The history of America goes: my mother hands to me a rape whistle when I’m nine. The whistle is small and silver and cold against my skin, and I am able to close my hand around it into a fist. I blow into the mouthpiece, questioningly, and a shrill noise rings out. The whistle’s noise is more immense than its shape.
“There are big, bad men in this world,” Mother says to me. By the world, she doesn’t only mean America. I’ve been living in a small county in Georgia for the past few years, and America is not the only country I am taught to be afraid of. “조심해.” Be careful.
Every word she says is in Corean* and in fear. I understand her language, but I can’t truly understand her. Throughout the next few years, there are times when I blow air through the whistle — not because I ever understand my mother, but because I enjoy the tinned violence of its sound. Each time with my small mouth, I play the whistle, that’s what it is to me — simply playing. Eventually, I lose the whistle, but by then I am at an age where I realize that no noise, no matter how big or alarming, could have saved me from what had already hurt Mother.
The Asian woman is quiet and deviant; small feet and glossy hair, with an apple of color to fill out willing lips. Her tongue, a tiny fish pickled in her mouth, flicks only for pleasure. She cleans and fucks and rears mixed children, performing her role as the devoted house labor fantasy who love you long time. Military bride / prostitute / anime babe / K-pop star. Yellow booty from one of the wars that the white man began, then forgot about. I look at her, and see a parody of my mother. My mother looks at her, and sees a parody of me. Mother understands English through a shuttered prism of Corean pidgin, and still she’s aware of how we are looked at in this country.
I am twenty when Mother lifts my curfew of 4PM. Before then, I was trapped behind the windows of our apartment, too terrified of the incoming night to even step out for a walk. I’ve never had alcohol or socialized much, and once Mother cried when I came home with a tongue piercing. The barbell poked against the roof of my mouth as I listened to her wails.
“You’ll never have a job,” she told me. “You’ll be seen as a dirty woman. You’ll be seen in shame.”
In a time long before I pierced my tongue, Mother had always been a storyteller and a prophet. At thirteen, when I emerged from my room, glorious with an exposed midriff and bare shoulders, she spun high above my head a tale of a half-naked woman who men on buses would spit on. At seventeen, when I asked her if I should be having sex, she predicted skin-eating STDs and abortions and a baby-daddy who would abandon me for prettier women. Never be alone with a man. Never speak too loudly. Move softly, as if the body is a whisper.
“It’s my life,” I would always tell her. “Don’t force the shape of mine into yours.”
“It’s not just your life,” she would always say back. “Your life is never your own.”
Mother describes me as someone who has to live a difficult life. I don’t know who I am when I’m not disturbed. She doesn’t understand why I want the things I want, and thinks my wants will kill me one day. At twenty-one, I told her, “I am transsexual.”
I can’t write about her face or the way her mouth moved; the thin of her breath or weak throb of her heart. Fingers through her hair, and air displaced deep from her throat. A thousand small movements I witness a woman flicker through, and my chest is too tight. I cannot write truly about what my mother said in response.
Even to this day, I am still a woman to her.
The history of America goes: I’m sitting in the waiting room of a chiropractor’s office, and the white receptionist says that Asian men beat their women. She is in conversation with the chiropractor’s other client, who is also white. The chiropractor herself is a Vietnamese woman.
“Asian men are so cruel, and the women never fight back,” she continues. The receptionist’s voice discusses domestic violence as an inherent gook trait. I’m perched in front of her on a polyester chair, in an office owned by an Asian woman, and the white receptionist diagnoses both me and her employer as “never fighting back”. I look carefully at her. She doesn’t stop talking. A white man once almost strangled me to death, and she doesn’t stop talking. A white man once molested me as a child, and she doesn’t stop talking.
Mother tells me that her post-birth body is skin that I discarded after slipping out from her womb, and all that’s left of her is an empty shape and remembrance of pain. Not only did I take with me her strength and her blood, but also memories of a violence that she doesn’t want to understand. All she knows is that not only did the white man hurt her but also the Asian man is similarly complicit. She has stories of men with various shades of skin rubbing and pinching at her, with greedy hands that aren’t satisfied unless her bones are whittled into chairs. She doesn’t tell me to be angry at white people or men or even America itself; she tells me to fear the entire world, because the world she knows is what created the story of the beaten Asian woman.
“My father once laid flat on my arm a knife,” Mother confesses to me.
“My father once kicked me in the stomach,” Mother confesses to me.
My grandfather once tried to kill my grandmother. A Corean man once tried to kill a Corean woman. It’s a Corean man who sold the Corean woman as a sex slave to the Japanese man, and it’s a Corean man who continued to buy the Corean woman from Japanese brothels repurposed by the American military as cheap sex dispensaries.
What’s forgotten is that an Asian woman cannot just be Asian, nor can she just be a woman. The Asian woman must pay unto colonialism with her body for her sin of being made into a woman who is Asian. The Asian man cannot save my mother — not because he is a man who is Asian, but because he is who patriarchy picked out to jail-guard his wife and mother and sisters. The Asian man is sometimes who kicks me down the hardest when he doesn’t understand the transsexual body I hide under my clothes.
The colonized man may not enact the exact violence that a white man is capable of, but he is given the chance to replicate and continue it — and the fear is not knowing if he will take it or not. I cannot point at anyone and claim innocence nor viciousness. The Asian man too is kicked down by the white man. He is not a monster, but he must understand that the Asian woman is still gendered into a woman and he is still gendered into a man. Being a woman and Asian means that you are to be consumed. Being a man and Asian means that you are Asian. Being a woman and white; being a man and white — both are allowed to be a woman and a man, at the expense of the indigenous whose lands they stole; the slaves whose bodies they stole; the Asians whose labor they stole.
Mother can’t tell me that my pain is mine alone, because she doesn’t believe this. She owns very few things and loves even fewer; she cannot afford to lose what little she loves. Her trauma is my trauma is her trauma. My life is hers, and her life is mine. When I am hurt, it is not any country or man who she blames but herself. Mother keeps her head down for the sake of her child who isn’t a woman but is hurt like one. I keep my head up and wish I didn’t. I see too much that I don’t want to talk about.
The history of America goes: I cannot afford to be special or different. I cannot afford to be an individual. I am not white, and every incarnation of me is tied to a deeply echoing subjection of every body that stands still in stark contrast. What a white body can freely act out and perform, I cannot replicate without consequence. The navigation of my world is a pantomiming of quietness and respectability; grit teeth to stay safe, and still violated for my troubles. I am not revealing to my parents that I am undergoing hormone treatments — not because they do not understand me but because I understand them. The immigrants did not invent hatred, and America will never save me from it. I do not care about a freedom offered by a stolen land sculptured from slavery and genocide. This is not my country, and I do not want to have this country.
I reject being American.
The future for my mother:
Only a Corean woman with hope would hitch her chima and deliver a child onto soil that isn’t kind to her. She is correct: I am not my own life nor body. One afternoon, Mother and I were sitting on the floor of the kitchen. The sun hung low and swollen in the sky. She was bent over a large bowl of napa cabbage and massaging her own home-made seasoning into the leaves. I watched as she grunted and pressed down harder into the bowl. Between the two of our quiet, yellow bodies sitting on the floor, for a moment, the world was cast in a soft, warm gold and scented with garlic. This was a future. The world was so, so golden.
*For historical and political purposes, the writer will spell “Korea” with a “C”. More information here.