i learned to sit comfortably with solitude, and be present in the lives of others insofar as i can extend their happiness and my own, rather than demanding others’ energies for my own fulfillment and security. also, to cut out the poison that saps my energies.
I am limited in my ability to speak on how racist stereotypes affect the queer Asian American community. This article is specifically addressed to straight Asian American men. By: esther choi
Recently, a violently anti-Asian, sexist and all-around stupid music video titled “Asian Girlz” sparked widespread outrage, mobilizing people into action to remove the video from YouTube and hold the members of the band, Day Above Ground, accountable. It was the transnational feminist organization, AF3IRM, who initiated a swift response and mobilized protest on various fronts, which led to the band losing gigs and sponsorship. Levy Tran, the Asian American woman featured in the video, apologized and took responsibility for her mistake, even signing AF3IRM’s petition to take down the video, while the band that actually created the content has yet to apologize and has, instead, made another terrible song about how oppressed they are as white men because they can’t make terrible, racist songs in peace. This interruption of racist violence was only one example of the powerful vigilance and solidarity of Asian American women against issues of hypersexualization and objectification that damage our lives.
On the other side of the hypersexualization of Asian women is the total emasculation of Asian men, while both Asian men and women are sexually deviant and threatening. The ongoing prevalence of these images are due to a long history of colonization and imperialism in Asia. Images of the impotent or rapacious Asian male and exploitable Asian female were central to the logic of war and the construct of US military-issued masculinity, and these imperialistic stereotypes of Asians have become deeply rooted in the everyday consciousness of the Western world.
(Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotypes_of_East_Asians_in_the_United_States)
Behind the fetishization of Asian women is the repetition of colonial narratives that are meant to inflict violence upon Asian people as a whole. While the fetishization of Asians most violently impacts women’s lives, it is an oppression that also involves degrading Asian male identity as well. White men who fetishize Asian women, brilliantly documented by the blog, Creepy White Guys, seem just as concerned with representing Asian men as their foil, one that they can use to emphasize their superior masculinity, and even reflect themselves as humane saviors of women whenever convenient. Following this narrative, Asian women are the sexual objects to be conquered and obtained by more worthy owners.
While Asian men should speak out when it comes to racist and sexist incidents like the Asian Girlz video because their identities are affected as well, the way straight Asian men have most vocally chosen to approach the fetishization of Asian women has been in a manner that further marginalizes and oppresses Asian women.
Straight Asian males often respond to racism affecting Asian women’s bodies and sexualities as proxies for their own issues. In response to the emasculation of Asian men implied by the fetishization of Asian women, the solution appears to be to reclaim what seems to have been taken from them—power over women, especially Asian women—and this usually involves attacking Asian women for their decisions regarding their sex lives.
But the oppression of Asian men is not created by the decisions of Asian women. It is created by a white supremacist system that is very much designed to make them feel impotent. Asian women are human beings like anyone else—we are different, we are subjective, and we make choices. Systemically, these choices are influenced by the white supremacist society in which we live, and the ultimate power of white supremacy is how it gets people to participate in their own oppression. But ultimately, it is NEVER appropriate to criticize Asian women’s choices in response to incidents in which they are being objectified, abused, raped and ridiculed based on colonial legacies. Unraveling white supremacy does not begin with policing women’s dating decisions—ever. Our bodies are not places to realize colonial fantasies, but they are also not currency to be invested in the Asian American cause.
The anxieties of straight Asian men are expressed in various forms, at various levels of awareness— from outright sexist, slut-shaming rants, calling us bitches, whores and traitors, to patronizing efforts to mansplain our own oppression to us.
In response to the Asian Girlz video, popular Korean American comedian David So explicitly states that he is more concerned with Levy Tran’s choice to be in the video than the actions of white dudes, whose racist behavior he can expect. In his efforts to respond to anti-Asian racism, he launches into an extremely misogynistic attack against Levy Tran that further demeans and sexualizes her, and goes so far as to criticize her for participating in sexism while calling her a bitch in the same breath.
A related issue of great concern in the Asian blogosphere is that of Asian women dating white men. Both Asian American men and women have approached this issue by bemoaning the high level of “out-marriage” of Asian American women. However, considering Asians make up about 5% of the US population, this simply means that a lot of Asian women are choosing to find their partner from a pool of 95% of the population rather than 5%. When you put it that way, is it at all reasonable to conclude that Asian American women are doing something wrong?
