongue”, which she felt was a terrible depiction of an Asian man. Donna recalls, “I felt that when I watched T.V. in the media and in magazines there was very few people of color, especially Asians.” However, in today’s television and media, she feels that there is more respect for Asian women, but certainly some biases which still linger about the portrayal of Asian women in film and television. Donna also spoke about the exoticism of Asian women in the media, explaining the variety of misconceptions about Asian women as a whole. This is a subject expressed in Nellie Wong’s poem, “When I Was Growing Up”, in which she writes: “when I was growing up and a white man wanted to take me out, I thought I was special, an exotic gardenia, anxious to fit the stereotype of an oriental chick” (Wong 137). The misrepresentation of Asian women is a common problem that has endured for decades in mainstream media and in television, with harmful portrayals of Asian women as submissive, exotic, or complete lack of representation of Asian women, such as the casting of white women for roles and storylines that are intended to be “Asian”.
As curious as I was about Donna’s experience growing up as a Korean American becoming increasingly immersed in American culture, I was also eager to hear her about her cultural traditions that she had loved and embraced growing up. Donna spoke fondly of the Korean community in Los Angeles, and said that every Sunday (when her parents were off from work), her father’s friends who were also Korean American immigrants, got together and had a Korean barbecue. They would spend time together, enjoying dinner, and having community time, and Donna explained that she cherished this tradition and closeness for many many years. Donna also spoke fondly about her Korean heritage as a whole, expressing that she appreciates the generosity and lovingness of the tight-knit Korean community.
Donna is also a practicing dermatologist in Los Angeles, and I was interested to learn more about how she got her start in pursuing a career and medicine and if she had encountered any challenges in her initial pursuits. Donna told me that she initially studied to go into pharmacy, but her father had advised her that medicine would be a better career path for her. Donna greatly enjoyed her experience in medical school, and enjoyed various specializations: from surgery to pediatrics, Donna had planned to go into cardiology but was later persuaded by her friend to try dermatology. Donna was initially reluctant, stating to her friend: “Oh my gosh! I don’t want to be a zit picker after all these years!”, but later ended up doing a rotation at UCLA to do dermatology and loved it. Donna remarked “And it was that most dermatologists that I met–they were so happy with their job. I did not meet a single dermatologist who was unhappy with their job and their career, so that was actually very very encouraging.”
Donna also faced challenges in pursuing a career in medicine, often from male figures in her life like college boyfriends, who were also Korean. Although Donna’s parents were extremely supportive and encouraging of her decision, she noticed that her Korean boyfriends had questioned her pursuit in medicine, saying “Why are you going into medical school, aren’t you going to be a housewife?” Donna explained that in many Korean communities during the 70s and 80s, Korean men perpetuated a status quo narrative which believes that a woman’s job is primarily in the home. Donna recalls that many Korean women, even if they had been college-educated, may still become a housewife due to these cultural expectations. This narrative parallels a status quo story that is common for many women, which perpetuates an idea of hegemony that says women are expected to be mothers, wives, and housewives, while men are expected to be breadwinners.
During our interview, I showed Donna the essay by Audre Lorde titled, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” and asked her if she felt that she could relate to or identify with this idea of the mythical norm, described by Lorde as “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising” (Lorde 2). Donna explained that although she sees these kinds of mythical norms in society and even in her own patients, she, herself, grew up with a very strong sense of identity, and did not remember struggling with this idea due to her supportive community and parents. Donna thinks that combatting the mythical norm is something that we should strive towards, and that especially for her daughter, Samantha, teaching her to embrace her difference is a top priority. Donna explained: “I think that what I would like, for example, for Samantha to embrace: it is good to be different, it is good to know who you are, that we should all actually embrace all our differences and all our similarities and to have respect for all of those kinds of things. I think educating in conversation is important: talking to her, talking to her friends, talking to each other as moms, as women in career. I just think it’s important to make sure we have thankfulness for just health of mind, body, and spirit, because being healthy in mind, body, and spirit is more important than what you can appear like in your appearances, and then to just make sure that you have empathy for others and to respect others.” Donna believes that the best way to combat this mythical norm is to accept and respect this idea of difference, and teach women and our daughters that the characteristics that make us different are also important, valid, and should be respected and embraced.
Donna says that if she could give one piece of advice to women who battle with the idea of the ‘mythical norm’ or internalizing shame from being a women of color, she believes that it is important to take time to think about ideas of self-love, and reflect upon what is wonderful about who you are. Donna expressed that it is important to not only love your appearance, but embrace who you are deep inside, and the things that you make you shine. Donna says, “Are you giving, loyal; are you empathetic, a good friend? You know, all of those kinds of things, to bring out the goodness in you so you can appreciate what kind of a good person you are rather than being what’s a norm.”
