Mia Honaker is an administrative assistant to the Vice President for Inclusive Excellence at Wright State University. She currently lives in Dayton and was born just outside of the Osan Air Force Base in Seoul, Korea to a Korean mother and an American father.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Mia and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 23, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
RC: Where were you born?
MH: So, I was born just right outside of Osan Air Force Base in Seoul, South Korea.
RC: What were your parents doing?
MH: So my dad is American and was in the Air Force, stationed in Korea. And my mom is Korean.
RC: So, they met while he was stationed there.
RC: Did you live there full-time? Or how long were you there?
MH: So, I lived there until I was about two years old, and then my dad was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. So we moved to the states — to Ohio.
RC: So you’ve been in Dayton for a while?
MH: Yes, 47 years. When my dad retired, we ended up just staying in the area.
RC: You’re a Daytonian through and through?
MH: Yes. Through and Through.
RC: When we were talking on the phone, you had said something [about] your mom — you said, “Oh, she was an Air Force bride. ” Can you tell me what that means?
MH: So in this area, a lot of my friends that I grew up with on base that were Korean in this area were that way. Our fathers were American in the military, and our mothers were Korean. I know in Korea, my mother said a lot of women around the base married the military gentleman there and then ended up moving to the states and having kids. So the Korean folks I grew up with are all military kids. We’re not a large community, but there was a group of Koreans. My mom took English classes with them. Now most of us still live in this area. And our kids are about the same age. So we grew up with the Dayton Korean Association. My mom was part of the Dayton Korean Association. We participated in events — all kinds of things that the Korean community would do.
RC: I see. Would you consider yourself a Korean American or just American?
MH: I would say now I consider myself much more Korean American. It took me a while to embrace my culture. Growing up, I didn’t want to be Korean, I wanted to be — a majority of the people in my school were white Americans. There were about six or seven of us out of nearly 600 students that I knew that were Korean. So it was a very small group. But the majority of my neighbors and friends were all white. I just wanted to fit in with them. But I obviously don’t look like them. So it made it difficult to be a part of them. So I did not embrace my culture. Even though my mom had our household full 100% Korean: we ate Korean foods and celebrated Korean customs, and my dad assimilated to that, versus my mom assimilating to American culture.
The only thing that we didn’t learn was language. When I was little, I knew Korean but as I got into American schools, my mom wanted us to learn English, so they started speaking to us in English, and it was also a way for my mom to learn English. So my sister [and] I grew up forgetting the language we learned when we were younger, so we’re not fluent. I can understand a little bit. But that also made me feel like an outsider to the Korean community that we’re not fluent and I’m not full Korean.
So I have an interesting story about that. When I went to Korea for the first time since I was two at 14 [years old], it really felt like something new to the group of kids in my aunt’s neighborhood [in Korea]. They would follow us around and just look amazed, and here I thought, well I’m Korean — I look Korean — but I don’t look like the white community I come from. But then I didn’t fit into the Korean community. So it made it hard. I just didn’t want to embrace my culture.
As I got older, and learned to appreciate it more, the little nuances like the food my mom made. When I moved out and got married, we didn’t have Korean food all the time. I missed it. So, I learned to cook Korean cooking from my mom. It’s not the same as mom’s cooking, but my mom is still here in this area. So she makes us dinner often and spoils the grandkids. so I’ve learned as I got older to really appreciate the culture and how beautiful it is and how different it is. I like that now. I’m unique versus what most of my friends have experienced. I learned as I’ve gotten older that they enjoyed it because they loved coming over to my house to get my mom’s egg rolls and Monju and all the little things my mom loved to feed all the neighborhood kids that would come over.
RC: What were some of the things that you enjoy the most, that maybe other kids either were new to or didn’t know about?
MH: So I think the big thing is the food. So they’d come over and my mom would make gogi-gui, the Korean barbecue and they loved her mandu, the little dumplings. So she’d make those often and then we would have friends over and she would also teach us how to do that and then kimbap, so that was another thing we’ve had often, too. So I had a pretty good group of friends that were very accepting and just love culture and love my mom because my mom always took care of them like her own. She would feed them as soon as they stepped in the house and all that.