Jenn from Reappropriate explains, “Back in the day, the issue of Asian female outmarriage was a seething undercurrent of the Asian American blogosphere (not that it doesn’t remain a hot-button issue these days, but nothing like 8-10 years ago). During this time, Asian women at-large were being typecast from within the community as being racist sellouts based primarily on the phenomenon of Asian American outmarriage. We were treated, as a whole, as folks who had internalized anti-Asian stereotypes of Asian masculinity, and this served as a real obstacle for female political participation in the online Asian American community. Gigabytes of digital type were dedicated to arguing that (all) Asian American women suffer internalized self-hate leading them to date White men, and this was why Asian American men should be suspicious of any Asian American woman’s involvement in APA political activism and community organizing. Unlike Asian American men, politically engaged Asian American women had to defend our ‘down-ness’ with the Asian American cause in reference to the race of our significant others.”
Whatever the case, it is never right, especially in a social justice context, to condemn people’s personal decisions simply by categorizing them in a “problematic” trend. Love and relationships are one of the most complicated and uncontrollable things about our lives, and no one would ever want this significant part of their existence to be vilified by a larger social phenomenon.
Due to this obsessive focus on Asian women’s relationships, we not only have to look out for the countless ways in which we are exploited, but we also have to defend against constant judgment about being the passive victims of Asian fetish or internalized racists whenever we simply interact with a white male, and alter our behavior accordingly. Whenever I am perceived as “with” a white man, even if it’s just my friend, I feel how the public gaze violently erases my agency, my power, my personality, due simply to how my Asian face is perceived in that dynamic.
It is important to note that the most gendered thing about the Asian American community is the different ways we must interact with racism. This points to the damning truth that racism actually creates much of the sexism in Asian American communities and other communities of color.
Other than the specific ways our community must deal with stereotypes, sexism in the Asian American community is as American as apple pie (and racism!) Our community suffers from the same old “nice guy” narratives and “friend-zone” complaints asserting entitlement to women’s bodies, the same old slutshaming and rampant objectification of women by some of the biggest Asian American male media personalities, such as David So, KevJumba, and Timothy de la Ghetto. The extra flair lies in how palpably their struggles with emasculation seem to inform their work.
But Asian men, American patriarchy is not a system in which you are meant to survive. The American brand of sexism is built not only on the dehumanization of women but on the vilification of men of color. In light of US imperialist wars in Asia in recent history, Asian faces became the direct Other against which American men were to construct their sense of masculinity. Imperialism gave white men the ultimate power to dehumanize women in this world, and all things that are “feminized,” including Asian men.
You won’t liberate yourselves as Asian men or reclaim your power by supporting American constructs of masculinity, or being the exception to the rule. The racist stereotypes that try to emasculate you never had anything to do with your actual behavior or your value as a man, and the stereotypes will hold no matter how often you defy them. Liberation begins by questioning and destroying the system that so violently excludes and dehumanizes you.
If you want to raise your voices in conversations about issues that are most violent and debilitating to Asian women, challenge yourself to do the following:
1. Raise women’s voices. The conversation on the issues affecting Asian American women are being led by Asian American women in insightful, challenging ways. Here here and here are some more examples. We are neither helpless nor in need of male supervision. Our struggle against our own oppression as Asian women helps break down white supremacy and weakens its hold on every part of our lives, including our relationships, more than lectures from Asian men ever will. Supporting women’s voices on these issues breaks down the racist, sexist, homophobic stereotypes that oppress us all.
2. Respect our struggle. While the exotification of Asian women is built on a history that has hurt our people as a whole, it is a daily reality and struggle for Asian women in a way that it is not for you as Asian men. Being imagined as sexual property is a central aspect of Asian women’s oppression, and when you voice your concerns over how Asian women use their bodies, under the guise of concerns over racism, or when your main concern is that we are having sex with people other than you, you perpetuate the violence against us and weaken the fight against racism.
