Here in the South, I get this question a lot, “Where are you from?”
To which, I usually respond with a derivative of, “Well, if you’re asking what I think you’re asking, I’m Korean.”
Occasionally, I’ll get this follow-up question to that, but only occasionally. “Which one? North or South?”
And on both accounts, having grown up south of the Mason-Dixon line, like Henry Cho, I can say I’m “South” Korean.
One of the things that’s fascinating to me as an Asian American who went to elementary school in Oklahoma, then middle school and high school in Florida, college in Tennessee, and who now lives in Georgia, is the ways in which Asian Americans who grew up a much more Asian-enriched locale view themselves.
I have cousins in California and have visited for extended periods of time, and it really “feels” different. There it seems that being Asian American full-time is feasible, the subculture, and the context for maintaining a bi-cultural identity seem to be much more tenable in that environment. In fact, there even seems to be some fluidity between Asian ethnicities, where Koreans kick it with the Vietnamese and will go to Chinatown, each having a greater access to one another’s cultural nuances.
Compared to cultural po-dunk villages of Broken Arrow, OK and Ft. Pierce, FL– Los Angeles and New York City were like Meccas. To be Asian American in the hinterlands where I grew up, well, let’s just say, required a different set of tools to adjust and to form our identities. In fact, in many ways, as I explore the Internet now as someone who is a student of this fluid thing called identity and culture…it’s downright fascinating to see what is available to our youth now. Especially with YouTube! Back then, I very much could identify with the “Average Asian” bit — courtesy of FoxTV’s MadTV, perhaps you’ve seen it?:
There were very many times where I’ve felt like the “novelty” in some of the circles I ran in. Sometimes the butt of jokes and other times, the resident amateur Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita). Obviously, that could be infuriating and there were definitely times where I felt angry while still being the “Average Asian.”
At some point, however, like rainwater seeks the sea, I sought more like me. People who didn’t have to ask how to hold chopsticks and who knew how to squat, for example:
Or perhaps a place where people wouldn’t stutter when handing me Asian Chicken Salad, as I have felt, perhaps never as demonstrably so, but bewildered as Margaret Cho.
Interesting how Margaret Cho is perhaps the most recognized Asian American, but because of the stances that she takes (gay rights, extremely liberal), she is almost on an island of Asian American consciousness. Her bio is worth a read however, as her life begins in somewhat of a stance against the patriarchal notions of church. The majority of us are not able to quite relate to Cho. Some are still wrestling with how to get a date with the female half of our kind, as they seem to be popular among non-Asians with little recourse for us. Check out this short blurb about a white guy asking his Asian friends if that’s OK with us.
And then further search on YouTube leads us to Asian women telling why Asian men don’t get the date.
Of course, I don’t know what it says about me that I married a South Indian-American. Although it is a most interesting thought to think of what the identity formation journey will be like for our children. Even for myself, it has been, at times, an uncomfortable journey of looking at myself and around me and being able to talk to those aspects and negotiate my way around, sometimes without others that look like me. There have been times, growing up with only Sundays at church where I felt like I felt my ethnicity was a positive, inclusive trait. This video on Youtube made me wonder if my child will say some of the same things…
Which leads directly into those types of short films that capture some of the tension that I’ve wrestled with in terms of being and becoming Asian American. And this is the generation where more sophisticated dialogues are possible. Check out the introductory video played at the Asian American Alliance 2006 Meeting entitled Culture Shock:
The matter of identity is an important one. As an Asian American Christian, someone who is of Asian descent living in Ameria and worshipping a Jewish messiah, there is a lot of explaining that has to be done. To understand where I came from and how I came to know this freedom and new identity in Christ should play a large part in what I am to be and do here. These three critical descriptors: Asian, American, Christian, that I use to define myself should be three cords drawn together to give me a stronger sense of God’s purpose and design. And because of the eternity placed in my heart, I want to dive in to glorify God in my heritage and in my weird, bi-cultural, postmodern American life. I want to re-evaluate my culture in light of the gospel, but that means I have to know my culture a little more, not to simply throw it out wholesale, but to embrace things that are good and true. Asians were never heathens, they were lost, but now I am found, and there are more to be found!
This is a practice, a fun and visual cultural biopsy (to borrow from my wife’s vernacular), so that I can negotiate better with these three aspects of me. This is my generation and this is your people, O God. Be magnified in us.