Fed up with racism, misogyny and her own feelings of anxiety, 32-year-old freelance illustrator, Eunsoo Jeong, first created the comic zine “Koreangry” as an outlet for her tangled emotions following the 2016 election.
Six “Koreangry” zines and one self-published book later, the formerly undocumented immigrant continues to share her musings on everything from immigration to toxic workplaces through her character and alter ego - a hand-built puppet with a permanent scowl, a penchant for soju and pot and an outspoken, don't give AF attitude. It’s an attitude the amiable Jeong said she’s picked up since the creation of her zine.
After leaving an unfulfilling job in the animation industry, Jeong now focuses her time on creating new “Koreangry” comics out of her garage in Echo Park while building her audience online and IRL. Jeong recently took some time out to chat with the Eastsider about her internet trolls, how coronavirus has impacted her work and why she wants Korean moms to like Koreangry.
How did Koreangry get started?
It all started after the 2016 election when my feelings of anxiety and insecurity that had built up over the years became too overwhelming. I was 28, my job was stressful and wasn’t making me happy and I dealt with it by drinking a lot and suppressing those feelings. That year I had a weird revelation. I was struggling with my identity and because I was a DACA recipient at the time, I had an urge to become more politically involved, so I decided to go to the United We Dream conference, a national immigrant’s rights gathering. Being at the conference was a real shock for me because it was my first time seeing so many undocumented immigrants talking about the rights we can protect and learning and educating each other. I was interviewed by a reporter and the energy at the conference gave me the courage to talk about my immigration status for the first time in my life. That’s when I realized I wanted to do more work that speaks about what was happening around immigration and the situation in my life in general.
I started writing down my feelings, all the anger and emotions, and when I started designing my character, who I think of as my alter ego, I wanted to share my work, but I didn’t know how. I remembered a class activity I had in college where we cut and bound a zine together, old-school style, so I decided to give zine making a shot.
Koreangry is really a blend of things, sometimes there’s poetry or segments of my writings and informative bits like “know your rights”, reproductive justice and history. A lot of things my character talks about in the comic, I am learning as I go along.
Last year, you surpassed a crowdfunding goal of $7,000 by more than $1,000, were you expecting the outpouring of support?
Yes and no. I wanted to take the risk to crowdfund my own self-published book for many years, but I never had the courage to do so. I met my Kickstarter mentor, Camila, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. She is also Asian American and really supportive of indie comic artists, and she was pushing for me to do it. She told me that I get to decide what risks I wanted to take, but my audience would always be limited at zine events, and Kickstarter would expose my work to a bigger audience. I had a lot of self-doubt and insecurities holding me back, so she was calling me every week, helping me to stay on top of everything and giving me feedback.
You have more than 15,000 Instagram followers, what kind of feedback have you received from them?
I started gaining more followers as the Kickstarter campaign was going on. I did a comic called “Know Your Rights” that let people know what to do if ICE comes to your home and that just kinda blew up. It was great because it was the first post that I got a lot of love, but also the first post that I got so many haters. It was hard for me to see people get so politically defensive based on my artwork and chewing on my art. I got a lot of threatening emails and direct messages from people saying they're going to call ICE on me and get me deported. Some people were really aggressive with comments like “illegals gotta go,” which was funny because I was just posting what I had learned at workshops to be our constitutional rights. That experience made me understand how I do not have any control over how people perceive my work and how what I make can be perceived differently than what I had ever hoped and desired.
How did the internet trolls affect you? Your work?
It was scary! I was terrified! I suffer from a lot of anxiety, so it was hard having all these hateful comments and messages every time I opened social media. It was such an extreme because I would get really nice comments and then the complete opposite in the same post and I didn't know how to balance it all.
After the “Know Your Rights” post, I stayed away from social media for two weeks. I smoked a lot of weed and played a lot of video games to help me cope with the stress. But on the bright side, I did get more followers and a lot of encouraging comments.
