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Daily Archives: January 12th, 2009

I rode a TWA not a UFO

I rode a TWA not a UFO

When my family came to America, we made our home in Atlanta, Ga.  Years later I would ask my parents, “For the love of God why didn’t we stay in Hawaii?”  I grew up in a black and white city where Asians were treated like aliens from another planet.  They knew 3 things about me:  Bruce Lee, Chow Mein and Ching Chong.  I rode public transit to Kindergarten and attended an all black school.  There were two white kids and me.  I had a crush on a little girl who was popular.  She had a big dimple, lots of pretty accessories in her braids and I could stare at her for hours while she sang Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.  I watched the Jackson 5 and I remember dialing the operator to get Michael Jackson’s phone number so my friend and I could tell him how much we loved him.  I wanted to be black.

jackson-5

But I never got used to the name calling and wondered why being “Chinese” was such a bad thing, even though I’m Korean.  I remember a situation at the A&P the first year we were in the states. While I was standing in one of the aisles, a black kid, maybe 9 years old snuck up behind me and said, “Chioneese!”   He yanked my two braids so hard I fell flat on my back.  I remember my dad running after him.  When my dad worked at the Magic Market while attending language school, he di not think twice about chasing a black man down the street who was trying to steal a six pack of beer.  He got shot in the leg during a hold-up and still that didn’t stop him from chasing down these guys…gun or no gun. I wondered if he was still trying to catch that boy at the A&P.

my sister played the chesty nurse in the school Hee Haw play when she was in 7th grade.

My sister played the chesty nurse in the school Hee Haw play when she was in 7th grade.

Despite these negative experiences, I can’t say I held any resentment against black kids because I was hassled by white kids too.  At age six, we moved to Rome Georgia, a rural farming community.  I found myself in a classroom where I was the only non-white student.  The name calling continued but lessened considerably, but kids stared at me all the time.  I remember a little girl in my class reaching out to touch my hair to see if it was real.  There were some Koreans in the community and I had a B.B. gun and became a regular red-neck Korean.  We lived in a trailer and my dad drove a Pinto and with a CB radio.  My handle was “Dancing Queen.”

I think there's just one kind of folks.  Folks.  - Harper Lee

I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks. - Harper Lee

When I saw “To Kill A Mockingbird” and saw the way Scout and her friends had the freedom to run around and explore on their own, it reminds me of growing up in the deep south.  I hunted birds, made forts and talked with a hick accent.  I probably would have ended up pregnant at 16 like some of my neighbors had my parents not decided to move us back to Atlanta when I was 12.  By then, my father had saved up by working as a welder in a nuclear power plant in Surry, Va.  My parents found a nice ranch house in a good school district in an Atlanta suburb.  So in 6th grade I found myself in a classroom full of rich white kids.  The most ethnic groups there were Greek and Jewish students.  The American Dream at last!

Are your grandparents growing rice in your backyard?

Are your grandparents growing rice in your backyard?

I was a stranger in a strange land once again.  Everyone wore Izod shirts and monogramed sweaters.  My sister and I could wear the clothes but still couldn’t get it right.  There was always something that set us apart from the American mainstream.  In Korean culture it is customary to live with your grandparents.  My grandparents plowed our entire back yard (before growing your food became fashionable) planting peppers, lettuce and anything you could fit on an acre.  I remember how it was considered an eyesore to our neighbors and how I was embarrassed about it.  And everyone played soccer at my school.  I had never gone to soccer camp nor played before but  your popularity depended on it.  I remember praying trying to make a deal with God that if I could be good at soccer, he could take away my drawing skills (I was the best drawer in class).  When I started high school, they started busing black students to our school.  This was in the 80’s and it caused quite a stir in the community as residents worried about property value plummeting on their homes.

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So I grew up wanting to be black or white or from any country people could point to on a map.  When I told people I was from Korea, they had no clue.  And if they did know, they would ask, “Are you from North Korea?”

Are you a commie?

Are you a commie?

How has this affected my outlook about diversity?   I learned that discrimination is not race-specific and that  ignorance and lack of exposure to other cultures is often the culprit.  And as much as political correctness has gone overboard at times, I still marvel that in this lifetime, I was able to see so many gains in multicultural awareness.  When colleges and schools began offering courses about other cultures and teach students about people of color, fostering inquiry about the politics of race and when people of color began to be portrayed in the media as individual personalities in their own right rather than stereotypes that is when I felt included in American culture.  When the Korean comedian Margaret Cho gained popularity  I understood her appeal to gay men all over America.  Once I finished school and was living on my own in the city…not far from where my family started started their life in the  US… I had a lot of gay friends.   You could say I was a fag hag.

I never had to pay for a hair cut in the 90's

I never had to pay for a hair cut in the 90's

I had a lot in common with gay men despite our racial and gender differences.  We understood what it felt like to be an outsider,  to be discriminated against and called names.   I want to clarify that not all my friends were hairdressers.  Some are photographers, filmmakers,  computer programmers, foot models, gamers…well you get the picture.  I do believe that gay and lesbian rights is still lagging in most schools.  It’s still a culture of  “don’t ask and don’t tell.”  These students will always feel invisible until teachers can become better educated and accepting of gay and lesbian students.  It seems like the final frontier in most schools.

Some time ago, a friend from Bryn Mawr College began sending me books.  They changed my life forever.  It started with this one:

"Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike."

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are. -"The Three Sisters" Sandra Cisneros

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It’s books like these that helped shape and understand my value system.  By reading stories by writers who could tell me about their experience of oppression and assimilation, I became empowered through my own unique heritage and identity.  I realized that my own immigrant experience allowed me to empathize with others who have been marginalized in their life.  I have lived in a trailer park, an upper-middle class neighborhood.  I went to school with poor kids, rich kids, black kids, white kids.  It is easy to remember the negative encounters and painful memories of my early years when I felt like Ellison’s Invisible Man.  But having lived through it, I feel fortunate to have such a broad cultural background and rich experiences.  It was a National Geographic kind of life, trying to figure out how to assimilate.  I think having that kind of marginalized experience gives you an edge because you become more sympathetic to others who are cast outside society.
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Check out Kip Fulbeck’s HAPA project and you will get a glimpse of how some people are responding to the question, “Who Am I?”  http://www.seaweedproductions.com/hapa
hapa1

I am 100% American

I am 100% Korean

I am 100% Red Neck

I am 100% Feminist

I am 100% Daughter

I am 100% Underdog

I am 100% Part of the Problem

I am 100% Part of the Solution

I am 100% Liberal

I am 100% Single Mom

I am 100% Student

I am 100% Teacher

I am 100% Rich

I am 100% Poor

I am 100% Conformist

I am 100% Rebel

I am 100% Consumer

I am 100% Anti-Consumer

I am 100% Guilty

I am 100% Innocent

I am 100% Pacifist

I am 100% Agitator

I am 100% Unjung

I am 100% Nanci

Who are you?