Korean American Glimpses in “Harry Potter”
by Lorrie Kim
It starts and ends with Cho Chang.
For characters in the books who “look like me” as a Korean American reader, Cho Chang is it. Between her name and the description of her long black hair, she seems to be of Korean or Chinese ethnicity.
But the way Rowling wrote this character, she could have been any race. Reading her feels like a racially neutral experience. I don’t feel misrepresented by Cho – just not represented at all. Sometimes being less seen feels superficially safer or at least less exposed.
Some readers object that “Cho Chang” isn’t an authentic Korean name. Both Cho and Chang are surnames; most Korean given names have two syllables.
But immigrant Koreans often use adapted versions of our names for non-Korean settings. It’s not so much a move to fit in as a move to avoid hearing one’s name butchered. I could easily imagine someone with a name like Chang Cho-hyun withdrawing the often mangled syllable from their public English name as a self-protective move. It’s not that one version of the name is more authentic than the other. They’re both the true name, self-chosen to suit whichever sphere the person inhabits at the time.
Does Cho come from this kind of recent immigrant family? Chang isn’t one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight pure-blood surnames cataloged in 1930s Britain. Based on Muggle immigration timelines and Cho’s fluency in English, I would guess that she’s second-generation and a native English speaker, like me.
Many second-generation immigrants know the feeling of adapting the self to the cultural context. Rowling didn’t show Cho making this kind of switch. But I did recognize it in her portrayal of Hermione.
There’s no single Asian immigrant experience since experiences differ by country of origin, class, and many other factors. But as with all literature, we see glimpses of our own experience in passages whose characters are ostensibly not like us. When I ask myself what character moments in Harry Potter resonate with my second-generation Korean American experience, I come up with examples who don’t look like me at all, such as Hermione and Snape.
I saw my Korean American childhood self in Hermione’s isolation during first year, her precocious adulthood, her using research to compensate for a lack of cultural knowledge, and her lack of athletic confidence. I was relieved that she was clearly not meant to be Asian; this is such a recognizable type that it would have read as a stereotype. Some kinds of visibility don’t necessarily feel welcome.
I also had the common second-generation immigrant experience of being my family’s representative and navigator in a world that was native for me but not for them. We see Hermione’s parents as foreigners in Diagon Alley. My parents are savvy people, but their childhood educations were in Korean. They sent me to an American school to learn things they didn’t know, and there were aspects of my daily life I didn’t tell them about. Ron has to work to keep secrets from his parents, but Hermione knows her parents wouldn’t understand anyway “as they’re both dentists” (SS 199). I felt recognition when Hermione borrowed Hedwig to tell her parents she’d been made a prefect: “They’ll be really pleased – I mean, prefect is something they can understand” (OotP 165).
It doesn’t seem that Hermione’s parents ever learned how often she was nearly killed for being a Muggle-born. As Dean Thomas said of his own Muggle parents, “They don’t know nothing about no deaths at Hogwarts, because I’m not stupid enough to tell them” (OotP 219). Even if Dean’s and Hermione’s parents had tried to take them back to the Muggle world for safety, it would have been too late anyway. They would always be of the magical world, though as minorities and unable to hide, just as second-generation kids will always be of the culture they were born into.
Hermione hiding her parents in Australia is an extreme version of the ways second-generation kids can shield their parents. When she decides that there are some things more important than schoolwork, when she breaks laws and drops out of school, she cannot depend on her parents for counsel. She can’t endanger them by telling them anything. Where did she get the strength to make such a drastic, morally gray decision?
At this point, my second-generation immigrant background leads me to interpolate something into the story that the author didn’t put there. Hermione’s actions seemed understandable to me because I was thinking about people who grew up knowing that their families made life-or-death decisions when they immigrated, and those people inherited that kind of steeliness.
Some of what I recognize in Hermione is just about being any minority. She’s dependent on her half-blood and pure-blood best friends volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way as her allies. She learns, by third year, that if the powers that be want to kill you, the law won’t stop them. And some of it feels East Asian in particular, like her unfailing regard for Snape because he is a teacher, no matter how badly he insults her. Even when she, Ron, and Harry have to Disarm Snape to protect Sirius, she whimpers, “We attacked a teacher.…” (PoA 362). My own Confucian parents would have been impressed at Hermione’s respect for a teacher, even one who could be so petty.
Snape reminds me of some Korean teachers I’ve known: authoritarian, sarcastic, expecting perfection as the least a person can do. He even rebukes Hermione for the same reasons a Korean teacher might: overstepping the bounds of classroom propriety (“Sit down”) or questioning his teaching methods (“know-it-all”).
