Becoming Asian: My Immigrant Identity in the Age of Trump
I remember my naturalization day. I was just 5-years-old, and I did not understand the significance of the moment. Rather, the momentousness wholly resided in the special cookie my mom got me to celebrate, a treat the size of my face and covered with frosting. I needed two hands to hold it. As a child, I could not predict how that piece of paper would validate my access to resources and invariably shape my life.
Now, as an adult, I’m struck with understanding. I was born in South Korea. I am an immigrant. I am Korean-American. I am a hyphenated-American. I am forever dissected and reapportioned by forces outside of my control: perilous-docile, alluring-repulsive, outsider-insider, immigrant-citizen.
Just a few months ago, I asked my mother in Michigan to send me my naturalization papers. Just in case. I am nearing my 41st birthday, and I have been in the U.S. for 40 years; never before has this been a concern. I am no historian, but I know enough of history to worry.
Ironically, until this year, until this past election cycle and the subsequent administration, I did not identify as an immigrant, though my entire life I’ve heard the classic lines hurled from the mouths of the ignorant: “Where are you from?” “Go back to where you come from.” “You speak such good English for an Oriental.”
Perhaps it is because my adoptive parents are working-class, white, middle-Americans that I did not identify as an immigrant. I was just six-months old when I was adopted and had no memories of life in South Korea. I didn’t grow up in the context of immigration: learning a new language to survive, to attain work for healthcare, food, and housing; the tension between preserving old ways while adopting the new; parents helping children navigate an unfair world with hope while being humiliated by a society that promises freedom — if only you look the right way.
Perhaps it is because, as a brown child growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit, I rejected the identity of immigrant. The boy who sat in front of me in math class turned around every single day to insult me, teaching me words like chink and gook, instructing me on the difference and which one, technically, applied to me, how white people tried to kill gooks like me in war, how much he hated me. I so badly wanted to fit in, to blend into the commonality and be a regular, normal person like everyone else — or at least to be separated out from the throng for qualities other than the shape of my eyes, the composition of my hair and tone of my skin. Me, an immigrant? Nah. I’m just like you, nice white people. Aren’t I? Can’t I be?
Of course, there must have been other immigrants in my city, but in my isolation, I only knew a handful at best. I remember an elderly trio from Malta who went to my church, a woman with her sister and her husband, big-hearted, stout and round, old folks who made amazing pastries that I’d eat until I got sick. I remember a man from Mexico, my mom’s good friend with whom she played music for their prayer group, who would sing songs in Spanish and try to teach me the words.
Then, when I was in middle school, a family from China moved in across the street — and I wanted nothing to do with them. In my mind, they were the real Asian Others that people saw me as, despite how far from them I was. Sometimes, I babysat for their young daughter. I cringed at feeding her dinner. Fish heads in plastic bags kept me from digging around in their refrigerator for her snacks, and their house smelled so strongly of their cooking that passersby inhaled the pungent scents of foreign foods while simply walking their dogs by their house in the evening. They wore socks with sandals, sweatpants with blouses. They were the real immigrants — not me. I talked about these people with no one, for fear of guilt by association. This is classic internalized racism, a textbook example.
When the child went to sleep at night, and I waited on the couch for her parents to come home, I poured over stacks of beauty periodicals from China. Advertisements for women’s products covered cheap newsprint pages. What I remember the most — beautiful Chinese women. This was the 80s. I had never seen Asian models before. The only Asian in the media was Connie Chung. I cannot count how many times people told me, when I was just a small girl, that I looked just like her.
So, when in eighth grade, a friend made me a copy of Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy, a cassette with a photocopy of the real cover that he cut to fit the case, I played it over and over again, flipping the tape and playing the second side, and then flipping it again and again. Here were people who spoke boldly about racism and fought back with the power of art: words, music, dance, and style. “Revolutionary Generation” — a song that intersected race and gender politics — became my favorite song. I wrote down all the words in a notebook and memorized it. Hip hop helped me understand what it meant to be racialized, to be oppressed, to be socially constructed, to fight back, and I attached my identity to black politics. With hip hop, I wasn’t so alone.
I was nearly 20-years-old and a community college drop-out when I got a job as a barista in a coffee shop in East Lansing, the home of Michigan State University. It was one of the only cafes in town that allowed smoking, so English majors spent hours there drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and reading books. They were cool and smart and interesting and funny. They talked about books and specific authors, theories about the nature of power, political economies, and capitalist bullshit. To them, reading was a political act. I didn’t care about books until then, and I only began to care because I cared about feeling stupid. (I have few memories of reading as a child, or being read to. Who would want to sit inside the house for hours alone when life was lonely enough as it was?)
