Saturday, July 11, 2020

Must Asian-Americans Cast Their Stones at Tou Thao?

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, Asian-American writers and activists have flocked to urge fellow Asian-Americans to speak up in support of Black Lives Matter. Many argue that Tou Thao, an Asian-American officer who stood guard while Derek Chauvin suffocated and killed George Floyd, symbolizes Asian-Americans’ silence on racial strife in America. They cast silence as adjacency to whiteness, a miscalculated strategy of social mobility and position of privilege that only foments further harm against Blacks by playing to the myth of the model minority. 

Arguing against silence, these writers fill Thao’s. Jeff Yang on CNN interprets Thao’s silence as indifference, avoidance, a sign of apathy. Sara Li in InStyle casts Thao’s inaction as complicity. Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt in Truthout characterizes it as “bystander syndrome.” 

For Jeff Yang, the mirror image seen in Thao is one Asian-Americans must deflect: “His inaction was painful to witness — and a stark symbol of why, now more than ever, Asian Americans cannot afford to be voiceless watchers of this moment.” Thao is our other, the one we are not. 

Similarly, for Larry Lin, Thao’s moment of inaction is his moment of awakening: “I confess that I, like the Asian American officer at the scene of George Floyd’s death, have been a part of the problem.” Where Thao failed, we will compensate. 

They claim him as one of their own, in order to disclaim him. Thao is a strawman, the one we need to knock down, in order to build the case for our own consciousness, our superior, enlightened understandings. The irony of setting up Thao as a foil to argue against marginalization is lost on these writers. We cannot afford another inscrutable Asian in our mix, so writers with fancy advanced degrees, with connections to American corporate media, scramble to speak on behalf of a man who reportedly did not complete community college, because after all, he is one of us. 

Our designation as Asian-Americans is a handle of expedience. For those of us within the group, this identity allows us a united front for the sake of political power, even as we remain acutely aware of the differences in our sub-group histories and cultures. For those on the outside, the designation has a secondary function as an accommodation; the generalizing saves others the bother of having to tell us apart. They can assume us to be monolithic. They need not know our individual histories. The designation of Asian-Americans is a convenience, a lumping of many people of disparate backgrounds for the sake of politics and for the sake of simplifying the story of race in America. 

When Asian-American writers outside the Hmong community stake a claim to Thao, there is a confusion in perspective. They forget that they are insiders only for the sake of political unity. When it comes to explaining the motivations, frameworks, and the conditions of our individual lives, generalities do not suffice. The history of Chinese in America does not provide a shortcut to the Hmong-American experience. The Asian-American designation does not negate the disparate sub-groups within; yet, these writers argue as if Asian-Americans are monolithic, even as they claim to refute the model minority myth. Our practice of convenience does not bestow one sub-group ownership over another. Just because others cannot tell us apart does not make our stories interchangeable. No Korean-American, Chinese-American, or any other hyphen-American has the right to speak for Thao. He does not belong to us. 

As we scramble to distance ourselves from Thao, we miss yet another opportunity to humanize ourselves. He becomes another soulless scoundrel, a degenerate, a viper. Yet another paper cut-out in line behind the masked doctors, emotionless engineers, voiceless grocery store owners, and Chris Rock’s accountants.

The presence of a Black officer at the scene complicates the story. Unlike Thao, Alex Keung has been given a complex narrative, a Black man out to change the system, even as he is caught in a horrible scene of injustice. His family and friends have different reactions to him, even after he helped to restrain Floyd physically. Others come to his defense and implore us to consider how much power he could have wielded against the system as a lone officer. He expressed ambivalence about his supervisor. He cries. He is loved. 

No such story is told for Thao, just as there was none for Bong Jae Jang in the Red Apple boycott or Soon Ja Du in the LA Riots. As we have been throughout American history, we are rendered voiceless, devoid of inner conflict, complicated thoughts, shifting perspectives. What was Thao thinking as all this went down? No one bothers to ask. What was his intent, his goal, his expectation? What did he understand his role to be? What would he have done had he taken the role of physically interacting with Mr. Floyd instead of standing guard and managing the crowd? Would the outcome have differed? What do we know of his character, his general demeanor? We do not know. All we need to know of him is the record of complaints against him and his appearance in the nine minute video of the killing where he stood by, weaving in and out of frame, speaking into the radio in his vest. The story is clear cut, the guilt obvious, the evil undeniable. 

In this story, Thao is reduced to a symbol: of white oppression; of police brutality; of white adjacency; of Asian-American silence. We have been reduced to symbols many times in this country. Japanese internees as the symbol of Japan’s military threat. Vincent Chin as the symbol of Japanese automotive industry’s dominance. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sihk killed in a hate crime shortly after the September 11 attacks, as a symbol of Al-Queda. An Asian family attacked in Midland, Texas as a symbol of the threat of the coronavirus. We have been interchangeable. All Korean small business owners as stand-ins for Soon Ja Du after the killing of Latasha Harlins. Other Hmong-Americans blamed for Thao’s inaction. To be reduced to symbols is to be rendered faceless, nameless, and interchangeable in ubiquity. This is the running theme of Asians in America. 

