This is the first of two articles — how being biracial makes me feel like I’m part of the problem in the age of Black Lives Matter

My mom was Korean and my dad is, I say jokingly, Californian because he’s the epitome of a blond haired, blue eyed, surfer boy (read: white). And during this moment in time with racial tensions being what they are and the growing national and global awareness of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, I’m not quite sure where I fit in.

The flag of South Korea (left) and the flag of the state of California (right)

And please, don’t think for a moment this article is about taking advantage of BLM to grab likes and follows for myself. Nor is it about distracting from Black Lives Matter because the deck is stacked against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in this country. And I’ve seen many glimpses of that in my own life as well as other friends and family.

So, I’d like to break this subject into two parts — first, I’ll break down my own experiences here as a person who’s HAPA, or of mixed racial heritage with part-Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry, which comes from Hawaiian concept of hapa haole (meaning: half white). And then, in the second part, I’ll talk about why I felt as though I needed to add my voice to the chorus of folks talking about BIPOC in this age of BLM.

Let’s get into a few of my own stories.

Growing up, I never felt like I fit fully into one camp or the other; I was too much of a ‘gook’ to be considered white and I was too white to be considered Asian. And I’ve tried emphasizing one side of the seesaw over the other — wanting to be more white than Korean or wanting to be more Korean than white. But it was always when I tried to be more white where I would run into problems.

Gook is a derogatory term used to describe a Korean, also used for people of Filipino or Vietnamese descent. This term was obtained from the Korean pronunciation of their country, 한국 (han-gook), and of the United States, 미국 (mee-gook). I heard a story that during the 1950s little children would run up to American soldiers because they had chewing gum, candy, etc., saying “미국! 미국!” referring to the soldiers but it was taken to mean literally, Me gook. Or might be understood as, I am a gook.

“You don’t look white.”

In first or second grade, the chants of “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these” fill my playground memories. Children’s fingers pulling the outside corners of eyes upwards and downwards to demonstrate “Chinese” and “Japanese” — which is wholly racist and generally inaccurate — and while I’m not exactly sure what “dirty knees” and “look at these” mean, it seems and feels pretty rude, sexist, and even misogynistic. “Dirty knees” may have been a reference to farming or other kinds of activities performed on one’s knees. And “look at these” were usually sung as references to the person who’s singing’s chest (while pulling out two pinched areas of a shirt) or groin (grabbing and other motions).

Often, kids from my class or other classes for no reason would speak to me in gibberish, “Ah see naw how mah ching wong”. And never to other kids, just me. I’m still not sure what language they were trying to speak.

There was also a girl named Crystal in sixth grade who once asked me why I looked so different from everyone else in class. I looked around and told her that I am Korean, that my mom was Korean. Her reply was, “Oh. That’s why you look so ugly.” Because of stories like this and others, I would try to be more white throughout my life.

Once when we were choosing teams for wall ball — think of racquetball meets dodgeball played with tennis balls — and Jeremy picked me, saying, “The Chink. I’ll take the Chink for my team.” He had spiked, short, brown hair with silver braces on his bottom teeth and freckles on his nose. I looked around at a sea of white, brown, and a couple of Black faces, wondering who he was talking about before I realized he was talking about me, having used the wrong racial slur.

When I was about to start middle school, I thought long and hard about what made me look Asian and I thought, It’s my eyes, the almond shape. That’s what singles me out. And so, I resolved that I would keep my eyes open wide by raising my eyebrows as high as they would go. And for the first Monday of school, I walked around with my eyes wide in this way. My friends would ask me, “Are you okay?” I would shrug and answer, “Yes, I’m fine. Why do you ask?” The whole thing was exhausting and ridiculous. By Tuesday morning, I was done.

But that didn’t mean that I gave up tipping the scales for being more white than Korean. In my 20s, I stopped checking any demographic boxes that indicated I was any sort of Asian. I would check the white box firmly. I even swore off eating Korean food, that was a dark time of my life for a variety of reasons, but then I would still be reminded of my Asian heritage in unexpected ways.

On a road trip through Austin to New Orleans, I was told by friends that I shouldn’t stop in Beaumont — the county seat of Jefferson County in east Texas — unless I had to. “You‘ll probably be okay. But only stop if you have to.” That echoes in my head, “Keep driving if you can. But you‘ll probably be okay.”

Maybe a dozen years ago, we had dinner at a seafood restaurant in Livingston, Texas with my girlfriend (now wife), her parents, and her grandmother. When I walked in, I felt that sensation of a needle skittering across a record and everyone at the bar stopping to look. It was a weekday night and I remember it was one of the longest meals of my life. I’ve never felt more like a side show exhibit, being stared at directly and indirectly by every other patron there — all white as far as I could tell.

There is a false notion that Asians are the “model minority” in the U.S.

Among many publications — Newsweek (“The Drive to Excel”, Apr 1984), Time (“The New Whiz Kids”, Aug 1987), The New Republic (“The Triumph of Asian-Americans”, Jul 1985), and The New York Times (“Why Asians are Going to the Head of the Class”, Aug 1985) — and many politicians (for one, President Ronald Reagan called us “our exemplars of hope” in Apr 1981) have expressed awe by the model minority myth, the myth that is built on the stereotype of some high level of grit, a family culture of high expectations, and subsequent perceived success.

It’s almost as though Asian Americans have come to be the minority that are ‘okay’ because we’ve achieved some measure of socioeconomic achievement despite discrimination. Many people go even further and argue that since Asian Americans are seemingly doing so well, that we experience no discrimination, that we are all successful, and that none of us are struggling. So much so that we no longer need public services such as bilingual education, government documents in multiple languages, or welfare in general.