When I challenged an Asian American male musician, who has often performed at Asian American student events, on his unsolicited advice to Asian women about how we should react to objectification and enter into interracial relationships, including his ridiculous announcement to “never forget that the world objectifies you as a woman” (newsflash: our lives are daily reminders of that fact), he dismissed my concerns as “silly” and, in grand rhetorical flourish, asked: should asian men/brothers never advise their daughters/sisters? He seemed wholly unaware of the fact that he had just epitomized patriarchal thinking. Get this through your head, you are not our fathers. And if you want to claim to be our brothers in some kind of racial solidarity, it should never, ever be in the form of directing us on how to express our sexuality or interpret our oppression.
3. Identify with women. Question why being feminized seems to be the ultimate form of degradation for men. The fact that you have been imagined on the opposite end of American masculinity does not mean that your oppression will be overcome by attacking femininity or queerness in order to inch closer to the other side.
4. Do not use Asian women’s oppression as proxies for your own. Do not mask your anxieties over your masculinity in diatribes against Asian women. Instead, speak out on how racism affects you as an Asian male—how the whole construct of American masculinity has exploited you.
5. Remember intersectionality. When it comes to sexism, it is an issue that women of color cannot separate from race. When you approach issues of race in a sexist way, you shut off our ability to work with you. You need to listen when women call out your sexism instead of being defensive and trying desperately to justify your oppressive thinking.
I write this with a love for my Asian American community. As a group whose stereotypes have been so highly sexualized in nature, the interactions between Asian men and women are inevitably impacted by these traumatic forces in our lives, and I think we need to have love and patience for the many ways that this manifests in our community.
At the end of the day, Asian women will continue to fight like badasses against the multi-layered issues of our hypersexualization and objectification and empower our community as a whole in the process. The question is, will you support us?
the number of her prison sentence fully hit me just now. TWENTY YEARS.
Originally posted on INCITE! Blog:
INCITE! SUPPORTS THE CALL TO FREE MARISSA ALEXANDER!
- Because we support black women’s right to self defense and support the call for freedom of Patreese Johnson, the last incarcerated member of the New Jersey 7, and CeCe McDonald in Minneapolis, MN,
- and because we condemn the FBI’s continued and escalated pursuit of Assata Shakur,
- and because domestic violence survivors of color have been targets of law enforcement violence through lack of protection, mandatory arrest policies, and physical violence,
i’ve been in korea for almost 9 months now. the first month was mostly traveling around korea visiting family members all throughout the country. the second month i spent in jeju, living with my aunt and uncle in a village called jeoji, and visiting the anti-military-base activists in gangjeong. the third month, i briefly came back to seoul and then was off for a month-long trip to thailand, cambodia, and vietnam.
since i got back from my trip, i’ve been living in seoul. i got my own apartment in hongdae, a cool, artsy neighborhood of seoul where the streets overflow with cafes and drunk people by night, every night… the nightlife is like nothing i’ve ever seen anywhere else. my time here has ranged from interesting to dull, frustrating to inspiring. it can be very isolating at times, considering i can count the number of friends i have on one hand, and my acquaintances here on two, but in a way that has helped me to develop a new capacity for peace and happiness in solitude. other times, i feel enveloped by the warmth of new relationships, new forms of love, mainly the bonds i’ve cultivated with family members here. sometimes i feel like i’m not doing much beyond existing, and it is often challenging to renegotiate my existence, now that i am so removed from a defined community. all in all, i know my time here is invaluable and will inform the rest of my life in beautiful, necessary ways.
i feel like, as a korean american, i existed in american society with all these random hooks, extensions, nodules attached to me, which seemed to have no purpose but to get in the way… since i’ve been here, it’s like my experiences are hooking onto all those parts of me, giving them use and meaning. i begin to understand how much of me belongs to another history and heritage, deeper than i can hold, that shapes the way i interact with the world, the way i talk, socialize, process information, empathize and express emotion…
it feels like there was always this pool of liquid, my “koreanness” as opposed to my “korean-americanness”, that was right beside mine, separated by a thin membrane, and as i poke holes in that membrane, the two mix so effortlessly, changing what i know/knew of myself, and helping me realize how much was already mixed up all along.
as i learn more korean language, every little bit that i learn unleashes a trove of language that i already possessed, brings forth all that vague knowledge that had entrenched itself in the nooks and crannies of my brain and filters it into something useful and distinct, expanding my ability to communicate here exponentially. i realize expressing myself in english has always felt like such an effort, even though it is my primary language, as if i have to carefully construct everything, and i can often express myself more naturally and directly in korean, especially when it comes to the rawest things i feel. i guess it makes sense since it’s the language that first taught me love.
