“I am not my white man’s name.”

Sometimes I find myself wanting to yell this at other people. One of those times was today, when yet again, I handed my membership card to the ticket seller at BAM, and she looked at me with narrowed, suspicious eyes, and asked, “This is you? Can I see another form of ID?”

The same person has done this to me before there, and she isn’t the first person in the world to do so. Sometimes I say something wry or dryly funny to make it less awkward for both of us. Today I handed her my driver’s license, waited while she processed my credit card, took my ticket, walked outside, and cried.

I cried for a couple hours. I left the movie early (it was I Am Not Your Negro and I feel like there’s probably some kind of irony there) and on the way out, asked the membership representative how I would go about cancelling mine. She asked if I minded telling her why, and through tears, I tried explaining that I, with my Asian face and Irish name, was tired of being treated like I couldn’t possibly be someone who paid $85 for a BAM membership, of having my identity questioned because my race didn’t match my white name.

As I tried to explain, it occurred to me that I sounded like I was making a big deal out of nothing. She tried telling me she was sure the people didn’t mean to treat me with suspicion and that the protocol for confirming member’s ID’s has changed, and so on and so forth. I gave up.

I walked down the street still in tears, feeling guilty and like an overemotional jerk because this was nothing compared to the prejudice and bigotry African Americans, Latinx people, and Muslim people experience on a way more frequent basis because of the color of their skin, their faith, etc. Then I thought of a line from an Everyday Feminism piece I read a while ago:

“I thought because the racism I knew was different from the kind my Latinx and Black friends were familiar with, that it wasn’t legitimate. Wasn’t real. Wasn’t that bad. Yet while our experiences as Asian Americans differ from other groups, we — like all other people of color in the United States — live with the daily ramifications of white supremacy. And that distinguishes us from white America.”

I continually find myself trying to keep my mouth shut about any instance of racial bias I experience, because I find myself placing more value on the experience of other minorities, determining that their voices need to be heard more than mine. I feel guilty for the privileges I experience as a person of color with white parents, for the privileges I experience as that mythical “model minority,” for being of a race that has historically exhibited so much anti-black racism. I struggle regularly to remind myself that I am still a racial minority who experiences racial bias, and that it’s not okay.

Particularly recently, I’m struggling with finding a space in feminism where I feel like I belong. More and more it seems like most calls I hear for intersectionality, for dismantling white feminism, focus almost solely on the inclusion of black and brown bodies. For the most part, I don’t have a problem with this. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has been vital to raising awareness and affecting change. Still, the emphasis for inclusion of black and brown people makes me hyper aware that I am none of the above. I am not enough of a minority to be included in those calls, but I also am not white, and Asian racism is very real.

It chips away at your spirit. No one is raising awareness about the fact that the Asian homelessness population is vastly understated and ignored because of the number of Asians who won’t admit to being homeless due to cultural ideas of pride. It’s so frustrating that Asians are unfairly held to higher standards in the college admissions process than any other racial group, but are assumed to deserve that unequal treatment. It was heartbreaking to cheer for Chris Rock’s “Oscars So White” monologue, just to have him turn around and exploit Asian stereotypes for a joke. The racism is different, but it exists.

I also struggle with feeling like I am Asian enough to demand that Asians be seen and heard and represented, but I’m realizing more and more that it’s necessary. The ticket seller at BAM wasn’t in the box office when I left, but I wish she had been, so that I could’ve told her that I am not my white man’s name.

I wish I could go back in time and tell all my peers in high school who ever made a joke rooted in my race that I am more than my Asian eyes.

I wish I could tell the white man who stalked me in college that I am more than my Asian hair and skin.

I wish I had known, back then, that it was okay for me to demand to be seen and heard, from this space between fixed identities.

See me now. Hear me now. I’m here.

Your Best American Girl

“I still haven’t found it, with a capital I,” Mitski explains. “In the U.S., I don’t quite feel American and I don’t quite feel white enough. But then, to fellow Asian people or in Japan, I’m also a foreigner. I’m mixed, I’m half white, I’m not Asian enough, I don’t understand… I’m stuck in this kind of middle ground of not being allowed in either camp.”