Humanizing one in our mix who does a grave wrong requires us to speak, even when it is inconvenient. What would be his story if he could speak? Would he tell the story of a people paid in rice to fight America’s secret war against enemies who looked more or less like themselves? What does the Black-white divide in America mean for a people whose history includes persecution by the Chinese, mistreatment by the French, scorn by fellow Southeast Asians, betrayal by the US government, and rejection by West Philadelphia? 

Is his story not a counterpoint to the model minority myth, one we have been gasping to tell? Hmong-Americans suffer from a 30% drop out rate for high school, and a mere 39% can afford health insurance. Around 28% live in poverty. These statistics stem from America’s broken promise and a citizenry ignorant of and ungrateful for their surrogacy. America’s orphans, Hmong refugees were resettled in some of the most neglected neighborhoods, and many of them live among the poorest, the least privileged. They are not ones who benefit from white adjacency. 

We need to tell his story not to vindicate him, but because the same system that killed George Floyd created Tou Thao. If a system creates its victims, does it not also create its villains? 

Yet, as others who have been caught in political flashpoints, the cumulative weight of historic injustices fall on Thao, and he is suddenly cast as the oppressor, the privileged. In this reconstruction, his failure to act unleashes an avalanche of wrath and judgment. This loaded story was written long before Thao even showed up at the scene. It was written through the merciless killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and countless others. It was written by a culture of fear, ideology of police departments, the acceptance of gun proliferation in America, a culture that presupposes a clear divide between the good and the bad, and various other factors we have yet to identify. 

As Asian-Americans, we are caught in a fishing net. We are grouped together, creating a facade of unity, not because of any inherent commonality, but situationally, as a result of being in the same space and time. This grouping deprives us of the original background that may explain some of our motives and understandings. The deep ocean from which we have been gathered is rendered irrelevant when discussing how best to survive in our new, common displacement. 

Perhaps it is this limitation that allows writers like Jeff Yang to ask on CNN, “Do we seek adjacency to whiteness, or coalitions of color?” or for an op-ed in Truthout to claim that Asian-Americans have been complicit in “white supremacy”. Reducing the survival strategy of more than 20 million Asian-Americans as “white adjacency” ignores the centuries of history of diverse groups of people who immigrated with their own value systems as well as social and economic strategies acquired over generations. It deprives us of our own cultural frameworks and perspectives. How did any of us manage to survive before there were white people to suck up to? 

This framing renders Asian-Americans as parasites, creatures who cannot exist onto themselves. It also centers whiteness as omnipotent. What do we say of our own agency, our participation in our own histories? How easy to simply blame the white people. Have we only played supporting roles, always aligning ourselves to forces larger than ourselves? 

Setting up the country as a binary silences Asian-Americans. We are reminded once again that in America, we live in a black and white world. Our only choice is to be subsumed into one of two groups and become either complicit in white racism or enlightened supporters of Blacks. We do not exist onto ourselves. In this binary framework, we negate ourselves as people with different, unique perspectives, with the ability to pave novel paths. We are given the illusion of choice, but it is clear that the cost of membership is to align with one of the two identified groups. Implicit in this argument is a concession that alone, we are powerless. When we speak up, we are nothing but a reverberation. We are forever sidekicks. 

In this black-white framework, we are judged not against a full spectrum of values relevant to our personal lives, but what is deemed to be relevant at this point in time in America. In this case, actions of all Asian-Americans of the present and past are filtered and judged through the lens of black-white racism in America; other possible interpretations are not even considered. What remains is a thin narrative of us. We are not afforded any subplots that may cut against the larger narrative on race. When we are left with only one or two possible storylines for Asian-Americans and we are limited to singular attitudes (“many of us have internalized a racist, reductionist history”) and motives (“their (sub)conscious preferences for lighter complexions is a result of deep-seated anti-Blackness”), we are once again reduced to stereotypes. 

This binary framing also negates the complicated history of Asians in America. Amongst ourselves, we have often wondered where we stand. We have fought against white majorities as well as other ethnic minorities. We have also stood alone when alliance was not available. We have wondered if we are a distinct group onto ourselves, and how we fit into the larger story around race in America. This uncertainty and complexity is also a story of Asian-Americans. 

There are important reasons to support Black Lives Matter. We must not tolerate a state of terror against our Black friends. We should be outraged at a justice system that condones extrajudicial killings. We must condemn a culture that promotes a sense of safety for some at the cost of others. We must not perpetuate a state that inflicts needless trauma on its own people. We must reject a caste system that creates a perpetual cycle of disenfranchisement and oppression. The rapidly growing list of innocent Black people murdered for no justifiable reason raises the urgency to support BLM and to speak out. We should speak up — loudly and with indignance. 

It is possible to speak up without shaming each other or effacing ourselves. We can speak up because we care. Because we are citizens. Because we have a voice. Because we too are fed up with the injustice of it all. 

