My Race, Coast to Coast: Part 1

I designed this series because I thought it’d be interesting to glimpse stories from around the globe. But I found myself feeling almost apologetic writing my own; I didn’t consider my tale really worth telling. Then I warmed to the rich potential this project held out as a forum for safe, honest talk about our biases and personal struggles.

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 prefer Asian-American or Korean-American. I grew into the American part with time so in looking back on my childhood, I speak of myself as a Korean kid but it bugs me to have to check “Asian” on forms. Tip-toeing on politically correct ground, we don’t call black people Africans in the States but acknowledge their American status. I don’t know why Asian-Americans are not accorded the same respect. Actually, I do know. We are not vocal about it.

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 live in California. My family joined the biggest tide of emigration that brought South Koreans to America in the 70s. After the formative years in New York City, I went to Pennsylvania for college. I ended up nesting there until the move across the country 13 years ago. Given the diversity in major American cities I didn’t notice significant cultural differences between them, at least ethnically.

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

My childhood in NYC was your unoriginal melting pot. From neighborhood to school and city, we had white, Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and of course many Koreans. Out of my motley neighborhood, I entered the most homogenous class at P.S. 89 when I started my school career in first grade; only as an adult did I realize how unusual the roomful of Korean kids was, under the tutelage of the only Korean teacher in all of NYC at the time. (I won’t get into whether she would’ve insisted on the -American.) Mrs. Cho was Korean and Americaniz, one fully immersed in her culture but comfortable and proficient with the mores of this country. Because I was still clinging to my native language at seven, Mrs. Cho sent me out for a season of English as a Second Language services.

I was at ease with fellow Korean immigrants but as you’d expect, there was plenty of race consciousness on everyone’s part. I didn’t escape being called chink in elementary and walking home one time, was slurred with a kick for good measure. This, by two white girls I saw all the time whose parents, I now remember, were European immigrants. It was older black or Hispanic kids who wrested your bike from you and made off with it on our street – not older Asian kids. The Mexicans didn’t blare mariachi with the Chinese. Life was what it was. It would’ve been weird for the neighborhood to go all white. I wouldn’t call what we lived with tension so much as it was subtle racial abrasion. But for the most part there was peace. We had subcommunities in high school too, though there were the kids who mingled. The magnet school I went to was over 50% Asian-American, the majority being Korean. So I obviously didn’t have much occasion to feel left out the first two decades of my life.

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?

Straight out of college, I ended up one of three Korean-American teachers in a Philadelphia school. But the diversity of the city represented in staff and students kept me from thinking twice about myself as a minority. On a field trip one day with my class, I was struck seeing a line of golden-haired children from another school. It was the first time I really noticed I was Asian – and this, in my early 20s. It vaguely crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be as comfortable teaching that class.

Two years later I transfered to a neighboring district where I felt the keen finger of self-consciousness as never before. White upper-middle class suburb, old money. In the meetings that prefaced the start of school, I found myself one of two Korean-American teachers among the 100 in the entire district. My African-American principal was a colored minority. Ten percent of the students in my school were Asian and as few black. In other words, I felt very Asian surrounded by staff, parents, and students. The Korean kids lit up and greeted me when I passed by even if they were not on my roll. As the Gifted and Talented Education instructor, I was a status symbol and my principal said it was important that those children see themselves in me. Despite the politeness of many teachers, I did feel awkwardly different among them. When a group of us went out to try some Korean food, I saw for the first time the profound, basic relationship of food to culture. Those who passed nervously on the invitation gave away their indifference to the Korean culture, and to me.

Others were outright mean (on things not having to do with food), even conspired to get me, with things eventually coming to a dramatic head. Though it’s hard to say, the malice didn’t seem fueled by racism as it was by the position I held. Suffice it to say I was a walking omen of more paperwork for the classroom teachers. Anyone who stepped into my position was doomed because, servicing the high achievers in the whole school, I worked with everyone and no one. As a specialist, I had no colleagues by grade to team with. The cultural distinction felt sharper for the rejection.