Ever since Mitski released “Your Best American Girl” months ago, no matter where I am when I listen to it, there’s a 95% chance I’m gonna have tears in my eyes by the end of the first chorus.

your mother wouldn’t approve
of how my mother raised me
but I do, I think I do
and you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help try to be
your best American girl…

I understand that Mitski wrote this song about a very specific relationship, a specific experience that belonged to her, but it feels so much more universal than that. She wrote it for herself, but in ways, it feels like she wrote it for every woman of color, every woman with a complex identity, who ever fell in love with a white American guy.

It’s that feeling when you exist between fixed identities and because you don’t belong anywhere, you are both everywhere and nowhere.

It’s that feeling when “America” is supposed to be a “melting pot” but you know you’ll never be that “American girl.”

It’s that feeling when you know that you can’t — and shouldn’t try — change who you are in order to be what someone else wants, but that means you feel like you might never be enough of anything for anyone.

It’s that feeling when you resent media and culture for breeding in you an attraction to that white American boy aesthetic, but it doesn’t change the fact that that IS what you’re attracted to.

And, it’s not learning how to stop feeling any of those things, but learning how to live with them.

Dear Mr. Albee,

In my early twenties, I wrote this letter to Edward Albee, my favorite playwright, thanking him for writing, and though the letter itself now feels puerile in ways,  I am certain that I still could not come up with better words to describe how much his plays meant to me. I can’t believe he won’t pen any more insightful, incisive, utterly absurd plays. His plays truly changed my life, and I’m so grateful. Rest easy, sir.

When I was sixteen, my high school English teacher gave me a copy of The Zoo Story. At first, it baffled me – I felt a heart-wrenching empathy, but I didn’t understand it. I devoured a number of your other works, trying to reconcile these emotions. When I had the chance to see Peter and Jerry at Second Stage Theater as a 20 year old, I thought I started to understand.

At the time, I was an undergraduate in a film and theater studies program, and I clearly remember a class in which we discussed the early work of Todd Haynes. In an interview, he spoke about the role of “deviance” in his films. He talked of exploring what threatens people’s sense of normalcy, and this struck me as a lens through which I could view your work. Sitting front row center at Second Stage, I watched Jerry threaten to bring the conventional structure of Peter’s world crashing to the ground.

I think that is when I understood why I love your plays so much. In them I see that the surface absurdities are masking pathos and earnestness, reveling in the ridiculous that which threatens the comfort of our world’s established social constructs. Of course, I can’t presume I understand what your intentions were while writing, but I don’t believe that my interpretations are invalid. This is my lengthy way of saying that your work has profoundly affected my attitude toward and general perspective of the human condition, and I could never effectively express my gratitude to you for helping me grow in the ways I have.

Ever since reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I’ve firmly believed that the work of an artist is the work of a hero. Campbell’s hero looks deep within himself, identifies the demons of dream and myth that we avoid because they threaten our security and comfort, and in tackling them, he discovers his true self. Upon resurfacing, the hero becomes something better, and then helps the world become better as well. I think it takes courage for an artist to find and destroy such demons and create from the ashes something that will elicit truth through the reaction to it. To then also have the greater courage to share that creation so the world can experience and react to it, makes the artist an undeniable hero.

Thank you, Mr. Albee, for being a hero.

Most sincerely,

Coda

I spent the holiday weekend in Palm Beach with my friend Danielle and returned to New York with a broken suitcase zipper and a whole lot of ambivalence. I thought if I waited a couple days, I might be able to unpack all the feelings and tidily reassemble them into a few pithy sentences that held some meaning, but I was wrong. I can explain it all, but not succinctly.

