The Race: American in India, Part 7

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

When I was a kid I just called myself black as that was what society taught, that if you’re part black then you’re all black. My father is African American, my mother European American. I thought that makes me all American, but people always wanted to know more, esp as I grew older. So in my teens I started to answer that I was half black and half white. Only as an adult, when the biracial tab was added to questionnaires did I start to identify with that.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I grew up in Seattle, Washington (U.S.) where I experienced only subtle forms of racism. White kids if they liked me would say, “You’re not really black,” and black kids if they liked me would say, “You’re all black, man,” as if I didn’t know what I was; it tended to leave me feeling hurt and insecure. I moved to California when I was 19 where I started working and going to college. California was the first place I heard outright racist comments belted without shame.

Amritapuri Kitchen 9Because I’m mixed but have an Indian name and a beard, rather than thinking that I’m mixed people would just think that I was an immigrant. So at work I would often hear people talking about black coworkers, calling them lazy asses, and worse. And no matter how many times I would stand up and say that’s not right, people would quickly forget that I was black, having decided that I was something else, and repeat remarks they wouldn’t have otherwise said in front of me. I also received the comments people reserve for immigrants as some said to me, “You people come here and don’t even know the language!” Confused, I would answer, “What people? Me? But I’m from here!” “Sure you are, man,” they would laugh.

Now I live in India which is a different experience altogether. Here, everyone is shades of brown, and all are Indian so they reserve the color of black for really dark skinned, black people. So although I am as dark as many in India, because I am a foreigner and am not black by their standards, they call me white. I was raised as black and this goes against everything I grew up with. All this leaves me with the understanding that race is very much about what others perceive you as and has little to do with who or what you really are.

3) Why do you have an Indian name? What took you to India? Did you know any Indian (language)?

When I was 15 I met a saint from India, Amma, known as the Hugging Saint. The following year wanting to devote my life to her cause I asked her for a name and she gave me the name Sreejit. I immediately changed my legal name from Michael to Sreejit wanting to start my life anew with this idea of service to humanity that Amma espoused. Everyone started calling me Sreejit so I have lived many more years as Sreejit than Michael. I elaborate on the name change and my spiritual journey here. I have been traveling to India since 1992, working and living in Amma’s ashrams.

4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

All of my schools were completely mixed with all races getting along fairly well during school hours. Seattle is a pretty laid back place compared to other cities, so it was only later that I really experienced the perils of diversity. Though among the older generations I heard very set opinions on the wrongs of race mixing, the kids my age were pretty decent.

5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

As I said, there was never really a time when others were not trying to define for me what I was. And if they asked me, I often heard on the heels of my answer, “No you’re not, you’re really [fill in the blank]” when I started to say I’m half black half white. Then an old black person might get offended and say, “No, you’re just black man.” And when I would tell an older white person that I was mixed, “How awful that your parents could do that to you. You should speak out against such things.”

6) Why do you think those people imposed their own race on you? Why do you suppose they wanted to?

My generation is the one that was birthed by the hippies. Both my parents tried to make a more beautiful world than the one they grew up in. For that reason they didn’t talk much, when I was a child, about the horrors of racism, because they didn’t want me to grow up with the same prejudices that they grew up in. Whereas the generation before them was had very strong ideas on what is right and what is wrong with race mixing. There were still segregated eating areas when my parents were kids. Neither of my parents stayed in contact with their own fathers; my mother’s father disowned her for marrying a black man. So when I would talk with someone old enough to be my grandfather, as a kid I was coming in with a very free, there’s no right and wrong attitude, whereas they had a lifetime of education that told them it was better for everyone to stay in their place.

7)) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I can be shy if I don’t know somebody, but I tend to get along with everybody. I grew up in a very international neighborhood where we would have Chinese New Year’s celebrations; I later worked with mostly Latinos and lived with mostly Indians. I feel comfortable with pretty much everybody.

8) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

All relationships are meaningful to me. That doesn’t mean that I fully give of myself to anybody. Most call me a loner but I get along with pretty much everybody.

9) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

I tend to enjoy being around people of similar interest: the artists, musicians, dancers, and writers. These are the things that bring joy to my life. Though I can’t dance I love to watch it. I love to play and listen to music, watch theatre, love to read and to write.

10) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

No

11) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I have always been “I am who I am”. Either you accept me or you don’t but I won’t change for your acceptance.

12) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

America has a very politically correct sense of handling situations, and even then people step on each other’s toes. But when you step out of America there is no such sense of pretending that you don’t notice the differences. Although people are becoming more accepting of others as our world is shrinking, I don’t see stereotypes and judgments fading anytime soon.

13) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

For many, race creates a sense of belonging, but I think the more the world begins to blend, the more the younger generations will be bound by things other than race, whether it be economics, interests, nationalities, locales, or religions. Still, the sense to divide and fit in seems to be a need that people look for and is sadly not fading anytime soon.

Sreejit in The Seeker’s Dungeon

The Race: White in South Korea, Part 6

South Korea was, and still is, a means of escape for me. On a practical level, it offered me a ticket out of my depressing neighborhood in Nevada (U.S.) with the meth lab across the street. On a slightly higher level, it released the contradictory pressures I felt as a refugee between two “racial” categories – educated white and white trash. I couldn’t really join the first group because I didn’t have enough money and I didn’t want to join the second because that’s effectively a death sentence for an ambitious person like me. In Korea, I rightly assumed these identity tags would fall away and leave me the space to carve out an international, upwardly mobile niche for myself and allow me to play to my greatest strength – the willingness to adapt. That attitude, I believe, is what made my transition from the deserts of Nevada to the megacities of South Korea so satisfying and now, such a huge part of my identity going forward.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I arrived in Korea in 2008, I found that roughly 50% of what I saw looked familiar and 50% like the product of a Martian civilization; I could walk into a totally familiar 7-11 and walk out with peanut-crusted squid jerky as well as a box of “placenta essence masking.” I found this incredibly exciting. The language became this wonderful puzzle, the 2,000 years of history a playground, the whole new cast of cultural heroes (like King Sejong) and villains (like the Japanese occupiers of 1910-1945) a great opportunity to look at the world differently. Korea, by being so different, almost forced me to broaden my perspectives and for that I am very grateful.

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I define myself as white, though it’s not important to me at all. Frankly, the notion that there’s an ideal of whiteness that I should pursue is insulting. I am the product of my human agency, and reducing all my choices, all my work, all my individuality to an accident of birth like race is to treat me like a plant or deep sea sponge – a passive organism defined by nothing more than chance. It is to deny my humanity. My family name is from Spain and I believe most of my ancestors are from Europe.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I grew up mostly in Reno, Nevada, though I also bounced around California and the Midwest. Reno had a very diverse demographic, though not in the traditional sense. There were (some) blacks and (a few) Asians and (many thousands of) Hispanics, but I think Reno’s most important demographics broke down like this:

a) Immigrants. Mostly from Mexico, mostly illegal or illegal until recently, these people were omnipresent in Reno. When I first arrived in Reno from Central California I was 11 years old, patriotic and conservative, which means I despised this group for invading “my” country and stealing “my” jobs. My attitudes, to say the least, have evolved on this matter.

b) The rural poor. Mostly white, although sometimes Hispanic and occasionally black, these people are Reno’s underclass. The really scary attitudes in this class of people are the same attitudes that scare me about black ghettos in Sacramento or Los Angeles – a deification of ignorance, taking real pride in one’s race and deriving identity from said ancestry.

c) Rich people and the middle class. These people are, by virtue of their money, above racial classifications. If you’re Asian or Hispanic, you will fit in here without difficulty. You can even be black in this social setting, so long as you have enough money.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Some of them were very diverse, some of them were lily-white and, if you include my graduate school, overwhelmingly Asian.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

I made friends with a black kid in the third grade and this offended his mother, who accused my new friend of selling out. At the time, I took this to mean it was offensive to people of other races when a white kid tries to befriend them. I just wrote it off as my friend having a dumb mother. I’ve always been pretty comfortable ignoring or breaking rules I consider stupid.

I should explain what I think is the central advantage of being white – it doesn’t mean anything. I can be straight or gay, conservative or liberal, a businessman or a pimp and nobody is going to blink. White pride, to the extent it exists, to me implies shameful affiliations like the KKK, Neo-Nazis or whatever depressing nationalistic rally Vladimir Putin is currently hosting.

I know I said this before, but if someone were to make it clear they were accepting me because I’m white, I’d be offended. This is why [insert ethnicity here] pride has always baffled me. Why the flaming hell would you want all the expectations and limitations that a racial identity puts on you? Why would you want to stereotype yourself?

