Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US. Article photo by Duy Pham.
When I was fifteen, I had a short-lived underground business airbrushing clothes for twenty bucks a pop. I’d painted the back of my cropped jean jacket and my city friends lined up for an array of adornments. I could hardly keep up with the orders. Supplies weren’t cheap, so I took the cash. From decorative lettering to crude cartoons, I was your girl.
My adoptive family had a second house in Maine, so things came to a halt at the start of summer. Unsurprisingly, airbrushed street-wear hadn’t hit that very White coastal town consisting mostly of seasonal businesses and fishermen. That didn’t stop me from expressing myself. Once I’d accepted that everywhere I went, there’d be stares, I found freedom in it. I knew I’d stand out anyway, so I wore what I pleased. Well before words written on the seat of pants somehow became a thing, I airbrushed “Made in Korea” on the ass of my jeans and wore them with pride.
Call it a declaration. It said, I know I look different from you, and I’m not ashamed.
It removed the need for strangers to ask their favorite question. If they did, they’d get the answer as I walked away. It provided a sense of control, showing the world that I was prepared for their Othering curiosity that forced me to share so much personal information at any given moment.
I’m from the Boston suburbs . . . Well, I was born in Korea . . . My family’s waiting outside . . . We don’t look alike because I was adopted . . . No, I don’t know what happened to my “real” family . . . Lucky? Um . . . Can I just get a soda and a slice, please?
Those jeans were my cheeky bypass—and the start of my racial identity journey.
I’ve heard of adoptees of color raised in White families who don’t realize they’re not White till they’re older. I wasn’t one of them. I always understood I was Asian, but needed time to accept it. I lacked Korean elders that might’ve recited stories to fill me with pride. There were no photographs of my ancestors displayed on the shelves. The White folks around me either made a big deal of my race or pretended that they didn’t notice. It took a lot to become the kid brave enough to wear those jeans; to declare I wouldn’t carry on as if we don’t see what’s different and that it doesn’t matter.
Here we are, many years later, seeing just how much it matters. Some like to pretend light-skinned East Asians are The Other White Meat, and we’re supposed to happily act out the facade. In truth, Asians in the West have little political power, the greatest income gap, and have always been targets for under-reported social violence. Now that increased attacks have hit the headlines, it’s harder to deny that as soon as there’s a good enough excuse for anti-Asianness to come out, it does. COVID-19 has provided a big one. I had to stop reading the daily accounts for the sake of my mental health. The verbal abuse is upsetting, but the physical violence is outright obscene.
I’ve been heartened to see support from communities outside of our own—especially those whose people are inflicting the harm. On the flipside, the fractured solidarity within our community is hard to bear. Some rush to denounce China. Some chime in to blame it on “gross” and “unsanitary” Asian food practices. I even saw a list of How to Be Asian and Not Get Attacked—because, apparently, it’s halmoni’s fault for not speaking in a cheery regional accent, and appearing frail. It’s the toddler’s fault for not proving his Americanness before getting stabbed. While many of us are joining forces, some of our own people are exercising internalized racism and prescribing assimilation. Respectability politics have never worked out well for us or other BIPOC. Acting White or more “American” won’t save us, and we shouldn’t need to prove anything to exist safely in our own skin.
I won’t pretend I’ve never bit my tongue and went with the flow to survive. It’s what I was taught as a Super Minority in a large, White family and town. Sometimes the instinct and need feels real. Additionally, adoptees are raised to assimilate, and inter-country transracial adoptees are often expected to turn our backs on our language and culture.
As an adopted Korean American child, I’d get upset when people assumed I was Chinese. I never believed there was anything wrong with China. The offense was the taunting; the ignorance and instinct to reduce who we are and our diverse cultures to monolithic stereotypes. There’s a sour taste when folks swear they know you, and they haven’t begun to see you. Stomachs become queasy when you’re minding your business and someone shares their racist opinions—and you’re expected to smile and be flattered by their interest.
As an adult, it’s sad to see products like these circulating in response to the violence:
While the sentiment resonates with my juvenile need to resist ethnic erasure, it throws the Chinese under the bus as we theoretically run off unscathed. Racists don’t care what “kind” of Asian we are. We’re delusional if we think anti-Asianness stops at sinophobia, or that being anti-China makes us woke. When some aren’t safe, none are safe.
If you’re anxious, sad, angry, or scared about the increased attacks, your feelings are valid. I’m all of those things at various times of the day. But let’s not have our fears cause us to internalize the toxicity. Pandering to bullies never wins respect; neither theirs, nor ours. Instead, we can travel in pairs, be aware of our surroundings, and have a plan for when we sense danger. I’m not built for battle, but I’ll use my voice and do what I can. If I see you in trouble, I won’t walk away like it’s not my business. I’ve been in that situation and will never forget how alone and insignificant it left me feeling.
To those just waking up to the harsh reality of anti-Asianness, I welcome you to the fight. One of White supremacy’s tactics is triangulation, keeping us busy warring within. It’s afraid of BIPOC’s combined power. The best we can do is unite, stand up, and speak out—not just now, but always. Ethnicities aside, the “kind” of Asian we should be is Anti-racist. Maybe we’ll come out of this knowing and loving ourselves and each other more deeply, and further aligned with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Hispanic communities.
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