everything about my life is nuanced by my time here. sometimes in ways that make me feel incredibly proud or validated, other times in ways that bring me back to sources of trauma, and force me to confront my heritage beyond my idealizations of it, the security blanket version i have used to protect the marginalized parts of my identity.
i spend a lot of time thinking about the rampant capitalism/imperialism/westernization/militarism/cultural erasure, etc. going on here, how they are so much the same force. i feel the weight of the title of my favorite book, “the inheritance of loss”, and it eats at me and will continue to do so until i can resist it in an effective way.
so this is something of a scattered update. sorry there is nothing very specific. somehow the process of writing about literal things and recounting day-to-day events makes my brain hurt… some kind of negative conditioning related to homework.
til next time
“you see the color the hue the same you see the shape the form the same you see the unchangeable and the unchanged the same you smell the filtered edited through progress and westernization the same you see the numerals and innumerables bonding overlaid the same, speech, the same. you see the will, you see the breath, you see the out of breath and out of will but you still see the will. will and will only espouse this land this sky this time this people. you are one same particle. you leave you come back to the shell left empty all this time. to claim, to reclaim, the space. into the mouth the wound the entry is reverse and back each organ artery gland pace element, implanted, housed skin upon skin, membrane, vessel, waters, dams, ducts, canals, bridges.”
- theresa hak kyung cha, dictee
two months ago, in seoul, i briefly met an old friend of my dad. he had a kind, tired face, and a rough voice that was true to my dad’s. i found out they had played baseball together on their high school team, which was the first time i ever learned my dad had played baseball. the man said some nice words and gave me a saddened smile before continuing on his way.
it was painful to meet a person who knew my dad when he was around my age, the “appropriate” time to be immature, lost, searching, and dreaming.
i remember when my sister and i were little, my dad would always bring home the most random presents for us, like clay bird figurines in fake birds’ nests, or model cars, and eagerly watch our faces for approval, but we would usually look disappointed. he was the kind of person who would give the customers at his body shop unrealistic discounts because they were his “friends” and buy their kids sodas and all his employees lunch every saturday. his kindness and self-effacing humor made him fast friends, including many who were very liberal with his kindness and were nowhere to be found when things got rough. i remember how he would yell konglish expressions like, “orie! orie!” as he waved cars in and out of his shop, and did it all the more when he realized it made us laugh. i remember how he’d always bring home puppies, even though my mom swore she would leave if we kept them, and we almost always got to keep them. i remember his blue and grey uniforms, his permanently blackened fingertips, and the smells of car oils and fumes that lingered with him when he came home. my mom told me about how when they first moved to the us and were struggling to get by, he bought the homeless man who would stick around the gas station where he worked a rotisserie chicken, of all things, and he would do things like this all the time, worrying my more practical mother. she told me how one time michael jackson stopped by the gas station, which was around hollywood, and it was my dad’s favorite thing to brag about for years afterward, as if it were a sign they had truly made it in america.
i now realize what an amazing feat it was that he came to the US and got a degree, in a language he barely spoke, and worked as a mechanic until he was able to open up his own successful auto body shop. it is perseverance and courage beyond my understanding. he always dreamed of more though, was always thinking of new things he could be. i regret i couldn’t understand his desire to be more than a mechanic, how i saw failure in his decision to venture beyond the stable path he had already made and resented him for it, and how his stifled dreams would lead him to give up on life completely.
after my dad died, i remember there was a lot of crying and people milling through our house at all hours of the day, but i didn’t really experience the mourning in a way i could understand until a few days afterward, when i found a business card my dad had made evidencing his attempt to become a realtor. his face on the card smiling almost painfully, desperately. the start of many attempts at different jobs he would make after becoming unemployed for the first time since his life began in the us, until he would become completely resigned.
he was an absent-minded dreamer like me, but he was given possibilities so much smaller than his soul could fit into. he once spent months and months digging a pond in our backyard, and turned a decaying paint shed into a beautiful cabin opening onto the pond, which he filled with fish and a fountain. that was the happiest i saw him in those years.