I still feel like I should not have had the privilege to be in attendance at Jessica Fekete’s life celebration for her husband Thomas; as a relative stranger, witnessing the deep, lovely grief of those closest to him, felt invasive. I am grateful for having been allowed there, though in ways, it felt wrong of me to take advantage of that privilege. Most of the time I was there, I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. It made me truly appreciate that many who spoke observed that Thomas touched the lives of people he barely knew, or didn’t know at all, and that these people are part of his legacy – I am one of them.

Social media has made celebrity a more complex thing than Andy Warhol could ever have imagined. It allows us to craft personal relationships with public figures with great ease, and what’s more, it makes it acceptable and legitimate to do so. It’s how Thomas shared his journey with the world, and though I met him a number of times in person, it’s his social media presence that most deeply moved me. As I said before, obviously you get a limited view of a person’s life when you view it only through social media, but that doesn’t make Thomas’s any less beautiful.

I guess it should be enough for me to simply say, RIP Thomas and thank you Jessica, and in ways, it feels narcissistic to say more – but it also felt wrong not to acknowledge that I am thankful, and why. It’s a testament to Thomas’s wife and family’s love that they were so generous as to open the celebration of his life to the public, and even amidst my ambivalence towards my being there, I know am so very glad and grateful that I was.

Thomas Fekete, and social media mourning

I’ve seen Surfer Blood about fifteen times. That’s not an exaggeration. About a dozen of those times were between 2011 and 2014, before guitarist Thomas Fekete’s cancer diagnosis forced him to drop out. I’m feeling a lot of feelings about his death — including hesitance to mourn on the internet — but mostly, I’m glad that I never let self-consciousness stop me from going to their shows, stop me from enjoying their performances, while Thomas was alive.

On one of the last tours I saw him on, I went to see the band at The Saint on a last-minute impulse, even though I had a ticket to see them in Brooklyn two days later. At the Brooklyn show, at the merch table, Thom said, “Hey, weren’t you at the Asbury show the other night?” I was mortified that he recognized me (though we’d met before, and I had been up front taking pictures, so I shouldn’t have been surprised), but when I said yes, he grinned and said, “Thank you so much for coming again!” so sincerely, that I immediately felt better. We chatted a bit, and it was a nice thing. The show was great, like all Surfer Blood shows are, and flooded me with joy. I am grateful to the whole band for all the wonderful experiences I’ve had watching them, dancing to them, singing at the top of my lungs to them. Thom, though, was magnetic. Incandescent. And man, he could do amazing things with a guitar.

His social media engagement was eclectic and erratic and strange; he frequently shut down one account and started another, or changed his username, but he mostly kept the same Instagram account for the past year, and we followed each other. His occasional random comments and likes always made me smile, but the real privilege was getting to follow his post-Surfer Blood journey. Of course a social media feed isn’t a completely picture of someone’s life, but his was inspirational: always optimistic, always observing beauty, always radiating good vibes, and always, always professing deep love and respect for his wife Jessica, who is an inspiration as well.

Social media is funny, and it gives you an odd sort of relationship with people you perhaps don’t know well and a space to share of yourself with the world. The high profile deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince this year have made me think more about what is appropriate in terms of social media grieving, but I haven’t come to any kind of conclusion. What right do I have to publicly mourn this human that I met a couple times briefly, had a couple mutual acquaintances with, and followed back on social media? Is it okay for me to share in a public forum that this person inspired me, that he changed me? His death is not about me, and I shouldn’t use it as a reason to talk about me, right? And yet, here I am. Here we all are, pouring out memory after memory of the wonderful ways in which this kind soul changed us, and I think it’s okay to do that, because his death is not okay.

I did mail a get-well card last fall and a letter last week that that said some of these things to Thomas himself, which I hope he got to read, because we don’t say them enough. This is something I’ve believed for a long time: our time with people is limited, so we do what we can with them with the time that we have, and when they’ve changed our lives for the better, they deserve to know that. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or fancy — this certainly isn’t — it just has to be sincere. “I love you,” “you’re beautiful,” “thank you” — these aren’t hard things to say, so we should say them while we can, and not just when a person is gone, not just when we grieve.