My sense of self remained unshaken. It never has been. I enjoyed deep friendships with teachers who shared my faith and also knew the kindness of those who didn’t – some black, some white. I’m not sure how I handled that sense of separation from the masses. I kept my head high, even managed to break through some walls and feel accepted by some cliques though I refrained from trying too hard. I also refused to stoop to the level of my enemies. Not one retort, confrontation, or curse escaped my lips though I can’t count the times I came hairline close. I had dirt on them, too. But this way, I had won. No one could accuse me of a bad word. And in time, they were served their due. I have never looked back on those few years with anything but a dull negativity. As trying as it was, I now feel it was good for me to have experienced the cold heat of exclusion. The real world isn’t a bubble and if you insist on staying in one, it’ll burst on you. I’d say it’s important for those who usually sit among the white majority to have to work through this sense of isolation at some point, too. Of course I don’t mean we should perpetuate hatefulness across racial lines. But some discomfort out of complacency challenges us to grow.

Continued in Part 2.

Dear Mr. President-Elect

“Remember you can’t eat money…You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people…”

Green Life Blue Water

img_2759

Dear Mr. President Elect

My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)

What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and…

View original post 1,070 more words

Dear White People

Making America great again.

A Thomas Point of View

Can we talk?

Can we truly talk about the elephant in the room that you never want to talk about?

Race.

Let’s talk about race.

I’m black.

I’m a woman.

Two indisputable facts that you may have noticed.

I’m a mother.

To a son.

He’s the light of my life.

He’s my Munch.

He’s also black.

Why do I keep mentioning color? Because I need you to see and acknowledge the rich hues in my skin tone. I need you to see my melanin and know that I am black. Can you see the warm coffee colored hues of my skin tone just radiating? Yes?

Good.

Let’s talk.

I’m black. A beautiful black woman who shares a rich history in this country. My ancestors were kings and queens, slaves and sharecroppers. I know this. Many of you know this. But, I need you to stop acting like I’m supposed to forget…

View original post 493 more words

The Best Things About Blogging

1. Individuality and community.
Blogging gives us the best of both, lets us develop our self in the nest of “the collective heartbeat”. (Anne Lamott)

2. The freedom.
Anything goes: some days this is my own TED stage or talk show. On others, my stand-up. Sometimes it’s my notebook.

3. The empowering.
You can take yourself as seriously as you want to and ask others to.

4. The humbling.
You remember you’re just a leaf in the forest. Let’s keep it real.

5. The immediacy, the organic exchange.

6. The traffic.
The comment board is the interface of lives and a place where people can lend their perspective to expand yours.

7. The pay-out.
It’s the immigrant ethos. You sight unchartered space in blogosphere, nothing in your pocket. You stake your ground, work hard, and can build something of worth.

8. The low maintenance.
Comb my hair? Figure out which top to wear?  I can blog in my bathrobe behind my smiling avatar, ever presentable.

Forbes.com

Forbes.com

9. The low cost.
I got the premium plan to keep the ads away, for your sake and mine. I felt vandalized when they started popping up. There is no motive for my writing other than the joy and I’m not here to mark out a trail to a pretty place that empties your wallet. Anyway, at 27 cents a day it beats spending on gas and an overrated drink at Starbucks to enjoy friends.

10. The Efficiency.
I’m all set. Honey, no need to write anything for my funeral. Just pull up the comments for the eulogies!

Why Everybody Else Is Happier Than You

Why does Facebook famously feed depression? The Happiest Virtual Place On Earth can feel like one endless reminder of the Things That Are Missing in our life. Offline, I look at the people around me. My single friends would give an arm to be married. Those with families of their own each have their burden, ones I am grateful to have been spared. So why are we convinced that others were dealt better cards, when every one of us remains in need of support and understanding?

happier-disney-castle

Reasons We’re Sure Everybody Is Happier Than Us*

1. We are unsatisfied with our lot, no matter how it turns. The human condition is not, in the language of mathematicians, an equation but an inequality: My life < The Ideal. By literary metaphor, we are an unfinished story, which is why our heart beats for more. More money, more time, more joy, more toys, more love. We bring to the table our fractured perspective, limited understanding, hopes conceived of an unresolved past. We will never, by the bootstraps of our humanness, be able to complete our relationships because we can’t complete ourselves.

2. Our sense of entitlement. Conflict in these imperfect relationships gives us away and pride declares, “I deserve better. He owes me appreciation, recognition. She should’ve given me the benefit of the doubt.” Disgruntled where we are, how nice and green lies the grass on the other side.