Those who purport to speak for us all should attune to the silence among us. If some of us are silent, perhaps it is because there are painful truths in our corner. Racism comes in many forms. We have been called Chinks and told to go home not just by white Americans. When white Americans speak to each other, Black Americans recede. When Black Americans speak to white Americans, we recede. 

As a college student, I watched, glued to the TV, as Korean-American shopkeepers on tops of their stores were portrayed as menacing vigilantes. At that time, I wondered, who will speak for us? Who will humanize us and our parents? It is painful now to read Asian-Americans typecast as racist perpetrators of a white system, as its beneficiaries, when Korean-Americans have been burned by the very fire started by the system. Sara Li’s one line description of the LA Riots as simply a consequence of “anti-Blackness” of the Korean-American community pits all the blame on one side, with no understanding of the systemic dynamics involved. The ongoing failure of America to redress its 400 year history of enslavement and oppression came crashing down on one immigrant community. 

Let us not confuse casting stones with speaking up. Historically, Asian-Americans have not been shy about breaking the silence to distance themselves. Filipinos argued they were not Mongolians to fight for rights not afforded to other Asians. Koreans and Chinese wore buttons that said “I’m no Jap” and “I am Chinese” when Japanese-Americans were rounded up like cattle and thrown into pens in the middle of forlorn deserts. The rest of the Asian-American community let others know they were not Koreans during the LA Riots. And what better way to distance ourselves from the likes of Tou Thou than by condemning him? By casting our stones at him, we publicly differentiate ourselves and position ourselves as the good ones. 

The imperative to find safety for Asian-Americans is understandable, especially against the bursts of hate crimes reignited by the pandemic. The hope that just an alliance with one or another dominant group in the US would save us, however, is misguided. Time and again, alliances have frayed in times of strife. We may wax solidarity now, but no one admits that it is easier to do so when our businesses are not the ones being looted, when our parents are not perched on roofs of our small businesses armed with handguns, when there are no picket lines in front of our groceries and liquor stores, when we’re not cast as the enemy. When we have been cast as the enemy, as in the Red Apple boycott or the LA Riots, the only voices that rang out were those asking for police protection, which never came. The Asian-American alliance did not materialize. 

I am not suggesting we give up on all collective action. There is power in numbers, but we will never be seen or heard as a group unless we are seen and heard as individuals. A collective without humanity is no different than an enemy. The current BLM protests were fueled by George Floyd’s humanity. His cries for his mom reached the ears of mothers in all corners. His vulnerability in those terrible minutes spoke louder than any statistic or missive. We cannot forfeit our humanity for the sake of the collective, no matter how expedient it feels in the moment. 

The Asian-American call to arms in the shadows of Tou Thao’s inaction is a screed of shame: for not having done enough for our Black friends; for being too successful; for not having suffered as much as our Black and Brown friends; for having aunties with racists views; for enjoying the privileges of capitalism; for taking on the wrong survival strategies; for not being brown enough. We are an underdeveloped bunch who fail to live up to the ideals of American democracy, who inadequately exercise the right to protest. We cannot avoid comparing ourselves to other ethnic groups, even as it plays into the hands of racist policies that set up success as a zero sum game. 

Tou Thao has unleashed all of our misgivings. It is not simply enough to support BLM; we have to fall on our swords and repent. We need to prove we belong as we see ourselves through the judging gaze of other communities. 

One day, we will be afforded all the foibles and emotions that come with being human. One day, we will enjoy an identity that is not fused with all others who look like us. Maybe we will get there if we put down our stones long enough to own up to them.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dreams of the Past


As immigrants, we lived for the unknown. This thing called the future held out the promise of a better life. When it stretched out its arms in possibilities, as limitless and amorphous as the word itself, we latched onto it because there was nothing else. The future was synonymous with becoming, an unknown that represented all that the present was not.

Our present was a musty dry cleaner’s. A cocktail of perc, human odor, and disinfectant. Pipes caked with grease, chemicals, and dust. Ever swirling fans in constant hum, creating a sense of chaos in the background. Clothes creased with wear, folds fanning out from the joints and the crotch. Sequined party dresses rumpled and twisted, with misshapen bra pads. White office shirts with stiff necks and yellow rings of perspiration on the armpits, and trousers stained with dirt and other bodily fluids. Light yellow sweaters splattered with bearnaise sauce and bloody mary. The remnants of lives lived, of parties enjoyed, of gatherings concluded.

As teenagers, we rummaged through their pockets, like scavengers, searching for forgotten items: receipts, bunched up cocktail napkins, torn theatre stubs. Here, we got a whiff of life's offerings. Our parents’ job was to remove the stains, press them, and package them in films of plastic to reset them for another outing.

Such outings were not for us. Our present was lived from inside the windows. The world existed outside, and we watched it pass by without us. On Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, after we had handed out the last evening gown or tuxedo, we wiped down the counters, emptied the cash register, packed up our empty lunch containers, and arranged the hangers for the next day. When we stepped out onto the empty street, our father locked the door. Then, he grabbed the handle with both hands, checking, double-checking, and triple-checking the lock, throwing his weight into the push and pull. Safeguarding this store was his focus, because it was the source of our livelihood and security.