Neighborhood kids that weren’t friends didn’t accept as much. So we had the slanted eye teasing as you’re growing up. We’d get made fun of for the food we eat; one of our favorite snacks that my mom loved is the dried squid. So she would give my sister and I dried squid during the day while we were playing and we’d go outside with it. But as soon as the neighborhood kids would come by, we would hide it because the first thing they would do is make fun of the food. We get the typical “Oh, that smells. How can you eat squid?” To us, it was just normal food and one of our favorite snacks. So it just made me feel not proud to be who I am and my culture. So that was one thing just from my young childhood.
As I got into my teen years I just — you know, I’m not gonna embrace this. It just brought up some of the trauma from being picked on and being made fun from the neighborhood kids — that I just didn’t want to embrace it until I got older. Then I learned to appreciate it, especially as I went to Wright State. I started at Wright State in 2005. I worked in the Asian and Hispanic and Native American Center, then, and I really had the opportunity to be in a place that welcomes my culture and who I am. It was a place that was safe to be who I am and share. And now I’m really enjoying sharing that culture with others, mentoring students and advocating for students to give them that same space that I had when I came here.
RC: Do you think the community today has changed a lot from the way that you or the community was when you were growing up? I think that maybe we’re becoming more aware of Asian culture, Asian foods.
MH: I think we still have lots to improve on, but my son did not have the same experience. And he’s quarter Korean, but he looks like my twin. So you could tell that he is mixed and that he had no problems eating the food. He said kids didn’t make fun of them. We shared little stories, and every now and then he comes across an incident. But he really didn’t have the same experience as I did growing up.
But also I talked to them about the times I was at that age around the end of Vietnam. And growing up near a military base with a lot of military folks. That still was a touchy, touchy time. So my experience with the neighborhood kids is just the slurs they would use would be geared towards the North Vietnamese. So I got the same, even though I’m not Vietnamese. We were just chunked in — that we were all this. So I think it’s just the time.
RC: I think it’s interesting that you’ve mentioned how the context can influence certain personal experiences. Because I think, 2020 — the pandemic, right? There’s the context. And I think now this conversation is arising again about Asian Americans’ experiences and what that entails. So from your experience, has Dayton grown in the sense of Asian American population and also awareness?
MH: So this 2020 census, it has an increase of 37% of Asians in this area. And I know in the city of Huber Heights, it’s 32% increase of Asian population. So it is growing. And I think it’s because of businesses headquartered here, and other Asian-owned businesses that are coming here. The base is still very much an important role in bringing Asian Americans to this area, as well. And a lot of the Asian folks that I know in the area are somehow tied and connected to the base. So the base is a big area, and then the medical field is also growing here. So, we get a lot of people who come here for the schools, for different companies that are here. But I think it’s also because I’m more involved in the Asian community, with my work and my community work, that I’m seeing a lot more Asian groups that have been around for years, but it’s a lot more active. So they’re enjoying getting out. I think what Dayton has is these opportunities to have the multicultural festival in Huber Heights, A World A’Fair in Dayton — these different opportunities for them to share. So, I see this area being much more welcoming for the different cultural groups, and people are wanting to learn. We have a lot of different restaurants, a lot of churches. So there’s a lot of Asian organizations here. Actually, I sit on the executive board for the Asian American Council of Dayton. They did some health initiatives, which is what we’re really working on. But we’re also trying to get involved getting connected with the Art Institute, who has a new Asian curator for their exhibit. When we meet, the leaders of each organization are involved. And then the World A’Fair is returning. It’s been on a hiatus for about four years — it’s coming back. So that’s our next big initiative everybody’s working on to get together.
RC: Community organizations are sort of a well-kept secret somehow. What are your thoughts on that there’s these hidden currents?
