The set gets quiet and the red light on the camera turns on. For Becky White, born to a Korean mother and American father, being in front of a camera is nothing big. After years of being a model, radio DJ, writer, and even an artist at Ultra Korea with Luna Pirates, the spotlight is natural.
However, this set is a bit different from a magazine shoot or commercial video. This time it’s an interview for The Halfie Project, a part of Becky’s personal mission to record the lives of “halfies”, or half-Koreans, just like her through video, photos, podcasts, and intimate interviews.
Since Becky first mentioned this project to me in 2018, she has published 14 interviews, 11 podcasts, and 17 Youtube videos. On a sunny day in Itaewon, Becky and I talked about what her project has become, and the impact it’s making on Koreans, “halfies”, and mixed culture people around the world.
When you first introduced this [project] to me, you said that there was a similar project that happened… 20-30 years ago? Can you explain who it was again?
Lee Jae Gap! He was a photojournalist. He first documented GI babies, the generation [of half-Korean people] right after the war. It was really significant work because this history of half Koreans was just not openly talked about. People forget how closely it’s related to the US military and that relates to a lot of Korean Americans.
I remember meeting Lee Jae Gap and he said to me, “this is very important work.” It was kinda like a passing of the torch, so it was really significant [to me]. The last words of someone he had been documenting for over 20 years, on his deathbed, were that he didn’t want people to forget that half Koreans existed. When he said that to me, it made me realize the significance beyond just cultural discussion. For the next generation of half Koreans, what’s the world they’re going to live in and can we prepare the ground for them? And those first generations who paved the way are still living today, so through the Halfie Project, we’re trying to pay respect to them.
I actually have shared some of the interviews with my family (who are Korean-American). They have a ton of stories to share, and even though it’s not the same generation, the same themes run throughout.
It’s still there. And it’s weird because when I said I was starting the Halfie Project, my parents both had different responses.
My mom, who is Korean said: “No one is interested anymore, been there done that!”
“Been there, done that.” wow!
That’s what she said! “Mom! I am half Korean!” But she had a hard time adapting to America and learning English so it’s hard for her to hear that although she tried her best, we still faced discrimination as kids.
My dad, on the other hand, was kinda like, “Maybe the doors are closing now, why do you want to bring it up to the surface?” And I remember thinking “are you guys right? Am I just stirring up trouble?” But then I released the first interview, and both of them called me separately. My dad said, “I’m glad you’re doing this.” And for the first time in my life, my dad and I talked about us kids being half, something we had never brought up before.
And then my mom too, (laughing) she’s so funny, she said: “oh, Tony’s interview was so sad, maybe he should have stayed in the US.” but then she said next “actually, I feel like Tony! I am Tony! I don’t belong in Korea, I don’t belong in the US”. So she wavers. But really, we opened up this conversation, although awkward, which made the whole project more meaningful [to me]. It’s good to have these discussions because a lot of half-Korean kids will spend a lot of time thinking about it, but don’t talk to anyone because sometimes their parents faced discrimination as well.
And I wonder too if kids feel like if they bring up the challenges they have, they feel like they’ll be blaming their parents. Like “why did you make this life for me?” So kids just bury it down and don’t ever discuss it.
We definitely have those cases. We had one interview, and the half-black, half-Korean little girl would blame her mom: “It’s your fault that kids make fun of me! [Your fault] that I look like this!” and the mom doesn’t know what to do. And so I feel like even if I can’t fully understand that feeling, she’ll feel more comfortable to talk to me about it than her parents. Because sometimes those parents can feel, not guilt, but unnecessary blame.
Now, I don’t want you to pick favorites, but has there been an interview that you’ve said, “wow, I can’t believe I get to share this story”? Or like your mom being touched by Tony’s story?
Tony’s was really significant because he actually contacted us first. He said “Becky, I have something to tell you. When can I do the interview?” And I was like, “okay! Sure! Come on in!” We didn’t know anything about Tony. He just came in and had so much to say, and a lot of it is really sad. But in the end, he said with so much joy: “you know what? It’s not hatred. It’s ignorance. And I just hope people are more understanding.” The way he tied it up like that really showed me that… you can go through all these difficulties and still be able to love people. His was really significant.
My Dad liked his interview as well.
I think another one was Sahra.
She was born and raised in the Moonies Cult and she’s trying to raise her half-Korean daughter in Korea. But because of the divorce, her foreigner status … (clarifying) she was in a forced marriage.
She was IN the Moonies Cult? From America?
Oh, so they have expanded to the US?
It’s huge in the US, it’s crazy. So, she was very into the cult. She worked with the top family and everything. And now her struggles of raising her daughter here with a language barrier, and her not being able to see her…. her story was really impactful because it opened my eyes to: First, the Moonies Cult (also known as The Unification Church) has apparently had a huge impact on half Koreans all over the world, because they will specifically try to match non-Koreans with the Koreans in the cult. So that it spreads.