In silence, we scurried to the car and drove home to eat some food hastily foraged from the refrigerator. We didn’t speak about the celebrations happening in other homes, for other families. We didn’t articulate any longing for an evening different than the one we had. Celebrations were not for people like us. They were for families who wore khaki pants and took annual holiday photos. For people who dined out and ordered wine. For those who knew how to carve a turkey.

Once, when I asked my mom why we didn’t invite people over for dinners, she said, “Inviting people requires spending.”

We couldn’t afford the luxury of celebrating. We were too poor. Too exhausted. Too desperate. Too busy preparing for the next day.

There were glimmers of hope, however. The hope came embedded in incessant messages. If you go to law school, your dad and I will be able to retire. If you become a doctor, you could help us so much. Our hardship will be worth it. If you do this, if you do that…

It was there, for me to grab. Some hope of a better future -- all in my hands, as if I held the key, the secret code, the magic dust. I never questioned that a financial solution would be the answer, even though I had no understanding of the problems to be solved. And I never challenged this assumption that my parents' dream of financial security would be something I would help deliver.

I clung to this hope of a reprieve, a break from the ever-present anxiety that loomed over us. I longed for a day when we could while away our time in a coffee shop like others, buy a trinket without worrying about how much it cost, indulge without feeling guilty. These longings were so pedestrian, and yet out of reach. Still, I never doubted that those days awaited us in our future.

The other day, I suddenly realized that I am living in that future. I am now almost 50. I obtained my law degree, practiced law for 10 years, and have a beautiful family of my own. Over 15 years ago, my parents sold their dry cleaning business and retired with an adequate nest egg. Just four years ago, they moved out to San Diego to live near us.

Despite all that, the present has no semblance to the future that I had imagined for my family of origin. It’s hard to even call us a family. My sister does not talk to me or my brother. We never get together for the holidays anymore, not all of us. We have never vacationed together. During the past 13 years, the family has never gathered as a clan. The quality other families may have that draws them together is elusive for us. We’re not at ease with each other. There is no obvious affinity. We have no family rituals, no running jokes, no matching ugly sweaters.

Any effort to get together as a family, even a faction of us, however sporadically, has been instigated by me. No one else initiates, including my parents. My parents seem complacent enough to see the family in its current state. It is incomprehensible to me.

For a long time, I rallied against this baseline state. I carried dreams of us vacationing as a family, going on cruises, eating holiday meals together. I imagined us restored, a family who suffered but healed, a people who can look back with satisfaction at all that they endured but survived. I have been playing out these scenarios in my head for as long as I can remember.

As I look back, I now wonder about this audacity, naivete, the gall. Who was I to presume that we carried the same dream, as if I spoke for us all? And who was I to believe I could weave others into my dream, as if I were the puppeteer.

From the crevasse of our failed family relationships, I now reassess the past. It is my relationship to my dream that requires scrutiny. Perhaps, it was never my prerogative to dream for all of us. Maybe it was never a part of their hopes for their future. That dream embodied my own hopes, expressed my own needs. It is humbling, this reminder.

A part of me rebukes myself for having carried this dream at all. It adds to my unhappiness and frustration because it highlights how far we fall short. At the same time, I tell myself that this dream carried me forward as well. It provided focus, a goal. It is this dream that drew a sharp line around the past and made it bearable.

I wonder about the role of our dreams and the purposes they serve. Perhaps it is dreams that draw us together as a people, and they carry us forward as if on a dinghy. During those rough days when my family worried about every quarter spent or every customer lost, I clung to this dream as I fought to stay afloat in the sea of anxiety that was my family. We lacked the ability to soothe and allay each other's fears; instead, all of us shut our eyes and held on to whatever was within reach. When both hands are needed for one's own survival, there is none left to extend to others. And as obvious as our needs must have been, we never spoke of them. We never learned to say, "I am scared" or "I need some help." Instead, we lashed out in resentment at those who failed to meet our needs -- and learned to do without.

Perhaps that dinghy was not big enough, not refined enough, not sophisticated enough to carry us all, not in the way we each needed. Now that I find myself having to examine this dinghy, I can see how inadequate it is, how decrepit, how flimsy. I also remember how precious it felt when there was nothing else to latch onto. How I urged others to hold onto it as I did. How desperately alone our family was in this unknown territory, and how little I had to offer. I can now surrender to the unknown. From where I currently stand, I think about what it means to weather the storm, to survive, as I release the dinghy back out to sea.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Dissonance

Ever since I started reading Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), I can't stop imagining myself as an actor in different scenes wherever I go. A sociologist, Goffman described our social interactions as theatrical performances, where our daily actions are presented, as if on stage, with scenery and props to be displayed and interpreted by our audiences.