MH: I feel like Dayton doesn’t get enough credit for what we offer here. When people think of Ohio and big cities, it’s Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. And here’s Dayton just in between, almost halfway in between Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. But it’s such a point of innovation. I mean, if we look at things that Dayton is well known for — I mean, we have the home of the Cheez-it, just for a fun little fact. And the pop top on all the pop cans. And of course, everybody knows the Wright brothers. So there’s just a lot offered here. And there’s I would say a pretty good size — it’s still about 2-3% of our population is Asian, but we have quite a few Asian markets, all over, not just Korean or Eastern Asian. We have Indian markets. We have halal markets. We also have restaurants. So I think we represent almost every single Asian [group], more than big Asian groups here. So there’s always a way to get food and share that culture. I know that different groups now get together to try to do the World A’Fair we share. We always exhibit our dances and cultures and stuff. So they call Dayton the “Gem City.” So I think it’s a hidden gem.
RC: What’s it like passing on your heritage? Because in some ways you’ve inherited that heritage, and you’re still enjoying that with your mom here. And then what about your son? What do you hope for him to have?
MH: So my sister and her two kids are here, and I have just one son, so my mom has three grandkids. They love having grandma cook for them and they specifically ask grandma for Korean food and different customs. My son, the advantage he has, and I’d say maybe a privilege that he has is — he’s had the opportunities to be involved since he was very young with my work that I do here in the community, with the culture and sharing our culture. So I always bring him to programs, I expose him to all different things. He’s been introduced to this and we talk about it at home.
He welcomes that he’s a Korean American, and he likes the culture, the food, the holidays that we spend, just as a family that we spend together. So he has had that his whole life. And he doesn’t see it as any different way. I used to tease him ‘cuz, when he’s about eighth grade, he went through a stage that he kept telling me he was Hispanic. And I’m like, ‘No, no, you’re not.’ But he goes, “At work, Mom, you took me to this festival,” and he loved it. So now he wanted to be Hispanic. I said, “But it doesn’t work that way.” But I think that’s just the thing — that he got exposed to different cultures that he may not have had that opportunity if I didn’t do what I was doing. My niece and nephew are the same; they just love Korean food, the Korean culture, love having grandma and grandpa around all the time. So it just plays a big role in their lives. They’ve had this, my mom has continued those traditions with them. My sister and I have made sure that this tradition stays alive with them and that they enjoy being Korean.
RC: What makes you proud to be who you are today, especially in regard to your Asian heritage?
MH: It’s just my work. I love what I do. I love working with students. I love advocating for students. I love sharing my culture. I love listening to their stories and learning about them. Because not only do they learn from me, I want to learn from them too, and just learning about different things that I’m not familiar with, as well. So, I went to work at Wright State when my son was young, and at that time, we needed a two-income family. So I ended up leaving school because my son then started to have health issues. So, I ended up leaving school and had to work full-time, because I also needed the health insurance and medical benefits. So, I started to work at Wright State, and I started to move up there. Eventually, I became the interim associate director. And then as we hired a new vice president for inclusive excellence, I was moved to be his assistant to help with my institutional knowledge and stuff. But it also gave me an opportunity; while I love Asian culture and the Native American culture and things that I was doing, I get to do more of a bigger impact in the diversity work that we do on campus. And I realized that when the thing I need to do to move up, because my goal is to move into a higher leadership role, is that I need to go back to finish my schooling. So, with the help from my directors of the center and coworkers, I went back and realized I was closer to being done than I thought I was. So, I’ve been in school to finish my bachelor’s for the last four years. I will be done next semester. I’ve just finished registering for my last two classes. I’m also a good two semesters into my master’s degree. One of my goals upon the finishing of my graduate degree is to be an adjunct professor into my program, so I can do leadership development with the new incoming class, and give back what I’m learning.
So, I think that’s my passion: to be able to teach and give back what I’ve learned and the opportunities I’ve had to our younger groups, because they’re our future leaders. I plan on retiring in about 10 years and enjoying grandkids or whatever comes along the line. I want to get to that point in my career. But in the meantime, I still have a good decade left of work I can do and make an impact. I love being part of the community to be able to share my culture, and bring that to the city that I’ve lived in for all my life, practically, and making my home a better place and a more welcoming place for folks like me to feel belonging and welcoming into that city. I’m a staunch believer of — you need to be part of the change to make things happen. And that’s what I do.