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I gravitate towards people who have the strength to reject the easy, cheap identities that come from the accidents of birth. If I think you are stereotypically white/Asian/black/Hispanic/whatever, I probably won’t respect you. If, on the other hand, you have the strength to build your identity from an act of will, I will be very interested in your company. I’ve found strong people of that type come in all shapes and sizes.

There is a social tendency in my national group, particularly white people, that I wish would go away. That is the assumption that, simply by virtue of being an American, everybody should listen to you. I call this idea inevitable superiority and I hate it. You were not born special, you were not chosen by God or anybody else, you are an American/European/whatever because your Mom and Dad decided to conceive you within the arbitrary boundaries of America/Europe/whatever – nothing sacred about it.. If you want to be special, earn your specialness and stop expecting people to listen to you just because of your passport.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes, and for obvious reasons. The two most precious people in the world to me are both members of my immediate family.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

The idea I would need to use my race to find a community is pretty offensive to me. I’m a writer, thinker, educator, basketball fan, shade tree mechanic, second language learner and about a million other things before I’m white.

And Korean food is waaaay more delicious than most American food.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

No. It happens naturally when you treat people as individuals and not as representatives of their particular birth accidents. It also happens pretty easily when you live in a foreign country and make most of your friends from the local community. I guess I only consciously do this in the sense that I try to make friends in Korea who aren’t going to leave after a few years – most of whom are Korean.

9) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I rejected the accidents of my birth and presented myself as a creature of will. I expect to be treated as an individual. I expect to be accepted for myself and not as a representative for some identity group based on chance. I extend the same courtesy to everyone I meet.

This has proven invaluable in Korea. I can’t tell you how many times my Korean friends or acquaintances have said “you don’t act like an American, you just act like a person.” I’m very proud of that.

10) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

I think the best way to defeat the effects of race or tradition is to do what the Romans did – move all around the world, borrow the customs and ideas that work and marry the locals. The trade-off between advancing as a human species and protecting the purity of one’s blood or traditions is a no-brainer to me.

This might sound like I’m advocating imperialism. Imperialism is the belief that Culture X should impose its inevitably superior ways on the inevitably inferior Culture Y. I don’t accept this at all, mostly because I find the idea that humans are destined, inevitably, to be anything, bothers me. I don’t like it because it’s an attack on our nature as self-determining beings.

My belief is that we should stop treating cultures and traditions as sacred or even innately valuable and start treating them like tools. If my American culture is a 5/8th inch wrench and I need a 14 mm socket of the type they make in South Korea, there’s no reason for me to agonize about how I’m betraying the proud heritage of 5/8th inch wrenches – I should just go get a different subset of 14 mm cultural norms.

11) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

It made me sad. A lot of people spend a lot of time fighting to preserve their proud racial identities. It’s like watching emphysema patients fighting over a carton of cigarettes.

Ben at Literary Adventures in South Korea

My Dear Readers, The Sun Stole The Poem I Had For You

I started a poem in my dream. I worked and worked through the rigorous process as I do in the day, felt the thrill of seeing the words come together. I wrote a real poem in my sleep – actually, a pretty good one. And then I — WOKE. I surfaced tired from all that thinking and by the time the grogginess had lifted, I’d lost the precious fruit of my labor to the daylight. It would’ve been too late to snatch it, preserve it, even with my blog book on hand. Aughhh. How do I take the notebook into sleep with me?

Microchip it.

Samsung, Dell, Apple: Here, your next patent idea. I want 30%.

The Race: American Cities, Part 4

ElizCardamone1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I am white and so is my family. My husband is 100% Italian, first generation (his parents were both born in a small town in Italia) so there is an ethnic component to my family now. I am comfortable being white because I have known no other way of being. It is important to me.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I grew up in Providence, RI. I had lots of Jewish friends, as the upscale neighborhood where I lived was predominantly Jewish. After my parents divorced, my mother moved back to her hometown in upstate NY, and I visited her on school vacations. Because Providence is a city, there was more of an opportunity to mix with different ethnicities there than in Mom’s town.

I traveled the world as a girl with my father, and had an opportunity to observe differences between America and other countries: I was frightened by the poverty I saw and intrigued by the different ways of living. In Belize, for example, I had the privilege of dining with a Mayan farmer and his family. They lived simply, in huts with no doors, dirt floors, no furniture or appliances. The farmer’s wife cooked our tortillas on an open fire pit situated in the middle of the floor.