Conceptualizing my interactions as performances has helped me understand my life in ways I never have before. I now realize that when I am with my own family and my parents, I am simultaneously in two different scenes, one with my husband and children as a mom/wife and another as a Korean daughter with my parents. Even though we are together, I am engaged in two or more separate dramas, each with a storyline of its own, one with my parents in Korean and another in English with my kids and my husband Jeff.

For example, picture our lunch together yesterday at a local pizza joint. The six of us are sitting around a table during a school fundraising event.

In the scene, I am sitting across from my parents, with Jeff to my right and the kids to his right. I am speaking to my parents in Korean (a language neither Jeff nor my kids speak), asking them what they would like to order. My parents quickly peruse the menu and mumble that they don't know what to order, that I should order for them, and that they will just eat whatever. I push back, as I put the menu back in their hands. Can you just look at the menu? Here's the section on salads, here are the main dishes. What would you like to eat?

We have played out this scene many times. We are in a public setting, and they recede, as if they have no preferences, as if they are not there.

I feel my irritation surfacing. There is a historical context to this irritation. Their passivity unleashes the resentment of the perennial parentified child. I do not want to be your mouthpiece, not again. It also threatens to cast our lives in America as a failure, a poor decision that landed us in a foreign country where we do not function publicly.

In this setting, I am acutely aware of the pressure to perform. Here we are, in a restaurant, in a public scene. I am conscious that we don't quite fit in. My parents and I are the only Asians in the place. My parents do not interact with the waitress in English. They do not send or pick up the same social cues, such as making eye contact or returning the greeting.

I am sure I am more self-conscious in these settings as a result of having grown up as an outsider in this country. To me, the scene presupposes a certain performance out of us: to be ready to order when the waitress returns, to smile back at her, and to identify our dishes. To play the part of a happy family enjoying lunch together.

While I am in this scene with my parents, I am repeatedly interrupted by my children who demand that I take in their activities; their drawings, their recounting of the day, their mile-a-minute thoughts. In those interruptions, I am pulled into their scene as a mother.

Throughout the meal, I am in separate snippets of conversation with my parents while I toggle back and forth with my own family. My parents rarely communicate directly with my children or Jeff. The language skills aren't there, and even when they try, my father's limited hearing shortcuts the dialogue. They often comment on the children to me, or they will try to speak through me. For example, my mom will often say, "Tell Jeff to eat more. Here, give him this."

On these occasions, I am diving in and out of different scenes, playing multiple roles, and tending to various needs. In this picture, I am never sure of the role I am supposed to play. Which scene am I in at any given moment? Who am I in this picture? Who do I tend to first? Once, during my daughter's birthday party, I assumed my parents would join the party. Instead, they huddled by themselves inside while our guests and their kids played joyfully in our yard. It felt like a failure on my part, a failure to tend to my parents. I failed to give them their own scene, a safe haven in our own home. I second guess myself through two different value systems, and I may find reprieve in one, but not always both.

I am often left feeling like I neglected someone, whether it's my parents, Jeff, or the kids. I am painfully aware that when I am speaking Korean with my parents, Jeff is cut off from the conversation. He is cut off from adult company by virtue of our language, even though he is sitting with us at the same table. Less than a foot away from me, he has no access to the events happening in front of him. Similarly, when I am talking to Jeff or the kids, my parents are excluded. I don't know how to be a wife, mother, and daughter, all in the same scene.

In these situations, I am alone in my emotional experience. My conversations with my parents are often laden - with history, habit, cultural differences, and misunderstandings. Their words, perhaps intended to be helpful, sometimes land as criticism. And often, interacting with them in a social setting reminds me of all that we're not as a family, all that I would like us to be.

I often come out of these gatherings slightly peevish and mentally fatigued.

Later, when I describe to Jeff all that happened at the table, he listens and nods along. He says I am a "gasket," there to keep two parts together. A gasket is usually needed to join two parts that do not fit perfectly together. It fills the space between the two parts and protects the whole from leaking when it is pressurized. To function well, a gasket should be made of yielding material in order to fill and conform to the space, particularly where there are irregularities. 

I think about being this gasket. As a gasket, I am never in a space of cohesion; instead, it is up to me to provide the cohesion. But that cohesion never feels within reach. My arms are not dexterous enough, malleable enough, or expansive enough to wrap around all of us and tie us up in a beautiful bow. It feels like playing two different songs on the piano, one with each hand. Each song has its own rhythm, logic, and beauty, but they have no relation to each other except through the person sitting at the bench. The result is dissonance - with occasional, accidental harmony.

I think about sources of frustration -- and inaction. When we cannot act, we are sometimes caught in a crevice between different scenes, wedged between conflicting value systems. One of my professors recently commented that we cannot possibly hold all of our values at once. There are too many that we have collected over our lifetime, through too many different contexts, and they don't always align. She said that we may have to let some go in order to attend to what is in front of us at the time. I'm not sure how to work that into my life yet. I find myself juggling, trying to keep them all afloat. It never occurred to me that we can put some down. Perhaps because attached to these values are lives getting shorter by the minute.