Moving through our interview, Donna and I began to talk more about her profession as a dermatologist, not only discussing her pathway to her current career, but some of the challenges in beauty standards that she encounters while practicing as a dermatologist in Los Angeles. Donna spoke openly with me about the beauty standards she encounters in her field, in which many women feel pressured to make cosmetic alterations, (lip injections, botox, etc.) in order to be perceived as more youthful. Donna explains that especially in Los Angeles–what she calls a “very Hollywood city”–there are many careers where beauty and appearances are highly valued, and many women feel self-conscious about their appearance as a result. Donna recalls many instances in which her female patients had expressed a desire to appear younger, in order to ‘compete’ with the younger, more ‘beautiful’ women that they work with in their jobs. This societal pressure for women to fit in a particular standard of beauty immediately reminded me of Bell Hooks’ essay, “Beauty Within and Without”, where Hooks describes the impact of the fashion and cosmetic industry upon sexist-defined notions of beauty, in which media and television portray a seemingly unattainable standard of beauty that women feel pressured to meet. Hooks states: “In movies, on television, and in public advertisements images of reed-thin, dyed-blonde women looking as though they would kill for a good meal have become the norm. Back with a vengeance, sexist images of female beauty abound and threaten to undo much of the progress gained by feminist interventions” (Hooks 34).
I was curious to see if Donna thought that these beauty standards and pressures for women have had any impact on dermatology, and Donna explained that there’s always been a search for “the fountain of youth”. Donna states: “Over time I do see that there’s a burst of more cosmetic things that have come up, but there’s always been this looking for the fountain of youth, wanting to look younger. I think that as soon as things came up like botox and fillers then there was a burst more of other kinds of fillers, and other kinds of lasers, other kinds of procedures that have come up, and I think there’s just a booming of those kinds of things.” Donna explained that many people want to alter their features, such as having less wrinkles, larger lips, clearer skin, which are all related to a desire for a more “youthful” appearance. Although she mentions that she doesn’t believe most people truly need these procedures, she also recognizes the pressure for women to ‘look’ and ‘feel’ more beautiful due to beauty standards represented in the media and television, and how many women compare their own beauty to one another, creating a sense of competition, also expressed in Hooks’ essay.
For the last portion of my interview with Donna, I wanted to speak with her about motherhood, both in having a relationship with her own mother, and her personal experience in motherhood while raising her daughter, Samantha. Donna explained that her biggest role model is her mother, who she describes as patient, giving, understanding, fair, loving and generous. Donna described her relationship with her mother to always be supportive, and that she has always helped her and her siblings by guiding them with patience. Donna says: “She is one that I hope to emulate at least like ten percent–if I can be ten percent of who she is I think I’d be happy.”
Lastly, Donna and I spoke about her daughter, Samantha, and the most important piece of advice that Donna would giver her daughter in growing up as a woman of color. Donna told me a list of qualities that she would hope Samantha embraces, in which she hopes that Samantha is empathetic, responsible, humble, accountable, honest, authentic, and most importantly, optimistic. She explained to me that being yourself and being true to who you are is the most important quality. Donna ended our interview with a piece of advice that stuck with me: “You don’t always have to go with what everyone else is doing, you have to do the right thing by your heart and your mind. Try to be as authentic as possible and be true to your feelings. Be true to what your beliefs are.”
I left our interview feeling incredibly inspired by the words of Donna Ko–not only from hearing her story about immigrating to America at such a young age, but also from her gracious and positive outlook on life. Although my parents have known Donna for many years, this was one of the first times I had spoken in deep conversation with her and had the opportunity to learn about her early history. I was amazed to hear about Donna’s childhood when she first immigrated to America, to her adult life where she later pursued medical school and became a dermatologist. Being an Asian American woman, it was extremely interesting for me to hear the stories of another Asian American woman who had experienced much more life than myself, but had also faced challenges and oppressions with grace and respect towards others.
What I had admired most about my conversation with Donna was her ability to speak about her history with an appreciation for her culture and heritage, especially for her parents. I enjoyed hearing Donna speak passionately about her Korean upbringing, her community, and additionally learning more about her perspective on beauty standards as a dermatologist, and her experience growing up as a Korean American in Los Angeles. Talking with Donna allowed me to see a new feminist perspective–a kind of feminism that not only recognizes social injustices, but responds to oppressions with compassion, empathy, and respect for others. Donna’s resilience through challenges and hardship was an instrumental part of her identity as a mother, dermatologist, wife, and Korean American today, and I would hope that when I am older, I will be nearly as hard working, intelligent, and compassionate as Donna.
Hooks, Bell. “Women at Work.” Feminism is For Everybody. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Age, Race,
Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, Sister Outsider Crossing Press, 1984, p. 2.
Wong, Nellie. “When I Was Growing Up.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic
and Contemporary Readings, McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.