By: Clara Suh
Despite what the terminology may suggest, my identity of Asian American isn’t half-and-half or two complete cultural identities inside one individual. I am fluid, and constantly in a process across a spectrum of how American or Korean I am. In elementary school, however, I didn’t even have a concept of identity. I simply thought normative whiteness was normal and the Eurocentric beauty standards were beauty. Even the Korean lunches I brought that people called smelly and weird eventually became smelly and weird. I often felt too Asian at school then too American at home. That’s just how things were- I, of course, had no concept of transnational spaces at this age.. This was really unfortunate, because this made me dislike something so intimate and personal about myself- my own race. A person’s race, for a non-white individual, is something very complex, and of great weight. It’s how the whole world sees you, meaning it’s the positioning of your very existence. It’s a box. At the same time, it is also something very warm and private. It’s the collective memory that I share with my entire family and ancestors; it’s a community of people united with familial ties and history; it’s culture and traditions; it’s memories and home.
I learned that this identity of mine was not something of always, or absolutes. Instead, it was a consequence of a monolithic amount of causes-and-effects throughout history- a history that is very much interwoven with anti-immigrant sentiment altogether.
In today’s world, with Donald J. Trump becoming our president-elect in this year 2016, I felt a stronger pull than usual to talk about this whole goddamn mess in the form of a zine, instead of just letting it morph and mutate and fester in my own head. This zine is my own stream of consciousness, coupled with an interview with my amazingly warm and sharp mother. Look at this as an honest, sincere, expression of bewilderment, fear, anger, and hope from one of your peers. Look at this as an informational piece from one individual’s perspective as a second generation Asian American student. Look at this and then look at the Asian individuals and immigrants around you with a more real understanding of them.
Mother of two, Wife, Youngest Sister, Moved to the United States at 25
I came to the United States for many reasons. My older sister was already here, and as you know, my mom was here. My mom and I had been separate for a long, long time, ever since I was 13 years old from the divorce. So, after my dad passed away, I started to wonder, what would it be like to live in the States? I didn’t know I would be settling here. I went into it thinking, wow, I get to start a new life filled with new challenges and learn a whole new language. It was pretty exciting.
It was when I got married, when I knew I would really be living here. I liked California because of the weather, the jobs were plentiful, and there are a lot of immigrants here. So, I felt that fitting in would be easier.
The way I thought about you and your being second generation, was: my children are Korean, our identity is Korean, but, they will work hard within American society, as in any other. I never thought about it in depth, to be honest. I didn’t think about it being hard. Also, when we were choosing what kind of neighborhoods to raise you in, it was either in 95% Korean schools or mostly white schools. So, we chose the white school, because hey, this is America, right? I wanted to give you variety, and I really thought about this a lot, but the perfect mix just didn’t exist. Honestly, the way that I chose where to live, was just day-by-day. I just wanted you both to be happy. I remember [neighborhood name] was just so good because every single house had two kids in it, all around the same age! All the kids would come out and always have so much fun, everyday. I remember the neighbor lady, Mary, on the day we moved in, rang our doorbell and asked if we had any kids. She saw you and your brother behind me and she invited you to play with some chalk with the other kids. And of course, I was so happy to say yes. In those other neighborhoods, kids would play inside or at the park only. But here, they’re everywhere! Drawing on the street with chalk, blowing bubbles- that community was really amazing. This neighborhood was all white, except for a Chinese family two houses down. And honestly, when there is no one around me but white people, it is kind of hard on me. But, with that Chinese family, I felt a little more at ease. I could ask them some questions I couldn’t ask the other families. I really just went day-by-day, to help the family, to go wherever would be best for the kids. I didn’t focus on American things versus Korean things. Even though I was Korean, they would always call me out like, “Joy!” They even threw me a surprise 40th birthday party…
I remember when we moved to [name of town is being replaced] and I wanted to be a room mom, they wouldn’t let me. You had to prove you were a citizen and give them your fingerprints! I just wanted to help some kids and be a class mom, you know? We could help on field trips, but I guess going in the school was just not allowed otherwise. It was scary *laughing*. But, when your older brother went on field trips, I would always follow behind. And that’s how it was.
From Korea, the US honestly seemed like a kind of, Dream Country. In the 1950s, after the Korean War ended, Korea was very poor. But America came and helped us, they seemed like a big generous country, helping us- a small, poor country. I had a lot of images like this. It’s not that I actively and literally had these thoughts. It was more like an idea that formed after watching the news and hearing things and seeing all these images over and over as a kid that just made this vague idea form in my head. I didn’t know the history of actually why the United States helped us, and all the stuff with the Soviet Union until I was older. When I actually learned, I realized that it wasn’t for Korea at all, it was for their own benefits. So, now I started to think, Ah okay, I see. Korea has to become a strong country now. That’s how I thought a lot. When I would see American people, I would feel myself get smaller and look down. They’re so much taller and they’re good looking and healthy. And you know why I saw them like this? From all those images embedded in me from before. I thought this way, so I didn’t see us as equals. I kind of felt small around them. So, when I raised you and your brother, I had a lot of worries about this. They look bigger, smarter, and richer, you know? I had these feelings, and it wasn’t my fault, but now I know more, so I have my identity now, and I feel way more comfortable around them.