I live a life of dissonance. This dissonance often gives me a headache and diverts me from where I would like to be. I cannot always be as attentive as I would like, and I may play a lesser part than I had imagined for myself. It can be lonely in this space, and there is always a yearning for something more, something better. At the same time, I like to think my striving counts for something. I'm trying to make something coherent out of disparate parts, not through anyone's choosing, but because that is what life is at this time. Abandoning this effort has never been an option. And I relish the occasional harmony, as fleeting and sporadic as it may be.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Finding my identity in Jeronimo

Recently, after watching a documentary called Jeronimo about Koreans in Cuba, I've been thinking about the struggle of people like us, those who have been separated from their people. In this film, the descendants of Koreans who landed in Cuba in the early 1900's struggle with their identity. Are they Korean? Cuban? Both?

Their struggle for identity is compounded by the fact that the original settlers have no country to return to when Korea becomes colonized by Japan. Later, after World War II, the Korea that existed 35 years ago is no more as one country splits into two. In the swirl of these geo-political movements, Jeronimo Lim Kim emerges as a revolutionary who, alongside Fidel Castro, fights to reorganize (and later maintain) Cuba's political and economic system.

The paradigm that we Korean-Americans are often presented with - the binary framing of identity as whether we are Korean or American (or both) - never felt accurate to me - and overly simplistic. The richness of identities that people assume in their ordinary lives is denied us. Instead of the array of descriptions that I can present for my identity (an impatient yet striving mother; a dutiful daughter who cuts fruit skillfully; resilient middle child; a Queens escapee who once had a Texas drawl; challenging wife; ex-lawyer ejected from the big law firm world; beginner therapist; middle-aged introvert who never backs down from a fight or an opportunity to call out an indignation; recovering fingernail biter; aspiring writer; cancer dodger; and trove of other such descriptions that I can claim), I am reduced to geographical designations, as if those designations reveal the essence of who I am. In our smorgasbord of identities that we call America, we are reduced to an identity of what the other is not: a foreigner, an Asian, an immigrant, a Korean.

One of the questions the film asks is, how do you anchor your identity when geographies shift around you? What does it mean to be "Korean" when the Korea you knew no longer exists?

The process of seeing what is more or less my story (i.e., cultural transition) play out in front of me in the form of people who are similar (i.e., Korean) and yet dissimilar (i.e., Cuban) in a different context (i.e., in Cuba) helped me see what I could not see before. I was that frog unable to make sense of the temperature of the water in which I was sitting.

As I watched the Korean descendants in Cuba struggle to make sense of their identities and histories, I wondered if I have been asking the wrong questions all along. Since our family moved to the US in 1979, I always assumed that the key to my identity was anchored in geographical definition. Do I belong in Korea or in America? What does it mean to be a Korean who does not live in Korea. How do I help my children stay connected to some parts of Korea, even if they were born in America?

As I watched the film, I started to wonder if geography has nothing to do with it.

I started to imagine my family as five birds separated from their flock.

When we had been a part of the larger flock, we had cast magnificent formations against the backdrop of the sky. We had been a part of a flock that made those on the ground marvel at our beauty as we danced out nature's choreography. We knew we belonged there, and we were safe there. We knew we were flying in the right direction because we found our bearing in relation to each other.

Once separated, who were we without our flock? Did our flock miss us? Who could even spot us in the sky now? And what was wrong with us that we should lose our flock, when others still had theirs?

What happens to our identity when we lose our community, when we are tethered to nothing outside of ourselves?

As in conversation, I think of identity development as an iterative process. To be in conversation, I need to be heard, acknowledged, and responded to (and I need to do the same for my conversation partner), and only then can conversation develop and expand -- and be meaningful for both of us. For identity formation, what happens if others do not understand our social context and our value system, appropriately interpret the meaning of our actions, and affirm the interpretations we place on them?

Once we moved to the US, we were stripped of the context in which we had been socialized and with it, the framework that had made our actions and identity comprehensible. Filial piety makes no sense in America; even the phrase sounds awkward, strange. Language organized according to social hierarchy and age -- these concepts have no place in America, yet our lives were structured around such ideas.

Studies show that people do not recognize faces or emotions of others from different races as well as they do within their own racial group. In other words, outside of our own group, we are simply not seen or recognized the way we would be by those within our own group (however that group is defined).

I feel this acutely these days, especially since we moved to San Diego nine years ago. We live in a mostly white suburban coastal town, and people regularly see through me, as if I'm not there. I wonder if waiters or lawnkeepers feel this way. They aren't given an identity, just utility, a function. As long as their lawns are cut and the food arrives on time, there is no need for further engagement. For me, I don't even serve a utility; I am simply not relevant to these people and their social maneuvering.

What happens to people who are not understood or seen? Who is there to see us when the people we live alongside do not even know how to pronounce our names - or the combination of the syllables in our name do not exist in their lexicon? How do we perform the actions of our lives when we are not seen or understood? Who are we performing for? Where is our audience?