but in the end, my dad faced the reality that the “american dream” cashes out on your right to dream, in exchange for your one shot at a decent life, with no second chances. this year hurts the most, to be living in the place where he began to plan for all those possibilities awaiting him on the other side, where he probably imagined something so different from what he would get.
happy birthday appa. you deserved to create and dream and be selfish, to try and fail, and to be valued for all you were.
an edited version of this article was published on racialicious here
When I see articles like Jezebel‘s “I Can’t Stop Looking at These South Korean Women Who’ve Had Plastic Surgery,” which I only found after reading Feministing‘s awesome response, I am immediately reminded of my middle school self: a somewhat obnoxious, insecure Korean American girl who was eager to get a self-righteous thrill by observing how superficial and less enlightened people other than me could be.
Growing up in the Korean American community of LA, it was common to make fun of “fobs” (fresh off the boat), the more recently immigrated, less assimilated, Koreans of our generation, sometimes with love but more often not. Existing in our clearly divided groups but occupying similar spaces, we would make fun of their cutesy antics, superficial looks, plastic surgery craze, and love of k-pop. We may have considered it all in good humor, but ultimately it assured us we were morally superior, a higher art form, closer to the ultimate goal of assimilation. Perhaps we thought that by defining ourselves against the less assimilated, we could stamp out our own sense of foreignness.
When I finally grew up a bit and began challenging my own internalized racism, I began to realize my judgments of South Korean culture were more about my desire to define and raise myself above it rather than any real attempt to understand or better the world. And once I finally started paying attention, I began to be challenged by the depth and power of the Korean side of my bicultural divide, a complicated side of my identity that has the power to both alienate and embrace me.
I am now living in South Korea, the place I was never from but to which my life has always been bound. As I center this society and develop a deeper, more complex and humanizing view of “Korean Koreans,” I have begun to recognize and love our shared soul even more and make the connections between Korean society today and its incredible history of struggle and endurance, which echoes throughout the next generations and across diasporas.
Throughout a country where, not too long ago, there was vast stretches of farmland, there are now concrete jungles of rampant consumerism, endless rows of skyscraper apartments, overpriced chain cafes, and expensive Western and domestic clothing brands. It is the frenzied symptoms of a country, severed from its other half and rapidly swept up into the capitalist world without time to process or redefine after colonization, war, coups and dictatorships, political repression, and resistance, a place where the landscape was wholly transformed before the people could change with it.
Today in South Korea, Western brands are generally much more expensive, and western culture is portrayed as elite. It’s interesting to observe how companies in South Korea use the image of whiteness in their ads to sell capitalist culture to the people, a tactic that profits from the complicated relationship that Korea has with the western world. In the US, the little we are taught about the Korean War leaves us thinking that the US went over to liberate the Koreans. Rather, the US engaged in a proxy war using Korean bodies for their own interests, and twisted things so that they would be welcomed as saviors. There was incredible cruelty and massacre carried out against the Korean people, North and South, under the watch of the US military, and the US continues to maintain its military presence here today (in fact, it can use any of South Korea’s military bases “at will”) and regularly intervenes in South Korea’s economy and politics. I recently spent time with activists in Jeju, who have been protesting since 2007 against the construction of a military base on the small South Korean island. The base is being constructed illegally, without the required permission of Gangjeong village, whose land the base will devastate, according to the needs of the US military, during a time when the US is expanding its imperialistic arm throughout Asia. This problematic history and relationship continues to be a presence in South Korea and contributes to warping the society’s sense of self.
I have begun to understand that many older Korean people who now walk around armored in expensive brands can remember times when they were too poor to eat. I can empathize with their paralyzing fear of looking poor, feelings of shame over humble pasts still fresh. Rags to riches is the national story, a story that has been trumpeted left and right by forces that want to take credit, from Westernization/capitalism to nationalism to Christianity, and despite rising inequality, no one wants to admit they didn’t make it out okay. The obsession with brands and “uniformity” may be seen as a reason to reduce South Korea to a superficial society, but I see the human side of it all.