Still, though. Thank you, Thomas. You’re beautiful.

“Not enough,” and a request for the new year.

Lately, I constantly feel like I’m not enough. I’m enough myself for me, and that’s what matters — should matter, rather. (Self-respect!) But from every direction (i.e. every direction on the internet) and then some, it seems like the world is telling me that the various pieces that make up my female Asian adoptee identity are not enough for me to identify with anyone.

In my gender studies seminar this fall, I was the only “face-value” Asian in a class of 22, and one of six students who was racially “other” in physical skin color. Collectively and individually, we were a tolerant, open-minded, courteous group. As we discussed the myth of the “model minority” as it applies to Asians, particularly immigrants, and Orange Is the New Black and Maxine Hong Kingston and intersectional feminism, I was having an extraordinarily hard time not losing my temper with all the white students around me having this discussion as I sat there without actively participating.

Yet, I felt I couldn’t participate. I am Asian and I am American, but I am not Asian-American, and to speak as though I identify as such felt phony and inauthentic. I could feel myself trying to become physically smaller in the corner of the classroom, wishing I was invisible or even better, just not there. I grew upset with myself for having this reaction: it was no classmate’s fault, but I was, in effect, silencing myself. I felt that though I look Asian, I was not Asian enough to be allowed to partake in the conversation as such.

When Ryan Adams released his full-length cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, I saw multiple comments around the internet from people of color about how white people were about to lose their minds with excitement over it. A famous white male musician, covering a famous slim white girl’s mainstream pop music! I personally was pumped for the release — took him long enough to get it out! — and have no shame about that.

Yet, deep down somewhere, I had this tiny nagging feeling that I was a bad person of color for being excited about it. I tried to refrain from sharing my interest publicly (though failed to do so) to avoid the judgement of my friends. I was afraid I was not white enough to be allowed to enjoy this music.

Recently during a night out of drinking, I was on the receiving end of a one-two punch of brazen, objectifying remarks about my breasts from men I trusted as a friend and a peer. I reacted without thinking, slapping one in the face, and throwing back unambiguous language at both that conveyed my fury. With shocked faces, they separately and repeatedly apologized with some degree of sincerity: I know they listened to me, but I am not sure that they heard.

Yet, not five minutes after these incidents, I found myself feeling vaguely guilty for what I perceived as flying off the handle at them. I know that it was not wrong for me to be angry, but I should have been more calm, I thought. I should have been more reasonable. And besides, they were only words — they did not physically harm me. I was not enough of a victim — if I was even a victim at all — to justify my outrage, and I was not enough of a human to be allowed to command respect.

Why could I not be invisible? Why did I have to have a skin color and shiny black hair, why did I have to have cleavage and a vagina?

When I reflect upon certain things, looking for answers, I often find I am asking the wrong questions. In this case, it’s not a question of why I am singled out for these parts of my identity or why I feel like I am less because they are what they are. It’s, what is it about these parts of my identity that would make me “not enough”?

I know that not every question has an answer and not every question should, and what answers that do exist are not always simple, but in this case, the answer is clear. Nothing about any of these things makes me “not enough.” I am enough. My life and my right to live and experience and feel are enough.

I have a very hard time remembering this feeling of validation. It is one thing to know that I am enough; it is another to feel it. Many days, without thinking about it, I am subconsciously aware that the world as it currently exists can’t help but to unceasingly impress upon me that I am not deserving of the right to own my race, my taste, my appearance, my identity as a whole. It’s the way things are.

In the new year, I ask that you occasionally make active attempts to reach out to your fellow humans on an individual level and remind them, unsolicited, that they are enough. Alienation, unfortunately, does not belong solely to me — in ways, “other” is universal. The world is constructed to be cruel, but we can change that. Everyone deserves to feel like they are enough — because it’s the truth. You are enough.

“I’m An Interracial Adoptee — And My Identity Is None Of Your Business”

When people hear my full name, they expect to meet an Irish boy. Instead they meet a Korean girl. Welcome to interracial adoptee life.