What happens to stories that are deemed irrelevant? What becomes of our history? Who will create the space for our stories to be told and remembered?

Maybe the quest for identity is not as much a quest for definition as much as a fight against invisibility. The defining matters only insomuch as it helps us find our group. When we are part of a larger group and we belong, we can be seen - just as a large flock of birds can be seen by outsiders and from within. When we lose our group, we become the incomprehensible and misfit ugly ducklings -- unable to be seen for who we are.

In the film, we see the Korean-Cubans organize as a community to learn Korean, sing BTS songs, and revisit the motherland. But as the filmmaker makes clear, there is no Korea they can return to. The Korean song they sing is an outdated version that only exists in history. One of the elders insists on a unified Korea and refuses to acknowledge the current political rift between the two Koreas. The country of their imagination is no more.

I always thought of Korea as a noun -- a place I can use as a reference point. In my conceptualization, Korea has always remained a thing I can return to, a fixed thing I can compare or contrast to my life in America. But Korea is not a just noun. It is also a verb. By the deficiency of our language, we do not distinguish between naming of things that stay more or less stagnant (like a table) and things that change (like any living thing). We have no category for things that are in constant flux, as culture is.

When I say I am Korean, what am I really saying? I am not relating to the geographic region as much as identifying with what we call culture, social mores, and relational norms as expressed through the 50+ million people who live there - or more accurately, as expressed through the people who lived there in the late 70s when my family left. The Korea I knew as a child is not the Korea that exists today. Korea was never fixed, but always dynamic and elusive. Yet, I clung to it like an anchor.

The more I think about it, the more it doesn't make sense to ask these questions of identity in terms of whether I'm Korean or American. Toggling between two cultural reference points is a useless exercise. There are no reference points to toggle between, just flotsam that drift with the waves. Maybe all I'm saying when I say I am Korean is that I once belonged. Our whole family did. We were seen and recognized. We were understood. We were accepted. We were worthy of belonging.

And maybe when we raise these questions of identity, we are striving -- and juggling the question of how to belong once again without being erased. It doesn't really matter if we're Korean, or Portuguese, or Javanese. We just want to regroup somehow and belong once again -- without being rendered irrelevant, invisible.

In the film, the raising of the question about identity is the vehicle for regrouping. The Korean descendants organize to gain formal recognition of ethnic identity from the Cuban government. Jeronimo travels the country to gather identification cards of all Koreans in Cuba in order to submit them for an official count. Ironically, the government denies them official recognition, but the people gain a group identity through this process. They come together, forge bonds, and claim their ethnic heritage. In this process, Korea is not the end goal. It is a vehicle, a commonality to help them create the community they need. It serves as the means to identify the people on the same journey, those who suffered the same struggles. Perhaps that is all we really need.

A Jewish rabbi in the film eloquently describes the experience of diaspora as pain - and the gift of diaspora as innovation. I love this framing. Separation is painful and traumatic. Losing those with intimate knowledge of our context is tremendous. And at the same time, it liberates us. As we break from tradition and custom, we are forced to forge our own path. As we break, we become the stewards of a new way of life. We are forced to become leaders, even if we had been content to follow before. And maybe from there, we find a path to create a history of our own.

The film serves as a beautiful metaphor. A people splintered and unable to return to their land are forced to settle on a foreign island. There, a son of immigrants emerges as a leader in the upheaval of his new country's political system and secures a place for himself and his family. A filmmaker visits to tell his story, and we become the audience to a story that almost escaped unnoticed. And through this storytelling, we affirm our community.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Returning


Sometimes when I think of our family's trajectory, I fill with a deep sadness. There's an overwhelming sense of defeat, of despondence. Over forty years ago, we traversed to a new land, and it feels as if we never found our grounding. Our family still feels lost. I wonder if others who attempt to transition from one culture to another feel the same. Is this the story of other displaced people?

I feel this sadness most acutely when I spend time with my parents. They are usually during time spent together as a result of my well-intended effort to provide a semblance of a better life, as I perceive it. Left to their own, they would probably go for months without social contact. They would eat, go on daily walks along the same stretch of land, and go to their doctor's appointments. They would lock the little gate to their front yard around 5pm and from inside the walls, watch some Korean television while dozing. They live as if in a bunker, holed up against a hostile world.

I arrange almost all social events that occur on their calendar. Over the years, I've sent them to Broadway shows, to the US Open, on a trip to Europe, to countless restaurants. I have organized family vacations around their longings, including a trip to Sedona, to Hawaii, a cruise to Alaska. I arrange all birthday celebrations. Two years ago, I organized a gathering for them in Hawaii with my mom’s two sisters and their husbands from Korea. Most recently, I took them on a trip to Northern California to attend our niece's graduation. I’ve organized dinners with friends with elderly Korean parents so that my parents could meet some people. Most of these events occurred despite resistance from my parents. They often say no initially, and I take it upon myself to persuade them to engage with the world.