Last year, I was traveling a lot with Koreangry, and I when I was in San Antonio, Texas, people told me they had seen my work and that the “Know Your Rights” comic really helped them. It was so insanely validating for what I’m doing. And now everytime I post something, I’m not as scared.
The name of the comic is Koreangry, but your content touches on so many issues beyond the Korean-American experience. Is that intentional?
When I see that a person that is totally different from me, like a dad or a white person, tell me they can relate to my work, it means a lot to me. It made me realize that you don’t have to be a specific age or gender to understand and share the frustration, insecurity and fear that we are living with in this time. And it’s nice to not have your work be pigeonholed and representative of one group or people.
But it's weird because I don’t have a lot older Korean or Asian women liking my work, and that’s something that I’m trying hard to accept. I want moms who are like my mom to see that my work is valued, and I want them to tell that to me. But they’re not and I have to get over that.
How did your family respond to Koreangry?
I dedicated my self-published book to my grandma, and when I gave her a copy last Christmas while visiting her in Korea, she flipped through it, handed it back to me and told me “I don’t want this.” I was so shocked at how quick, bold and honest her response was. I was like OMFG Grandma! I tried to convince her that it was good, I even showed her that her name was on it! I left the book anyway and asked her if she would ever look at it and she was like “Nah, I won’t.” I really had to convince myself that that’s okay and let it go.
Initially, I made the Koreangry Instagram account secretly, so my mom wouldn’t read it because a lot of it was about my family, friends and it touched on a lot of personal stuff. But she eventually found the account because of the crossover content from both my personal and Koreangry accounts. She’s been supportive and shares my work here and there, but she’s in Korea and I always wonder if maybe she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about or maybe just doesn’t want to talk to me about it. Some of my work is critical of my family, some of it is about her and some of it is about what I wish she would learn and know. That’s kind of my own sad, selfish attempt at getting closer to her indirectly, I guess.
Has creating Koreangry helped you work through these emotions?
I was putting a lot of blame on my mom and putting a lot of pressure on my partner and friends for not understanding what I was going through, but they were in no way obligated to. I was looking for excuses to be the way I was and kind of still am, and I was projecting a lot of my insecurities and issues on those people. I needed to learn to process that on my own and to be able to do that through my work has been so satisfying and fulfilling. Before, when I would get random racist comments on the streets, I would put that on my partner, but now I can put that in my comic and not on him. Luckily he is a very patient person and accepting of who I am, but I'm sure it drove him crazy!
I’m slowly learning to become more self-aware and putting that energy into something productive. That’s why I want to make more work that’s uplifting and funny. I use humor to make light of hard situations. I don’t want people to be depressed by my work and it wouldn't feel good for me either, so let's just make fun of this weird situation that we are all in together.
My comic also helps me work through the anxiety I still suffer from having been undocumented. I arrived in the U.S. from South Korea at 13-years-old. I lived undocumented for nearly a decade and I still suffer anxiety in the middle of the night. I get random bursts of nervousness where I’m like OMG. I used to scream in the middle of the night and had night terrors where I would wake up in a cold sweat. That fear and anxiety is still very much a part of my life, but I think I’m better at living with it. My comic has helped so much, it has helped to calm my nerves.
How has your work been affected by the coronavirus outbreak?
Unfortunately due to the coronavirus outbreak, I have received cancellation of zine and comic events that I was going to participate in. Some of the events were my first time being accepted to exhibit work, so I was quite disappointed. Especially because I was looking forward to traveling to different states to meet new audiences, so I was a little bummed! So instead, I have made my zines as PDF free for folks to read at this time, and the support that I've been receiving has been very heartwarming and generous. (it's on gumroad.com/koreangry)
I’ve made artwork fueled by anti-Asian sentiments living under coronavirus outbreak.
When the media used the term "Yellow Peril" to describe the outbreak, I made some comics in response.
Lastly, please stand with us - if you see racist attacks on Asian-Americans don't be a bystander. Ask if everything is okay - offer to walk with them to record the incidents. This can be me, your friends, family members and neighbors.