As a way to be protective and clever, my mom created a glut of euphemisms throughout my childhood, especially pertaining to words that were sexual in nature.
When I was little, my mom told me that the word for vagina was “gogo.” Every single time I heard the Wham! song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” I would internalize it as “Wake Me Up Before You Vagina.” This still holds true today.
The first time I spoke what I presumed to be the word for vagina was with a bunch of other Korean kids at a Korean-language after-school program inside a dank Presbyterian church. It was an incredibly inappropriate and undoubtedly sacrilegious experience. One boy looked at me with sheer shock and asked me if I meant to say “boji,” the actual Korean word for vagina.
I soon learned that the word I had been using for the past 12 years of my life had been a ruse! But I couldn’t shake the fact that my own mom had created a fake word. Why would she do that? Was she being funny?
When I approached my mom about this, she remained steadfast. She assured me that the word she gave me was correct. Of course my suspicion grew more and more, and after using the beta version of Google Translate to help me out, I learned that my mom was wrong and that the smartass Korean boy was right.
In retrospect, I realized that this spoke to the larger problem of sex in Korean culture. Sex and sexuality were seldom talked about or even mentioned in my household. My first official “sex talk” was a meager excerpt from the “Alice” series during middle school — not from my parents. I never thought it was weird because I had accepted this as my normal.
But when I came to UC Berkeley, I saw a new normal. Suddenly, sex was everywhere. OK, not literally, but the messages of consent and sex positivity were plastered throughout the campus, in the halls of dorms and even inside bathroom stalls. The persistence of sex educators was something to admire.
Personally, I was struggling. I was trying to navigate the truth that these messages were pivotal yet also struggling to reframe my mind to successfully internalize all this information. I wished a Korean fairy godmother or sexual health educator had warned me of the extra layer of difficulty involved in relearning or simply learning about sexuality when this topic was so silenced and made invisible during my life.
Yes, sexual agency is pivotal, but how I can start exercising it if I don’t know what that looks like to me? It felt like a balancing act to juggle between being vocal about this issue versus trying to figure out how I was processing this information.
The fact that I was a Korean American and a woman was directly related to how I understood this issue. Within my community, we glorified women who never talked about sex because not doing so was regarded as “classy” and “appropriate.” And if we did ever encounter Korean women who talked openly about sex, they were immediately demonized and regarded as “cheap.” There was no middle ground and there was no way to talk about this issue without being shunned.
This issue is not isolated to just the Korean community. Topics regarding sexuality, domestic violence, sexual violence and so on remain heavily stigmatized in different communities in various complex ways. Where does the onus lie when it comes to addressing sexual education within these circles?
I don’t think there’s a singular answer to this question. I do know that with education comes access, and so far, what I’ve learned has helped me introduce this topic to my circle of family and friends.
When I came to UC Berkeley, I didn’t know how to expand my knowledge or what specific steps to take in order to understand sex in terms of my identity. It wasn’t until I started talking to my freshman year RA and asked her questions about sex, race and the intersections of both these topics that I started forging a worldview for myself.
A year later, my RA spearheaded UC Berkeley’s first National Conference on Campus Sexual Assault and Violence, which sought to explore the intersectionality of race, sexuality, faith, mental health and so much more with sexual violence. At this conference, I was finally able not only to meet other students from different communities but also to engage in meaningful dialogue about our shared experiences.
Coming to UC Berkeley made me realize that I could both be Korean and talk about sex — the two are not mutually exclusive. Reconciling both these aspects of my identity has been an empowering experience to say the least, and I never would have thought that I could be proud to be both Korean and sex-positive.
And I still refer to my vagina as gogo, because now I’ve reclaimed that word for myself.
Rosa Kwak is a UC Berkeley senior and a former ASUC senator. Cal in Color is The Daily Californian’s weekly column on race.