I've tried to cajole my parents to attend church, just to meet other Koreans. People who speak the same language. People who may share a similar outlook. People who have a chance at understanding their perspective. I’ve chatted with random Koreans who own dry cleaners and work at restaurants to inquire about which church they attend so that I could suggest them to my parents. Even when I offer to drive them or line up an Uber, they refuse.

It is difficult to watch them live out the last decades of their lives. Their lives lack mirth. They don't have much in common with each other, and they know no other people in town, apart from us. Their time, often marked by anxiety, is spent tending to repetitive daily chores. Their loneliness is palpable, and their frustration, close to the surface. They seem afraid to hope, reluctant to demand more.

They see danger in everything. A lot of my suggestions are met with resistance, an admonition of possible risk, an assessment of the money spent against the possible benefit. When I invite them to my children’s birthday parties, they huddle in the corner or indoors by themselves, eat their food, and tell me I shouldn’t spend so much money on the party favors or so much time preparing the food. Their advice usually reflects positions of retreat, like warning me against extending myself too much, conserving my money and energy, and guarding against possible danger. In their advice, I see the hallmark characteristics of the vulnerable, defenseless, community-less.

There are glimmers of their yearning. On a recent flight, my parents sat next to a Korean family. In their presence, my mom became an engaging person, someone with a social presence. She treated my daughter with more gusto and made an effort to be seen. I have seen her do this on another occasion. She emerges from her invisibility and takes on a social identity. It is a drastic transition. Her passivity falls by the wayside, and she becomes a functioning human being. She becomes the kind of grandmother I want for my children. The kind of mom I want for me.

I think of the audacity of uprooting oneself to go to another land. Anyone who has spent time trying to grow roots from a cut plant knows how tricky it can be. Thick, fleshy, water-retaining succulents may be easier than most, but stems of mature trees with histories in its rings may not root at all. Even a new shoot needs to be cut at the right angle at the right part of the plant, during the right stage of growth, and sometimes even at the right time of day to have the optimal chance to survive. The cutting needs to be handled properly. Many require specific conditions to grow, like proper level of humidity, good drainage, and the right type of soil mixture. And even as the roots start to grow, they need constant care to thrive and to avoid decaying. I wonder about the conditions we need as people.

Our family never set out to traverse to another land. We came for what we thought would be a temporary stay, and here we are, 40 years later. We are accidental immigrants. We didn’t come equipped with the kind of audacity needed to make this crossing. We lack the toughness, the know-how, the optimism needed to thrive.

Every non-Korean I speak to about this situation has basically told me to leave them alone. Maybe they prefer it. There is nothing I can do for them. Don't let their sadness interfere with your happiness.

It's difficult to explain that my life cannot be separated from the journey we took together. It is unacceptable to have their story arc turn downward, toward despair, while mine turns upward, toward hope. We are entwined. We are made of the same cutting. Any roots I grow have to supply water to their branch.

And yet, at times, I long for a little separation. To not carry the weight of their desolation on my shoulders. To not have my slivers of hope dashed by their ever-present despondence. To live cocooned in optimism, not dejection.

I feel something akin to survivor's guilt. I made it across more or less intact. They made it across as well, with their limbs and financial security, but also with a profound loss they do not name. I wonder if the decision made 40 year ago was a mistake, and I spend my life looking for evidence that it was not. I desperately search for some signs of redemption, signs that are not easy to find.

On this day, my parents and I are on yet another journey, a short stay in Hawaii before we travel back to Korea for a few weeks with my husband and children. We have many reasons for returning. To meet with our relatives. To see the land we left behind, to see how much the country has changed. To test our memories against the reality of a life we could have had.

It is my children’s first trip there, and surely my parents’ last. My dad is 80, my mom, 77. It feels like a ritual of sorts. To show my children the starting place of our family while giving my parents a chance to return.

In this process, I have this fantasy to be absolved of the what ifs and could haves that have permeated my existence. I will no longer see my mom and wonder about the person she could be if she lived among her people. I will not see her invisibility and pine for a life where she can be a socially engaged person. Even if for just three short weeks.

On this day, redemption feels elusive. I see no upturn in the arc of our story. We are a family who left for another land and became lost. We lost each other and perhaps ourselves, even as we discovered new things along the way. And I, one who found a way to grow roots here, have no insights to offer my parents. All the effort I have made to try to help them enjoy the perks of our new land have amounted to little. I can pay for dinner, but I cannot give them a social existence.

And still I look, for this elusive redemption. I remind myself that this is a tremendous opportunity, one not often available to others. We return bearing gifts for our many cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. We return with intentions to be a part of a larger family, a larger community. We return to be understood, to be seen, to belong, to once again be a people with history and context. I carry images of us surrounded by our aunts and uncles, laughing, exchanging stories. I carry visions of my mom holding hands with her sisters, reminiscing, finding a version of herself that has became obscured. I carry a picture of us visiting my mom and dad’s hometowns and coming back with a new lens through which to see them. I carry a dream that by returning to the land of what could have been, we will also see all that we are. I return with a hope that we still have something to find, something to restore.