For her part, Hermione’s reactions to Snape’s rebukes strike me as more like a Korean student than a Western one: displeased but undeterred, surprisingly ungrudging, knowing that his insults are ultimately impersonal.
When we first meet Snape in his classroom, we are told that his eyes are “cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels” (SS 136). He’s only 31. When I first read those words, I thought, “What happened to you?”
Those eyes like dark tunnels, that’s a postwar look. By the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after we’ve watched Harry reel from the sight of dead bodies in the Great Hall or Draco forced into torture and attempted murder, we understand where those dark tunnels lead. All the student survivors of the Battle of Hogwarts will understand that look after witnessing horrors and not being able to stop them.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2010 book Committed, she describes a real-life Cambodian version of Snape, a schoolmaster of “extraordinarily intimidating demeanor” who was moonlighting as a tour guide in Angkor Wat: “an articulate, knowledgeable, and extremely stern gentleman in his early forties who politely showed me the magnificent ancient ruins, but who, to put it mildly, did not enjoy my company.” Narith the schoolmaster radiated “quiet disapproval” and made Gilbert, an effervescent White American, “feel like a foolish child” (227).
“No Cambodian family was left unaffected by the genocide of the 1970s,” Gilbert wrote. “Anyone who was not tortured or executed in Cambodia during the Pol Pot years merely starved and suffered. You can safely assume, then, that any Cambodian who is forty years old today [in 2010] lived through an absolute inferno of a childhood. Knowing all this, I found it difficult to generate casual conversation with Narith. I could not find any topics that were not freighted with potential references to the not-so-distant past” (228).
This is something to keep in mind about Asian immigrant families. Many of us have this kind of trauma, personally or within living household memory. My parents were born during Japan’s brutal colonization of Korea – my mother had to be called by a Japanese name when she went to school – and during the Korean War, they were children, like Harry and his classmates. Living in the United States, I have not experienced domestic war; I don’t fully understand what creates that dark-tunnel look. But I have felt some effects of what my parents have been through.
I’ve noticed a difference between the readings of Harry Potter fans whose families have recently known domestic war and those who have been fortunate enough to go for generations without it. To many US readers, Snape’s classroom demeanor seems shocking; Dumbledore’s inability to keep criminals out of his school seems shocking. Perhaps it might be illuminating to remember that Harry’s childhood takes place, as the centaur Firenze says, during “nothing more than a brief calm between two wars” (OotP 603). Snape, Dumbledore, and the other veterans have been preparing for the inevitable second war ever since the first one ended. They don’t have the power to keep war out of their school. The best they can do is keep the school as safe as they can and prepare their students to fight for their lives when the time comes.
In Cathy Park Hong’s 2020 book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Hong discusses US unawareness of Asian Americans as people of color with minority experiences: “When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’ I replace the word ‘white’ with ‘disappear.’ Asians are next in line to disappear. We are reputed to be so accomplished, and so law-abiding, we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog” (35).
Snape came from half-Muggle poverty and made no attempt to hide it, continuing to live in his childhood home even as Voldemort’s right-hand man. There is not a word in the series about what Snape thought of the Malfoys’ contempt for poor people, half-bloods, or wizards of no pedigree. But Rowling lets us know, with her emphasis on these themes, that Snape is well aware of their attitude toward everything he is, even as they assume that he shares their worldview. They despise his kind and yet associate with him, not pausing to think that their prejudices might anger him. To them and other Death Eaters, this double agent – who made a life of keeping his essential self unseen – was in plain sight but not visible.
Katie Leung, who identifies in her Twitter bio as a “Scottish Chinese feminist actress lass,” was 16 when she was cast as Cho Chang. She became the target of hateful racist messages even before she started filming. When she asked a publicist for guidance, she was told to deny it: “Just say it’s not true. Say it’s not happening.”
But Leung has emphatic things to say about bigotry, as she made clear in a masterful clickbait tweet in June 2020 at the height of international protests against racist police violence as well as a torrent of anti-trans statements from J.K. Rowling.
“So, you want my thoughts on Cho Chang? Okay, here goes…(thread),” she tweeted, followed by links to organizations supporting Black trans people. She tagged her tweets #AsiansForBlackLives.
It starts and ends with Cho Chang. There’s plenty going on in her mind, even if Harry or Ron can’t comprehend it or the Ministry wants her to deny it. Hermione asks, “Don’t you understand how Cho’s feeling at the moment?” After her memorably thorough explanation, Ron responds, “slightly stunned”: “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode” (OotP 459).
He’s not wrong about that.
The follow-up to this article will be about Claudia Kim’s Nagini in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Lorrie Kim is the author of Snape: A Definitive Reading.