And so I started reading, and I couldn’t stop. I re-enrolled in community college and took English classes from an instructor who changed my life with her hilarious dry wit and calm passion. She found out I was interested in black politics, and she introduced me to Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison. When my English major friends were taking courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer, delving into Blake and swooning over the Brontes, I read W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. I was surrounded by white people. They were good, interesting and interested people. They appreciated “minority” literatures, but as extras — outside the canon.
I just finished my seventh-year teaching at a community college (my 16th teaching in general) where I am an English teacher in a program with many students of color, many African Americans, a community to which I deeply relate. Before the community college, I coordinated a first-year writing program at a historically black university, where I felt more at home racially than any other institution to which I’ve belonged. Ever. Moving to an HBCU after the PWI where I went to grad school felt like crawling into a warm bed, under a warm blanket in the middle of cold winter; finally, I could settle down, relax, and take rest. Sure, I was Asian American, but surrounded by all black students, I ironically, finally felt at home in my skin.
Once, waiting for class to start, one of my particularly fashionable, always-put-together students asked:
“Ms. Beth — do you flat iron your hair every day?!”
The other students burst into laughter. “She’s Asian! She just has straight hair!”
The student threw her hand over her mouth, as if to stuff the words back in. “Oh my God! I forgot!”
This is not to give evidence to so-called “color-blindness” but to say that my familiarity with black culture, history, literature, and oppression — over my own Asian American identity — has dominated my life until recently. Growing up isolated the Midwest, I was often the only Asian American, and my racial identity, for the broad entirety of my life, has been more aligned with black politics than Asian American politics.
If there is one positive thing that has come out of the current administration’s anti-immigrant position, it is my strengthened connection to my own immigrant status and subsequently my own Asian American identity. I am a person of South Korean lineage. The energetic connection to my ancestry echoes in my physical body, a body which has been literally embedded into two generations of other women’s bodies: I was an egg in my mother’s body when she was still in utero in my maternal grandmother’s body, as human female babies are born with all the egg cells they will ever have.
In the same way I learned about identity politics through reading African American literature, I am now exploring my Asian American identity. This past February was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which sent over 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. To learn more about the tragedy, I read Lisa See’s novel China Dolls set in the San Francisco Chinese American nightclubs scene and about racism against Chinese and Japanese Americans during the 30s and 40s. One of the characters is interned.
This spring, I helped plan and coordinate the third annual Asian Pacific American Writers Series at the PCC southeast campus in Portland’s Jade District, an event two of my non-Asian PCC colleagues started because they are incredible allies to POC and especially committed to their students, many who are Asian American. They wanted to showcase the work of a marginalized group of writers, reach a community who may never attend a literary reading otherwise, and provide a point of access to an important literary tradition. This year, we brought in the brilliant poet, thinker, critic, educator, and artist Kenji C. Liu.
Being a part of organizing this year’s event was personal for me. Literature has immense power. Of course I’ve read some Asian American literature and dabbled in API politics, but not with the ferocity that I’d jumped into black politics and literature. Until now.
It is in the light of my own post-election identity exploration that Kenji Liu’s work changed me, in his capacity to articulate the complexities of modern identities in the hard-earned, yet magical way literature can change us. His book Map of an Onion deeply affected me as an Asian American immigrant — to see my experience reflected in art. In the forward to Liu’s book, Timothy Yu writes of Liu’s “Poetry of Interruption”:
“Birth certificates, passports, citizenship papers: these are the documents that define our official identities, that make us legible to the apparatus of the state. For Asian Americans, such documents are often central to our family narratives, marking a history of migration, departure and arrival, rejection and belonging. Yet we are also well aware of what such official documents erase, enforce, or repress. Our ‘arrival’ as Americans marked by a naturalization certificate may be predicated upon the erasure, willed or not, of our histories and even our names, as well as the exclusion of others — including our own ancestors. And no document can protect Asian Americans from the presumption that we do not belong in a nation that continues to equate Americanness with whiteness…”
As writers, we create our own documents. We write our own narratives and define our own identities, and in telling our stories, we refuse to “equate Americanness with whiteness.” We are here, and we are shaping the world around us through our physical presence, through our actions, and through our writing.
I’ve built my summer reading list, and my stack of books keeps growing: novels, books on transnational adoption, Asian American Studies readers, and anthologies of Asian American literature that have collected dust on my shelves since my undergrad years. The thrill of these books makes my heart beat harder, just imagining all I will learn from all these brave writers who have dared to put themselves on the page, who have dared to have something to say. My dear fellow API writers, make your mark upon the pages of my life. I am ready.