And the second is that there’s a different type of half Korean being born. Now it’s with a foreigner mom, and there are cases where the kids have no citizenship or are abandoned by their fathers and now these single moms are raising their children where there might be a language barrier. This is something that The Halfie Project surprisingly… unlocked? And now it’s a question of “what do we do about this?” But we’re trying to be careful.
Right, you’re kinda toe-ing the line into this project becoming…I guess political?
Which I am very hesitant to call us political. I don’t want us to become political, we’re not picking a side here. So we’re trying to be careful and stay as educated as possible. [I hope that] people will not take our project as an attack on society, but more as a public forum for people to discuss their stories and find similar people.
Do you have a long list of people lined up to interview now?
We have a huge list of people! And a lot of topics too. We really want to interview someone from the Holt family. They had opened an orphanage in Korea in the 1950s and specifically adopted “Amerasians”. There’s also a man named Father Keane, who passed away in 2007 and he also had an orphanage here. And he specifically spearheaded the movement of having half-Korean children from GI relationships to get citizenship in the US. So these are significant people in history, that nobody knows about! We want to reach out to some of those kids.
I want to encourage and make a community for people of mixed cultures. But something I realize is that I feel a wall when we talk about this. I recently did an interview with Den and Mandoo, a Youtube channel, and it was interesting to see what Korean viewers had to say about it.
Really? Through comments?
Yeah. Their comments… we had a lot of “well her father is Korean, so she’s Korean!” I was like, “my dad’s not even Korean, why would you say that?” (laughing). Others said, “well she looks Korean and speaks Korean, she must be Korean!” It’s weird to see these blanket statements.
Is it just because for Koreans, it’s unnavigated territory? They don’t know how to interact with it?
Right. I think people are still interested because it’s still “exotic” in some ways. Some people will give very educated, open-minded responses and others will say “well, she’s so lucky, she’s so pretty, why is she complaining?”
That’s not the point!
Right. We did an interview with “My Korean Husband” Nichola and Hugh. Their child is half Korean and they said so many people praise the baby for being beautiful, and that he should model and do commercials. But then their kid goes to the playground and the other kids say “foreigner! foreigner!” and don’t want to play with him. How do you deal with this dichotomy? They’re just kids!
I would hate to think, and can’t imagine, that parents are teaching them, “foreigners are different. They’re not going to hang on the monkey bars the same as you.”
I think it does exist. And it’s not always in a bad way. Maybe it’s like “he’s a waegookin, he won’t understand you…” Or maybe they’re trying to be helpful. So again, I don’t think it’s hatred anymore. Maybe it was before in previous generations. Today though is a different story.
Recently, there was a news story about the Mayor of Iksan using a really inappropriate term for half-Korean children at an event for multicultural families. I read about it, but my Korean isn’t perfect enough to understand the nuances…
He used the word “cross-breed”.
(NOTE: The Mayor of Iksan said: “If you don’t raise your smart, pretty cross-breeds well, they could become a problem as big as the Paris rioters”)
Yikes, what was your reaction to it?
Well. I asked one of my friends, who loves history and politics, what he thought about it. And he said “don’t be offended, this person does not reflect the general population. But the fact that he said it as a politician means that he has clout. And who knows who might rally behind the use of that word.” But the fact that this could be said, on national TV, in an open public sphere, is amazing. It blew my mind.
Let’s move away from heavy topics. Can you tell me about your team?
Oh! Of course! I can brag about my team forever. There’s Jae Lee, he’s a photographer who is Korean American, and he’s really learned a lot about videography and editing for the project. And he was the second man. I had the vision, I was the crazy person saying “I want this this this this this!” and he was crazy enough to say “I believe in this vision, I’ll join you.”
And that’s where it began. He’s been with me since the beginning.
Then we have our next videographer, Michael Gundhus. He’s a Korean adoptee from Norway, and he is like clockwork. Every Tuesday, the video is edited and ready to go. He also knows a lot about Youtube. Why he’s with us… I don’t know but we’re so happy to have him.
And then we have Greg Hutchinson, he’s married to a Korean woman and just had a baby a month ago.
So as soon as the baby can talk, there will be an interview?
That’s what he said! We’re waiting for Zion to say his first words and then we’re ready for a Halfie Project interview. But Greg is great. He’s our podcast editor. It’s such a blessing that I met these guys because they’re all so consistent and I’ve learned a lot about teamwork and leadership through them.
By saying that, are you still accepting people?
Of course! We always want people to contact us. We do video interviews, podcasts for people who aren’t comfortable showing their faces, traditional interviews, and mini-documentaries like Michael’s video. There’s always a space for people.
While we discussed many negative things that come through discrimination, Becky and I both believe that being mixed Korean is a beautiful and wonderful experience. Becky also shared that many people of mixed-ethnicities can share in the message of The Halfie Project. For that reason, they are looking to expand to cover not just half-Korean people, but people of all mixed heritages.