3. The myth of perfectionism. I borrow some insights from Alain Botton, author of the NY Times article Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, on our misguided notions of love because nowhere else do we so generously spin our fantasies of happiness. In a recent roundtable entitled How We Choose Our Spouses, Botton spoke of the reaction his article had garnered:

What was interesting was that people were overwhelming relieved. Look, it’s like telling people you will have an unhappy life…I think that often we suffer from a burden of shame around how difficult it is that we find it to live, to love, to make good choices…And the reason that there is something oppressive in being told that only perfection will do as the basis of marriage, is that so many of our marriages, under that kind of judgment, have to seem below par and it can seem rather punitive and oppressive as if we have failed to measure up to a standard which most of us simply cannot measure up to.

We allow Facebook and blogs to perpetuate the hope in fairy tales, the expectation that we grow up and live happy, photogenic lives.

We should learn to accommodate ourselves to ”wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners…We don’t need people to be perfect in love. We need people to be good enough.

4. Love, according to Botton, is not an impulse of feeling but a skill. It isn’t pay dirt at emotional Roulette but “with all of us deeply broken, a chance of success in love means being able to deal with our brokenness, both inside ourselves and in a partner.” I’d say this truth holds for all our relationships. “Compatibility is ultimately an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be…the precondition of falling in love.” Love is something you work, and often work hard, at. You manage expectations of spouse, friend, self, and life, being able to explain your craziness as you grow in self-awareness. But we somehow believe life doesn’t exact so much effort of those around us.


*HW won out in the argument with her twin The Grammar Mafia and managed to keep the vernacular with the objective pronoun.

STRANDED

Now, why’s the AC dying again? We just fixed it. Weird. Car’s sluggish, too.

Mph: 70. 60. 50. 45.

Ok. Gotta pull over. I run the hazard lights and crawl over two lanes to the shoulder – just in time. The Sienna gives out and it takes me a minute to realize the hood’s smoking. My eyes fall to the cubbyhole where my phone usually sits. Great. The day I run out of the house without it. Noted, husband. Noted. I can make out Pyrite Exit, 1/2 Mile up the freeway and all I can do is hope for a gas station there. Collecting my keys, hat, and the little water I have, I don’t go five yards before deciding, “Not in these sandals. Not in this sun.” Turning back toward the car, I do the only thing left to get to a phone. I stick out my thumb. As the minutes wear on, I’m not sure what strikes in me greater wonder. Finding myself “hitchhiking” or seeing that nobody was stopping. I am also a little nervous about who might want to come to the aid of a lone woman.

Before I can worry too much, a car horn interjects and I spin to see a beat-up truck behind the fence. Cozy in the front, three Latino men who look to be in their twenties wave. Apply every politically incorrect stereotype and judge by appearances, and these were not guys a sober helpless female would turn to for help. Here goes nothing. My New York sense of adventure moves me forward.

“Hi. Can you please call my husband, tell him I’m stuck on the 60 and need AAA?”

The men smile and three cell phones appear in a flash. The guy nearest me in Shotgun beats his friends to it and waiting through the rings, apologetically swings a tattooed arm to keep his cigarette smoke from reaching me.

“Honey, it’s me!” I call out to prove the call is no prank.

I’m told help is on the way and decline the men’s offer to stay with me. As they pull away, the guys point behind me and looking back toward the freeway I see a young man in something like a Corvette smiling as if to ask, “Anything I can do?”

“Thank you so much but my husband is coming.” I nod my thanks and in a few minutes make out a police car in the distance. California Highway Patrol stops to make sure I’m okay and offers the cooled vehicle for a waiting room but I’m not feeling venturesome enough to climb into the backseat I associate with a jail cell. And then my knight in shining armor pulls up.

________________________________________________________________________

Later: “When I heard a man’s voice on the line saying, ‘Your wife…’ your life flashed before my eyes. I thought I’d lost you and saw myself putting T in school. And writing on your blog.

Over my dead body.

stranded3

 

A Million Signatures of Friendship

I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. The Cricket Catcher breathed restlessly and contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?

You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. We still get a kick out of the way that I, Bathroom Monitor at lunch in fourth grade, had the girls wait for a stall in size order…because you were short.

Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between our homes, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals: the muscle and fiber of a childhood.

If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean mothers. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls of my old high school. He would think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.

Bonjour, Texas: Summer 1966

By the second week I learned that Texans sweat as much
as the French, and swear even more, that you couldn’t fight one
twin without taking on the other. But the librarian would slip me
the choicest donated fiction, and I played baseball every day in the
vacant lot until sundown called the players home to black and white
body counts and cigarette commercials on the three channels we got.

Sometimes I lay in bed under the half-light of the whirring fan
blades, and dreamt of heroes and ornithopters, zebras and the scent
of chocolate chip cookies in the oven. Other nights I wondered
how words could rest so calmly on one page yet explode off the next,
or why a man would climb a tower in Austin to kill fourteen people.
Wasn’t living a matter of simple subtraction?

One by one the days parted and I walked through the dwindling
heat, eyes squinting, questions in hand, emerging fifty years later
having suffered the mathematics of love and success, honor and
truth, still asking why and how, where it’d gone, shoulders slumped
under the heft of those beautiful, terrible summers stacked high
like so many life-gatherings of unread books awaiting a bonfire.

Robert Okaji, O at the Edges

 

 

I Hear Voices

First Grade, NYC

First Grade, NYC

I imagine people don’t know what a recluse I am. I socialize at church and in the homeschool gatherings stand tall, take initiative, make announcements. My parents, struggling to piece together a life in a country where they were Other, taught their little girl to write large and speak loudly. That’s me in the school play, mike in hand. (My husband would now like me to lower my voice by 20%.) I’m usually the one to notice inefficient or unjust ways things are done in our different communities and the one to speak up. So I can pull off extrovert and can be sociable because I know it’s rude to sit next to someone for half an hour and say nothing. But all I want, oh all I want is to bolt the door and write. Bury myself in what novelist Dani Shapiro calls the Cave to give attention to the voices in my head, meet myself on the page. Because inside is where so much of my life is.

I would probably long for love and community if I were granted the hermit’s wish (er, I think). ‘Tis human to want what is out of reach. Look at me glaringly not in step with the vogue practice of being present. No, I can’t be fully feeling the current of the moment around my feet when my head is in books, ideas, memory. In my defense: we women are wicked multitaskers.

Speaking of tasks, I asked Husband to scrape the stovetop stains last week. With equanimity he announced that he had just vacuumed and was done for the day. “I’ve done enough,” he declared pleasantly. I marveled at the male self-preservation mechanism in action. Granted, that was a lot of carpet. But it was the question corporate executives, business owners, moms, students knot themselves in angst over. When is enough? And he had solved the cosmic conundrum with such ease. Buddha Man just might be able to undo the problem of world peace. I laughed, “Done enough. Imagine mothers saying that. The world would stop.” No skin off his nose, he agreed – feet up, on the couch. I shouldn’t grouse about the responsibilities. It’s a blessing, not a burden, to have places to go, people to see, (aaalll these) things to do. George Eliot debuted at 50, Laura Ingalls Wilder at 65. There are others enjoying their second life publishing in their 70s and 80s. I don’t plan to wait another 30 years to go and to see all that’s in my head but in the meantime, I show up where I’m needed. Whether or not I can show up for myself, I will keep writing large and speak to be heard. Poor Husband.

The Real Reasons I Blog

1. To ward off dementia.

2. Stay in touch with my roots. No such thing as overworking with Koreans. Rest? Psh. That’s what the grave is for.

3. You’ve saved me money on therapy. I didn’t have to go this year.

4. I don’t want to clean. Who in their right mind would choose mopping and dusting over THIS?

5. It’s my one rightful obsession. I don’t drink, smoke, go on shopping sprees, or get pedicures. You gotta give me sOmething.

6. I can be as anal as I want and people like me for it. Go figure.

7. I’m repressed. Parents didn’t let me stay out at night. I get to party ’round the clock as the comments roll in.

8. I hand out advice on stuff: blogging, life, men and women. And all these people think I’m for real.

9. It’s my only chance at keeping up with technology. I’m terrified to tweet, annoyed with Facebook, have yet to go near an iPod, hate texting.

10. I haven’t had this much fun since…since…
*Slump* Pathetic. (Time for my next pick-me-up post.)