When you eat with other Koreans, they will always insist you eat more, heaping the best parts of the meal onto your plate instead of helping themselves. Everyone tells me that when the country was poor, people were shy about taking more since there was never enough, so it became built into the culture to insist again and again. It is a central part of social life to share the experience of food, to describe the exact textures and tastes and feelings of different foods while eating, and to make sure everyone around you is eating it in the best way possible. Dishes are still made to be medicinal and nurturing, and despite the entrance of multinational fast food chains and products, foods still center around natural and healthy traditions passed down generation after generation, in contrast to the US where healthy eating has become a highly commodified, classist mess. At the end of a meal, everyone will try to pay for everyone else, because gestures of extreme generosity and taking care of one another are important parts of our culture. I used to feel impatient when my mom would always call to ask about what exactly I had eaten that day, but now understand why our parents still ask us before all else, “Have you eaten?” and tell us that we are good for eating well.
I’ve always been frustrated by the impossibility of translating the Korean language into English. The casual speech of my relatives spills over with such intense feeling and raw authenticity that shatters me, and the playful humor and wit that color everyday interactions are rendered lifeless in translation. Korean language is an indescribably beautiful, deeply idiomatic world, honed over time and lives to capture such an elaborate scope of experiences and interactions that eludes the literal, and so evokes poetry. It is a language meant to be used as a community, to ease and lather at times, and perform ceremony at others. Between friends and family, it expresses things strongly, bluntly, to poke and play, and feign exasperation as a sign of closeness. When used formally, it is graceful and rich in ways of respecting different situations, nuanced in a way that traditional English is always wanting.
As South Korea dives into rapid urbanization and corporatization, it is a place full of contradiction. The language has undergone rapid change as well, now rife with haphazardly adopted English loanwords, to capture the existence of a sudden, new world. Consequently, the changes due to Western influence are almost delineated by the trails of English burned onto the native tongue.
But despite all the change, Korean society holds onto its roots of humanness. It is a place where people’s hearts still bleed with a powerful sense of empathy, a culture that still highly values integrity and respect towards others. Since I arrived, my relatives have shown me how to love big, humbling me daily with their incredible generosity, overworked and hard-pressed as they may be. My aunt told me very matter-of-fact that it’s like my mom is in her body, making sure that I’m okay. It’s the kind of love mixed with pain, a love they cultivated as 9 children of poor farmers, where food and opportunity were spread thin between them, and love was sacrifice and survival.
Looking back, I remember the creases of my silent grandfather’s forehead, his unchanging, solemn expression revealing a life without time for casual smiles and wasted words. I remember how he would surprise us with his warm light and humor for a moment, before returning to his distant world. When I think about him, the Korean immigrant experience in the US, my Korean American friends and our intimate sisterhood, my family and their stories of childhood and the painful history their lives have traversed, my heart splits with a raw sadness for all the truths that are regularly erased by the constant flood of negative representation that would convince us that the Korean story were a superficial and ugly one.
I suspect that my musings on Korea and my Korean American identity may all start to sound sappy in an American context. But what could appropriate emotional expression possibly mean across cultural contexts, in a world where all things “appropriate” have been decided by the dominant segment of the world, which happens to be the part of the world whose identities are not closely tied to loss. Using their framework, surely the rest of the world would look like melodramatic fools. Korean society, including its diasporas, has gone through many different traumas, which we were not given time to understand before quickly being ushered into the role of a lucrative Asian market for global capitalist needs, with the country’s military at the service of American imperialism.
I don’t write to romanticize this country or hide its problems. I know many of its problems very personally, as my identity does not fit into its expectations. I write to speak my truths based on my bicultural lifetime in the Korean American diaspora, and my experience living here now. I write because, as a Korean American, learning to love my Koreanness in an environment so devoid of truths about our experiences has been a revolutionary act.
I am still overwhelmed by the endless dualities of this country and culture and have more questions than answers. But as South Korea rises in international significance, the western world becomes increasingly concerned with representing and defining this country and its people according to its needs, picking apart our “bizarre” or problematic habits, using Orientalist assumptions rather than any real understanding of the context to make their points. That’s why I find it so enraging when the white teacher is featured on NPR’s This American Life as the expert witness on South Korean self-image issues, and Jezebel’s troupe of pseudo-feminists puts South Korea’s “superficiality” on the dissecting table, without ever understanding the depth and complexity of the issues they try to tackle with their limited, Western-centric frameworks.