These experiences made me aware of my fortune being born white and American. These identifications ensured freedom, access to public education, fairly unlimited career and life choices. I came to appreciate this access from my travels, instead of take it for granted. However, I also witnessed a simpler way of life, one centered on survival rather than accomplishment and entitlement. There was an undeniable appeal to this way of living. Ultimately, though, I was glad both to be aware of these differences and of the access I had because of my race and nationality. My awareness of other cultures instilled in me an ongoing curiosity about other lifestyles.

I attended college in upstate NY at a small, private university with few African-Americans. I started dating my husband freshman year. After graduation, we lived in Philadelphia and a predominantly all-white Chicago suburb before we moved to my husband’s hometown of Lewiston, NY (a suburb of of Buffalo).

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Although we were not wealthy, I lived in a rich neighborhood occupied by wealthy families, many of them Jewish. My public elementary and high schools were very racially diverse. In these settings, I hung out with girls from my neighborhood. I was the only non-Jewish person amongst friends. I attended a private Quaker middle school.  There was only one African-American boy in my grade.  Because I was not wealthy, I did not have many friends.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

I felt race differences most keenly in elementary and high school, which had higher percentages of African Americans.  I would have liked to become friends with several African American girls in my class, but never had the guts to approach them because of the hostility I sensed. I assumed they rejected me because I was white. In high school, I liked an African-American girl because she asked as many questions in class as I did. I wrongly assumed this commonality meant we could be friends, but she made it clear outside of class we were different.

At recess, while the African-American girls played double dutch jump rope games, I stood nearby, watching enviously along with the other white girls. My group even set up a double dutch game next to the African-American girls, but we never matched their finesse, as emphasized by their snickers and eye rolling.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I consciously gravitate towards whites because of the hostility I sense from African-Americans. White acquaintances have made racial slurs, which I did not respond to either negatively or positively. This type of behavior makes me uncomfortable, and I step away when I can.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

I feel like an outsider no matter what group I am in. In general, my responses to events rarely coincide with society’s prescribed feelings (immediate fulfillment you’re supposed to have giving birth, instant intimacy with spouse after getting married, fulfillment as a full-time mother). I desperately wanted these things, but because of unresolved childhood traumas, was unable to embrace them in the moments they were happening.  It is only now, after years of treatment for depression and anxiety, and my own self reflection through my book, that I can honestly feel these things. I spend a lot of time alone, and with my family in the evenings, and prefer it that way. That is where I feel the greatest ease.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

No.

9) Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

Before we moved here, we lived in another conservative mostly white suburb in Wheaton, IL. There we went to a drive-in movie when our twin boys were small.  The place where we parked was paved with small stones, which our boys continued to throw. They reluctantly stopped at our reprimand.  A few minutes later, the boys observed some African-American children throwing stones, and became outraged.  They yelled: “Hey, chocolate people, stop throwing stones.”  My children are not prejudiced. They just wanted to get the attention of strangers and used obvious descriptive words. We were so embarrassed and explained why such remarks are inappropriate.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I usually stand alone.  My husband says the aloofness keeps people from approaching me.  I have been let down by many friends, so I prefer not to risk further hurt.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

No, I don’t think it is possible, but I do think our society pretends it is less racist than it actually is (hence President Obama’s encouraging speech to African-American men who, statistically speaking, have little opportunity in America.)  The worst word I know is the n word.  I won’t say it, and get so sick to my stomach when I hear it, that I have to move away.  I wish it could be obliterated from our language.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

I live a very sheltered life, and while I sympathize in theory with the struggles African-Americans face (learned about through education, media and literature), I have done nothing to help them.  I don’t think I am that brave.

Elizabeth at Breaking the Cycle

Ten Signs You’re a Real Blogger

1. Your username sounds like your real name. To you.
2. Friends will reach you faster through a comment than email.
3. Readers actually start showing up in your dreams.
4. Your sweetheart quotes from your posts. “It’s not aBoUT you, k?”
5. The dish pile has become part of the furniture.
6. You know you’ll organize that drawer. You will. Someday.
7. You get real crabby the days you don’t get to touch your beloved blog.
8. You’ll spot the seed of a post on the dirt and gravel, catch the scent a mile away.
9. Your six-year-old says, “I love your blog.”
10. You will stop blogging over your dead body.