Generally speaking, I love it. I have little identity crises here and there in which I feel like a “bad” adoptee or alienated because the dichotomy between what I look like and who I am is impossible to define in rigid terms. But mostly, I love the fluidity. People often have a hard time when they can’t decide how they want to define me: Asian? White? American? It makes them uncomfortable, and they struggle to place me somewhere familiar. Unfortunately for them, I exist in no-man’s land, in the delicious fog lingering between fixed identities.

I enjoy it, truly, but it can be hard to embrace my adoptee identity in day-to-day life, where I’m frequently plagued by a number of obnoxious inquiries including but not limited to:

  • “Where are you from? No, I know you’re from New Jersey, but where are you from?”
    • Variation: “What are you?
  • “Are you Korean?”
    • Variation: Someone just starts speaking Korean to me automatically assuming I’ll understand.
  • “How much does it cost to adopt a baby?”
  • “Do you know who your real parents are? Like, have you ever tried to find them?”
  • “Why did your parents want to adopt?”

I’m from the Jersey Shore. I’m from New York. I’m from the United States. My identity is not determined solely by the fact I was born in South Korea, the same way anyone’s birthplace or current place of residence is not the only shaper of his or her identity. And yes, I am Korean, but no, I can’t understand or respond to you in Korean; I’m adopted. “Oh! Adopted! How old?” I was four months old when I came to the United States. When I was a baby, someone in a grocery asked my blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother if I would be able to speak English when I grew up. True story.

People have also obtusely asked, how much did I cost? I can’t answer that. I don’t know what monetary exchange was made that allowed my parents to bring me home. I also know that I don’t routinely ask anyone how much it costs to go through pregnancy and labor. In terms of publicly available information, I know it’s considerably more expensive to adopt internationally than domestically, and that adoption and transfer of guardianship aren’t exactly the most regulated things. I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have the amazing parents I have.

These amazing parents, the man and woman who raised me, are my real parents, and it pains me that anyone might consider them to be anything other than “real.” Biology isn’t everything. I may not have my Irish-Norwegian father’s blue eyes, but I have his dry sense of humor, his interest in the humanities, his love of a good story. I don’t have my mother’s blonde hair, but I have her insatiable need to help others, her need for laughter, and, I hope, at least a fraction of her thoughtfulness. They give me their unending love and support. These are my real parents.

And, my real parents, like all other real parents, deserve their privacy. We don’t ask people why they decide to procreate. Society insists we live by this myth that all people want children and a person’s life is incomplete without experiencing parenthood, yet people feel the need to question why adoptive parents want to raise children. Both this myth and line of questioning are problematic, to say the least, and to demand specific reasons a person wants children is intrusive and flat-out rude.

Perhaps some adoptees have asked their parents what circumstances led them to adopt, but I strongly believe it’s none of my business, why my parents chose to adopt. Besides, how is that conversation supposed to go? “Hey, did you decide to adopt because you were molested as a child and haven’t been able to have a sexual relationship with anyone since then? Just curious.” Some people stammer, “Oh, I thought they might just have told you.” Told me what? “Hey honey, in case you were wondering, I’m sterile, so that’s why we decided to adopt you. Have a good day at school!” No. This is no one’s business but theirs.

That’s the bottom line. It’s none of your business, who an adoptee’s birth parents are, where an adoptee was born or why their adoptive parents chose to adopt. If an adoptee offers to tell their story, they deserve to do it on their own terms and share only what they are comfortable sharing.

There is a difference between asking to learn about the adoption process and probing the deeply personal details of someone’s adoption, and the latter is — or rather, should be — socially unacceptable. I don’t need to share the history of my adoption with you just so you can determine which label fits me best, which box I belong in, which cultural and racial identity you want to assign me. My identity is my own, and this is my story, on my terms. I determine where I fit, and that’s here, in the United States, with my real parents.

Any questions?

(Reposted from MTV Voices)

identity