As Korean society comes up against the dissonance between its lived history and the demands of its present situation, flails through unpredictable world forces bigger than us all, makes its way across broken structures and traditions and through a maze of changing demands, I think it becomes increasingly necessary that Koreans remember the things we love about ourselves. The beautiful parts of our culture and the strength and love of our communities are most often the things that aren’t useful to capitalism or white supremacy, and therefore they are the most quickly erased and forgotten.
this past october, before my mom returned to the us, we went to visit her aunts and uncles in her hometown, seosan. it was on her mind that this might be the last time she would get to see them, since they are elderly and she rarely gets to come back. a few days ago, my grandaunt, pictured here , passed away. in korean, when people die, we say that they “returned.” it is such a beautiful and apt way to express death. rest in peace.
since i’ve been living in korea, moving from place to place, i’ve had limited or no access to new books in english, especially the kinds i’m looking for. the two books i brought with me are gloria anzaldua’s borderlands and audre lorde’s sister outsider, which i had already finished by the time my plane landed, but they have been a constant source of new truths and inspiration.
by now, i’ve read through both of them multiple times, continuously going back to meditate on different parts. both books so profoundly and beautifully explore the questions that i am always contemplating, the frameworks through which i filter my experiences, and have become especially relevant now that i am confronting my history and roots in a new way. even though i experience these questions as a korean american and do not pretend to claim the chicana or black/caribbean american experiences, i feel that the works delve into a place so much deeper than those identifications, rearranging the world itself to make space for their truths. it has been like sitting with a mentor, who knows what you’ve been through and understands how you think, but can always bring out your own thoughts in a way that transforms how you understand them.
this past week, i’ve been studying borderlands like a bible. for some reason, i’ve felt drawn to a different part of it every day, throughout the day. my amazing friend stephanie introduced the book to me, and this is just one of the ways in which many of my friends have really stayed with me throughout this trip. it is a gift beyond words to have kindred spirits out there who are always there, in that place deepest and most formative to who i am, no matter where in the world we might be.
i just wanted to share a few parts, that are only flickers of the light that is anzaldua’s work:
“writing produces anxiety. looking inside myself and my experience, looking at my conflicts, engenders anxiety in me. being a writer feels very much like being a chicana, or being queer–a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. or its opposite: nothing defined or definite, a boundless, floating state of limbo where i kick my heels, brood, percolate, hibernate and wait for something to happen.
living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create. it is like a cactus needle embedded in the flesh. it worries itself deeper and deeper, and i keep aggravating it by poking at it. when it begins to fester i have to do something to put an end to the aggravation and to figure out why i have it. i get deep down into the place where it’s rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument–the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. then out it comes. no more discomfort, no more ambivalence. until another needle pierces the skin. that’s what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.”
“the work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. the answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. a massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.”
“whites, along with a good number of our own people, have cut themselves off from their spiritual roots, and they take our spiritual art objects in an unconscious attempt to get them back. if they’re going to do it, i’d like them to be aware of what they are doing and to go about doing it the right way. let’s all stop importing greek myths and western cartesian split point of view and root ourselves in the mythological soil and soul of this continent. white america has only attended to the body of the earth in order to exploit it, never to succor it or to be nurtured in it. instead of surreptitiously ripping off the vital energy of people of color and putting it to commercial use, whites could allow themselves to share and exchange and learn from us in a respectful way. by taking up curanderismo, Santeria, shamanism, Taoism, Zen, and otherwise delving into the spiritual life and ceremonies of multi-colored people, Anglos would perhaps lose the white sterility they have in their kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, mortuaries and missile bases. Though in the conscious mind, black and dark may be associated with death, evil and destruction, in the subconscious mind and in our dreams, white is associated with disease, death and hopelessness. let us hope that the left hand, that of darkness, of femaleness, of ‘primitiveness,’ can divert the indifferent, right-handed, ‘rational’ suicidal drive that, unchecked, could blow us into acid rain in a fraction of a millisecond.”
“Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.
We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the gods. In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us crazy constantly, but if the center holds, we’ve made some kind of evolutionary step forward.”
sidenote: i have yet to find a korean american woman writer who speaks to me as much as audre lorde, gloria anzaldua, jamaica kincaid, kiran desai, and the list goes on… this is probably from a lack of trying on my part and a lack of exposure for those writers. if anyone has recommendations…