I didn’t expect too much from America. But, as I’ve lived here, in American society, with Trump being elected, and with everything he’s said, all of his racist remarks, trying to make the country more isolated, I was thinking, wow, even though we have this guy campaigning all around the country, I believed that they wouldn’t choose this man. You know? I had this trust in them. So I started thinking, why, why would these people choose a person with this personality? With his life, with these words? Why would they choose him? I felt that, inside, all of these Americans truly felt this way. It made me wonder what Americans want- what is it really that they want? So, you know, when he was elected, it really made me think a lot. Seriously, why would they elect him? After everything? The way I see it, people just think that, hey, my nation is more important than yours. I’m not going to help other countries- you know, something like that. I used to think this way, as an immigrant in America, this country will protect me. This country loves diversity. I could give an education to you and your brother, your father can start a business here, but, in their point-of-view, they see immigrants as taking jobs, increasing the competition, or others see immigrants abusing welfare and taking way more than they need.
I’ve thought about this a lot, about if I was treated with racism in the US, but to be honest, there wasn’t much. But, I think the main reason for that is because I didn’t work at an American company or something like that, you know? I was in a different environment. I just helped at your dad’s company, and stayed in downtown LA, where most people are immigrants anyway. In my viewpoint, it was more like I had to start with myself, with my own self being racist. I would kind of… look down on people from poorer countries. We would see other people as not working very well- I know they have their own concerns, and that it’s all of our problem, not only theirs… We have to work together! I didn’t know that at the time. So, when I came here, everyone around me was Mexican, or Hispanic or whatever. Your dad and I, we would always treat them normally, with manners and such. But, when I would see Mexicans walk into those other Korean business owners’ stores, I’d hear them say in Korean, “Ugh, those Mexicans again,” or “I can’t trust them,” things like that. There were a lot of relationships like that. Or when black people would walk in, they would give them their change without looking them in the eye or allowing themselves to touch their hands. Messed up Korean people would do that, but there were also so many good Korean people, too. They would look them in the eye, tell them thank you, you know? They’re customers! I think those racist people, those people who would look down on others, they have a lot of hurt inside. There are a lot of people like that.
With racism, what I noticed most, was that the Hispanic people born here who can speak perfect English, would treat me badly. Like let’s say, when I was working at your dad’s car wash as a cashier, they would say to me, “Excuse me?!” and scoff, because they feel they are a part of this country more than me. I could tell they were bad to me because of my accent, my English, and because I am a woman- you know that stuff. When this would happen, it would make me feel sad. Because, you know that they aren’t white Americans either. They were probably treated badly for not being white, and instead of looking at immigrants and treating them with respect, they turn around and make other people feel just as bad as they did. They would make the weaker, or less smart people feel worse. I saw this a lot. So, I was sad. It’s a very sad thing. You know? They can’t do this. Also, I feel like I interact with adults more, not like you when you would talk to kids because you were a kid, growing up here. Adults and parents aren’t as unfiltered as kids. And those kids see me as an adult more than Asian probably. And those kids don’t even know they’re being racist. There’s just a mood, a really familiar mood. And they act within that mood.
How do you think you have changed? Personality, values?
There are a lot of people from different countries here. In my neighborhood in Korea, there were no foreigners. If I went to school, if I went anywhere, it was 100% Korean. And I didn’t experience anything like that until I was 25, until I moved here. Now I see that people from all backgrounds have a quality and value to them, and that they all have their own beautiful histories, and I have a certain trust in everyone, but I didn’t learn that until after some time living here. I need to study more, and study all of their histories more, *laughing* and become more united, and communicate more. And to communicate better, I have to study more, think more, meditate more. I can’t change other people, so I have to change myself. I have to get smarter, get a wider perspective, and make decisions the right way. That’s the only thing we can do- blaming others has no use. What was the question? *laughing*
So what do you like about the US? Politically and socially? Anything?
What has really shocked me, is what has been really fixed in my head, just from growing up. Especially with gay people. I just couldn’t accept that for a very long time. But now in the US, it’s legal. That was a shock to me. But if I look at it in another way, it’s so much better. It has opened up so many things; people’s minds, people’s identities, etc. Now less people live outside of society, and law accepts gay people and couples. Now they can really choose who they want to be. Honestly, I was kind of worried. “Wouldn’t this confuse people more? Or confuse little kids?” But no, that’s wrong. We should be able to choose whatever we want, this is better, I thought. But in Korea, that’s still not accepted, and people have to live in the shadows. So that is one thing I really like about America. And, my mother is very sick, so she receives a lot of help from the government. When she fell, the ambulance was called and MediCare protected her. She was so scared. But they have a system, and they helped her. We are so thankful for that. In Korea, we don’t get covered to that extent. I feel very thankful. I am grateful to this community and country. But after this election, I was left wondering, does this country, really on the inside, feel how Trump feels? They don’t care about immigrants, they care about companies. I really wish we could live in harmony together, but instead we blame each other. I was really shocked. The only thing we can do, is organize more, and make a stronger people. It’s a very interesting time.