But the idea of Asians being a model minority is a myth. Let’s look at how much more money a person earns with each additional year of schooling completed or “returns on education”:

One of the first in-depth studies that looked at per capita income between Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups… research consistently shows that for each additional year of education attained, Whites earn another $522.

A White with 4 more years of education [after high school] can expect to earn $2088 per year in salary. In contrast, returns on each additional year of education for a Japanese American is only $438. For a Chinese American, it’s $320. For [African-Americans], it’s even worse at only $284. What this means is that basically, a typical Asian American [or African-American] has to get more years of education just to make the same amount of money that a typical White makes with less education.

Le, C.N. 2020. “The Model Minority Image” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. (June 13, 2020)

At another place in his article, Dr. Le reminds us that Asian Americans may share some general similarities but we are not all alike. There are plenty of differences among the variety of groups.

For every Chinese American or South Asian who has a college degree, the same number of Southeast Asians are still struggling to adapt to their lives in the U.S. For example, as shown in the tables in the Socioeconomic Statistics & Demographics article, Vietnamese Americans only have a college degree attainment rate of 20%, less than half the rate for other Asian American ethnic groups. The rates for Laotians, Cambodians, and Khmer are even lower at less than 10%.

Le, C.N. 2020. “The Model Minority Image”

More info can be found here and here and here. Just punch “model minority Asian” into your search engine of choice and dig in. (I prefer Duck Duck Go.) This idea has been around for decades and it hurts everyone.

I would go so far as to say that the myth of a model minority does not apply to Asians but it doesn’t apply to anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race, or religion. Nor should the idea be used as a contrast to other minority groups. Let’s throw it out.

“You don’t look Korean.”

More recently, there have also been times where I’ve stated very clearly that I’m Korean, but someone else has a different idea altogether. When my wife and I first moved to New York City in 2009, we were waiting on a train platform at South Ferry for the uptown 1 (red line) when we noticed an inebriated man dancing around and leaning up against one of the pillars. He was a shorter Latino man wearing a black Stetson cowboy hat. When the train came roaring into the station, I prodded him so that he wouldn’t miss the train. The man, my wife, and I all clamored from the platform to the train with the prerecorded announcement, “Stand clear of the closing doors” followed by the bing bong tone. With one eye open, he studied me and said, “Thanks. Where you from, man?” I studied him, unsure of what he was asking, and replied, “I live on the Upper West Side.” He wagged his finger at me, saying “No-o-o.” I added, “My mom’s Korean.” Again, he said, “No-o-o-o-o!” He scrutinized me again, jabbed his finger into the air, and said with so much satisfaction, “Hawaii!” I nodded and smiled because it would’ve been heartbreaking to tell him otherwise.

Regardless of what other people think or say, it’s important for me to own up to who I am — that means genetically, culturally, and developmentally. The whole of me, all 100%.

When I visited Korea in 2016 with my wife and my daughter, I was terrified that I would be treated like a pariah. Like some kind of outsider. But that was never the case. So many people of all ages came up to me and began speaking to me in Hangul, speaking so quickly as though I should be fluent and be able to understand what they were asking or saying to me.

Granted, we were only there for a couple weeks and being somewhere visiting versus living somewhere is very different, but I never felt at any time that I was being singled out — not in urban areas (Seoul and Busan) or more rural areas (Donghae or Daegu) — for not being Korean enough.

Last month, my next door neighbors wanted to know if I was okay. They were worried about COVID-19 being characterized by racial rhetoric like “Chinese virus”, “Wuhan virus”, or “Kung-flu”. Even in a city like San Francisco, they just wanted to make sure I was safe. This was during the time when California had shelter-in-place orders in full effect and they were wearing masks and we were standing in their backyard, socially distant from one another. It warmed my heart that my neighbors thought to check on me but it broke my heart that this kind of xenophobia was still at work in the world. I naively thought we were better people than that. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize my own privilege and personal biases — I carry them with me everyday — but I try my best to be a good person and work to be a better person today than I was yesterday. (More on that in the second part of this article in two days.)

For me, the last few weeks have been filled with frustration, anger, sadness, and, most of all, despair. Racism against Asian Americans is the same racism that operates against other people, other people of color, and of Black people. It’s not any better or worse but it is a similar force — and it’s deeply connected into present institutional structures of privilege and power. And it needs to stop.

Three things that I’d like to leave you with: first, Asian Americans aren’t all the same. We come in many different shapes, sizes, and in all sorts of color. After all, Asia is the largest continent in the world. We may not even look or seem Asian but we are. Second, we’re not “others”, we are people just like anyone else. We’re Americans, first, second, third, etc. generation; we’re fresh off the boat; we’re visitors; we’re illegals. There are all types of us. And no one deserves the ongoing racial lies and stereotypes in our society today. And third, there’s no such thing as a model minority. And vice versa, there’s no such thing as an unideal minority.

After too many years of running from who I am, trying to be someone else, I’m coming to peace with who I am. All of me.

Here’s one more funny thing — I found out from 23andme that mothers give a small bit more DNA to their sons than to their daughters because of a process of mixing and matching DNA called recombination. So, 23 of my 45 chromosomes came from my mother, from her double XXs. And according to that, I’m statistically 51–53% East Asian, mostly Korean and Japanese — so, more Asian than Californian. Breathe in, breathe out. And for some reason that little bit of data makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin, in all the parts of my skin.

Black lives matter. 🖤

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

In case you’re wondering, sons receive a higher percentage of their mother’s DNA, while daughters receive a more equitable amount, 50% from each parent.

And don’t forget about the second part of this article where I talk about why I’m speaking about BIPOC in this time of increased awareness of BLM. Read it here.

Design director at SoftServe, host of How This Works, coach with Plucky, advisor at Shep. Formerly at thoughtbot SF, Fjord NYC, and PBS FRONTLINE among others.

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