Are you for real?

My Race: Coast to Coast, Part 3

Here’s Part 2.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

No. From my 20s on, some of my closest friendships have been with white and black Americans. The only other Korean-American coworker I’ve mentioned could not have been more different from me in values and lifestyle. She came from more money and attracted a white crowd. Incidentally, she married Jewish.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Christians define themselves by their faith. Hence the term born again. Because the Christian journey is really a new life, believers share a depth of intimacy and understanding that supersedes race, language, class. But I enjoy an ease with white Christians that I swear is missing in the Korean-American culture, even those of my faith. Though I was conscious that my family was a slim minority in the two fairly white Christian homeschool groups we joined last year, I have never felt self-conscious. Our son plays well with a Caucasian classmate; they whack each other with swords like brothers. We were bemused last year to find that our little man also happened to gravitate to blondes in their tweens. I enjoy the most ready connections with people who share my values, which include lifestyle, faith, and all that goes into child nurture. So racial ties do not determine my social network as they did before my working years.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

It is not a strained effort but yes, I do. I find myself wondering, though, how many whites share this mindfulness.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

The challenge of explaining race hit me when my son was about four. I was elaborating on the slavery we had just read about. We also had a new blended family on our colorful block, an African-American man with a white woman and her two kids. I think I’m the one who put black and Korean on the radar of a child who never seemed to notice color in himself or others. I almost regretted bringing up the categories at his age. We have not had to deal with any racial insult. I am not sure if we can attribute this to our fairly well-to-do neighborhood (that is, class) or the fact that we are not with the public schools.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I’ve always been told I was noticeably unique, even among Korean-Americans. You love me or hate me. I’m Pistachio ice cream, not Vanilla. The contrast that called for a vote for or against me has softened over time but I always embraced my individuality. Being different doesn’t mean you have to feel alone. What kept me rooted? I was told even as a kid that I carried myself well. I think the confidence that has not easily shaken stemmed from the unfailing faith my mother expressed in me ever since I can remember.

My values, perspective, even personality also did a 180 when I really understood the gospel of Jesus at 17. Through the many challenges I went on to face in the years ahead, I’ve remained secure in who I am knowing Whose I am. Christians often give pat answers. In this discussion, some would say their identity as a child of God is the source of all assurance and self-definition. God indeed has been my deepest anchor but to say He is all that matters in contexts like this discussion bores me. Faith doesn’t nullify the importance of ethnicity, upbringing, or the many factors that shape us. It so happens that biologically I am a Korean daughter of God. As such I can learn from others outside my race. Thinking in platitudes doesn’t do justice to the richness of God’s designs. It is my God who gives meaning to all aspects of my life. He cares to redeem them, make them all beautiful. Interestingly, we are said to be adopted by the Father – one big multiracial family. And behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne…Revelations 7:9

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

Every culture offers its own hue, rhythm, voice. You could not confuse Brazilian women with Korean, as a group. The first are more vocal, even physical. My husband has seen Brazilian women fight tooth and nail, stew, then kiss-kiss on the cheek and make up. Korean women don’t put the dukes out on each other but will hold onto the enmity. The air is different in each company. The problem arises when we make value judgments on the differences. One’s strength is one’s weakness, and this duality holds for groups as it does for individuals. It hit me as I worked through this post that the Korean preference for like company is actually an extension of the fierce loyalty that’s part of the culture. All traditions, in their imperfections, hold out qualities worthy of respect.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

I was surprised at the internal resistance to writing my story. First off, my life was all I’d known, that it didn’t feel special. It was my normal. Knowing many in my community with similar experiences heightened the sense that I had nothing really unique to share. Secondly, this was the first time I’ve explored when and how I have navigated social streams, which communities I have sought, which have embraced me. I was split in the culture I aligned myself with as I wrote. In speaking of Americans and Koreans, I wasn’t sure when to use our or their. A thought also struck yesterday. Did I shy in sharing because the Korean culture seemed to bear less weight on the global platform than the African-American drama that has achieved validation in the history books and media? Have my own perceptions been influenced? Finally, my story was difficult to write for the feeling bared. I’d just finished saying I give you my all on this blog. I was speaking as an artist. Here, I’d shown you into the rooms of my past as a human being.

