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James Choi on straddling two cultures

Date: Wednesday, June 2, 2021

James Choi, portraitJames Choi, MD, assistant dean of student affairs and curriculum and associate professor of anesthesia, grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to Iowa City with his family when he was fourteen years old. Upon coming to the United States, it was suggested that Choi repeat a year of school because his English was not good enough.

“I looked at being Korean at the time as a liability, and I wanted to be just like other people in America,” says Choi.

Now, Choi finds himself going back to his Korean roots.

“With the advent of the internet, it’s easier to find things,” says Choi. “I can use YouTube to find the rare Korean children’s songs that I used to enjoy when I was a child.”

New Year’s Day is a big celebration for Choi’s family and something his children have learned to be a part of. They don themselves in traditional Korean clothes made of vibrant colored silk. From oldest to youngest, they take turns having a special bowing and sharing their new year’s resolution. Parents share their words of wisdom and then hand children an envelope with some form of money—all children hope for a large amount of cash.

Choi’s Asian culture has played a significant role in shaping who he is today.

“The fact that I endured some of the trials and tribulations of being different, made me a lot more attuned to the people who are not ‘mainstream’—people of color, people of similar Asian descent, the LGBTQ community,” says Choi. “I understand how they can feel like an outsider and have a longing to be accepted because I’ve experienced it myself.”

Choi shares that Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals face a different set of circumstances which lead to a different set of stresses.

“It can be very challenging to straddle two different cultures,” says Choi. “You have to act one way when with your peers or your friends and when you come home to your family, you have to act differently. For some it comes naturally and for others it can be taxing.”

Choi stresses the importance of AAPI individuals taking care of themselves, and for others to be understanding of the personal challenges AAPI individuals may be dealing with.

“It’s important for people to understand while we may all have our unique differences, we’re all human after all and have a lot of similarities,” says Choi. “It’s a huge step that we are getting recognized and raising awareness of AAPI heritage.”

Highlights celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.