Olga Khvan

For most of my life, I haven’t felt Korean enough.

Two years ago, a gnawing search for validation led me to a mail-in DNA kit. One hundred percent Korean, the results told me. Still, until recently I kept feeling the need to prove it.

Both sides of my family are Koryo-saram, descendants of Koreans who left their homeland—then under Japanese occupation—in search of new opportunities in the Far East of the Soviet Union. In 1937, as part of his wider program of ethnic cleansing, Stalin ordered the deportation of more than 170,000 Koreans to Central Asia. My dad has told me stories from this time about his mother, who alongside her sister and her own mother was among those rounded up on cattle trains. Most people didn’t survive this harrowing journey, which took weeks or sometimes even months.

In the 1990s, living in what became Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union, I often encountered fellow Koryo-saram. My family spoke Russian but kept many Korean traditions, from the food we ate—kimchi, rice, seaweed soup—to playing hwatu and marking milestones like the doljabi ceremony on a child’s first birthday. I’ve only recently learned the Korean names for these foods, games, and customs; growing up, they were just things my family did. I never felt like I was different until my parents, brother, and I moved to the United States, in 2001. Throughout my childhood, and partially into my adulthood, I didn’t feel American enough, a plight of many immigrant kids. But to make matters worse, I didn’t feel Korean enough either.

I don’t speak Korean, which may not be uncommon among Korean Americans. But unlike children whose families have immigrated from South Korea, I never heard the language spoken while growing up. No other Koreans I’ve met here eat morkovcha, a spicy carrot salad that I eventually learned was invented by the Koryo-saram as a substitute for kimchi because traditional ingredients like napa cabbage and daikon weren’t readily available in Central Asia at the time. My Russian first name and uncommon Korean last name—mangled in translation from Korean to Russian to English—made things even more confusing, complicated, and hard to explain. It was a long-winded story that for years I resented giving, even when I had the most patient of audiences.

When the MFA decided to host “Hallyu! The Korean Wave,” an exhibition exploring the history, evolution, and worldwide impact of South Korean pop culture, I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions. I was proud to have my heritage on display, but at the same time I questioned whether it was mine to be proud of. As I began to dive deep into researching the topic at hand—something I do with every exhibition as part of the public relations team—I found comfort in having so much to relate to. “Hallyu!” tells the story of South Korea’s remarkable resilience, how a country that has been through so much societal and political turmoil—from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War and financial crisis of the late 1990s—has reinvented itself as a cultural superpower, all within living memory. I can’t help but think about the resilience of Koryo-saram families, including my own—of their ability to carry on traditions from their homeland and pass them on to future generations, even under the worst of circumstances.

At the Museum, we often talk about how important it is for our audiences to see themselves reflected in the art we display, because that fosters a greater sense of belonging. Though the MFA has been a special place for me since my college days and throughout my eight years working here, I’d never experienced this feeling as powerfully as I did when “Hallyu!” first opened here. I’d never felt prouder to be Korean American.

In particular, the hanbok from the MFA’s own collection, which is displayed in the exhibition’s fashion section, reminds me of my maternal grandmother—my halmoni, my babushka. The last time I saw her was in 2022—the first time in ten years—when I traveled to the former Soviet country of Georgia for a cousin’s wedding. She was so much older than I remembered and, to my surprise, on several occasions she broke out in Korean, something I’d never heard while growing up with her in Kazakhstan. Maybe something in your old age brings you back to your roots. A year later, I received photos of my grandma wearing a hanbok to my little cousin’s doljabi ceremony. The baby—part Russian, part Israeli, part Korean—wore a tiny hanbok himself. This humble garment, which has evolved throughout the centuries, connects all Koreans to our homeland—one we’ve never been to, may never get to, but that’s part of our DNA.

An elderly woman in a hanbok holds a baby, also dressed in a hanbok.
The author’s grandmother and cousin’s son. Photo courtesy of the author.

Olga Khvan is senior manager of Public Relations and Content Marketing.