The gestures of intolerance or bigotry leveled against me were mild compared to the ugliness many have known. And it is the pioneer generation that breaks through the gates of a culture that has it the worst. My parents lived the friction everyday. My mother was spit on by a customer in the delicatessen she owned. I remember how it pained me, a kid. But my parents were not faultless. All groups harbor distrust of foreigners.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks at the signing of the Immigration Bill on Liberty Island, New York seem fitting here. October 3, 1965:

And this measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country – to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit – will be the first that are admitted to this land.

Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. The land flourished because it was fed from so many sources – because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples.

My Race: Coast to Coast, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Koreans care only about themselves. Americans aren’t ambitious. Californians aren’t bright. People go up in arms at generalizations, though these are not my claims in this post. Yes, exceptions defy stereotype. But people obviously make up groups of color and features called race. I talk about the cultures I have straddled and the differences within groups.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

With some exception, I did keep among Korean-Americans up through college. But if you were to ask me about Koreans, then or now, I would encourage you to ask a black American about village life in West Africa. Two different worlds. I have more in common with many of you than I do with Koreans, and know more African-American and European history than Asian.

An amphibian, I feel white around Koreans and then sometimes remember in white company there is a whole other world to me the people don’t understand. After all, my bicultural generation was steeped in the traditions our parents imported. I at least have a lot of stories and images of white culture from TV, painted not only by the Brady Bunch but drama of all kind. But most people who are not Asian don’t have this familiarity with the Korean culture. I realize in the writing I’ve grown not only more American but more comfortably Korean over the years – though Korea still seems like a foreign land. I’m surprised it doesn’t have to be either/or when you’re bicultural.

My husband and I have not felt at home in churches that are predominantly white. After moving counties a few years ago, we half-joked in the search for a new church that we should try black Baptist. We probably would’ve jumped out of the pew to groove with the choir. We settled in a diverse church with an active Korean-American membership.

One other factor besides race came up in my time in the suburban district: class. Cross the border out of the idyllic suburb back into the city of Philadelphia and it was 80% black, not well to do. Stopping for gas one day, I remember thinking it was ghetto. A very interesting moment because I’d not only felt at home with black Americans all my life but had grown up poor by middle class standards. The offhand feeling that I didn’t belong in that neighborhood wasn’t snootiness. I had studied my way up the immigrant ladder into Ivy League classrooms. The principal I was working closely with encouraged me to dream big. Her grandfather had climbed out from slavery to a PhD. I now realize that it is not all black Americans but those who’ve succeeded in the upward mobility that I have been drawn to. Those who are educated. It was very odd meeting people here in California who didn’t aspire to the best colleges and advanced degrees; even the Korean parents who secure private tutoring for their kids make golf lessons almost as high a priority. I came to appreciate the health of balanced living. It spotlighted the intensity of the east coast and broadened my experience of people. In my own way I had lived in a bubble. The majority of my friends from childhood went to the top schools, built impressive résumés. But I’ve come to see beyond theory that there are many ways to be smart and successful. And happy. This lesson has saved me from being the parent I would’ve been in the east.

There are some things about my parents’ culture I’ve wanted to disassociate myself from. For one, I find the people complicated and by comparison, Americans more straightforward. Americans say no when we don’t want it and the eager, grateful yes is welcome. Among Koreans, you have to listen between the lines. Which is why the language is among the hardest for nonnatives to become fluent in. While the alphabet and grammar are innocently simple, the social cues and mores to speak under can become complex. In part, my cultural illiteracy keeps me from easy participation in this exchange. It’s also my lack of finesse in navigating unspoken customs. The rest, my temperament. You can take me at face value and I like to be able to do that with you in turn. Another habit I consider a cultural blemish is the self-consciousness of both natives and the acculturated. Koreans often have to save face, especially among one another. It’s subtle, but I have little patience for it. I find myself sinking into the casual comfort among Americans with relief, over against this tiring posture to maintain. Of course the Face has its positive side: propriety, mindfulness against disgracing yourself, the upholding of honor. Koreans reach high and Americans (are happy to) have less to prove. Koreans are also insular. In all fairness, this attribute could stem from the history of invasions we have endured. But the ethnocentrism gets to me. Even many Korean-Americans don’t know how to socialize, extend beyond themselves. Huddling is not socializing.

Any thoughts on the subtle shades of your own culture? And I’m curious, with so many of us throughout the world and in the major cities. What has been your experience with Koreans, native or bilingual?

Continued in Part 3.