first person

I Became Asian When I Left Asia

Who do we mean when we refer to the ‘Asian American community’?

Photo: Courtesy Emily Jungmin Yoon
Photo: Courtesy Emily Jungmin Yoon

I became Asian when I left Asia.

Born and raised in South Korea until a few months shy of turning 11, I had never heard of anyone around me referring to themselves as Asian, until I moved to Canada. Victoria is a beautiful city tucked in at the very corner of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, whose quaint buildings on the charming waterfront downtown and range of temperatures resemble that of London. A paradise, a town for “newlyweds or the nearly-deads,” Victoria was supposedly a place too nice for racism to exist.

This was less than a year after 9/11 and the following onslaught of Islamophobia and crime and prejudice against South, Central, and West Asians and North Africans (those who are or are perceived to be Muslim). Moving to Canada — the safer half of North America, my parents figured — I was met with assumptions that I was Chinese or Japanese and the inevitable question, “What kind of Asian are you?,” which were all novel to me.

As quickly as I absorbed English, I accepted that I was now Asian, which somehow meant simultaneously that I was more than and less than Korean.

I witnessed my first anti-Asian hate in sixth grade, not too long after I settled into my new school.

One of the few Asian girls in class had actively tried to befriend me, an alien. Call her N. She was loud, bright, and always cheerful. Though I couldn’t speak or understand English the way I wanted yet, I could still see right away that many students, most of whom were white, derided her. They scrunched up their noses when N opened her lunchbox. When N brushed against them or was near them, they yelled, “Ew, [her name] cooties,” sometimes replacing “cooties” with “germs,” to which I had to ask one of them, “What are cooties?”

I cannot forget one time, walking home, I saw white boys from our class throwing eggs at N from across the street. N’s stoic eyes, and her slow gait, despite the shells falling around her. I had never seen or experienced such violence, and what this incident taught me was that I need to scrub clean my alienness so they don’t think I, also, have germs, smell disgusting.

I began to keep a diary, which I made sure to record in English.

On March 16, 19 years later, I picked up my phone and saw a headline pop up. A young white man had shot and killed eight people, across three massage shops in the Atlanta area. The names of the victims are Xiaojie (“Emily”) Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54. The last two were customers, while the others were employees. The killer claimed that he had a sex addiction and wanted to eliminate the temptation.

The Asian women’s bodies, repositories of his temptation.

The police spokesperson on the case said the killer was “pretty much fed up,” “kind of at the end of his rope.” Said “yesterday was a really bad day for him.”

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was also named Sunja, a different transliteration but nevertheless the same name as Suncha Kim. I liked to go over to her place whenever I went back to Korea, every summer and winter. When I was about 13, I was obsessed with death; I often felt overwhelmed by my fear of it. When I confessed this to my grandmother, she said, “By the time I was 16, I wasn’t scared of anything in the world.”

She meant it, perhaps, in the context of having grown up through the Japanese colonization of Korea and the Korean War. Death had already touched her life too many times. I looked forward to turning 16.

Kukmin Ilbo reports that Suncha Kim moved to the U.S. in 1980. 1980, the most prominent memory of mass shooting in contemporary collective memory in South Korea: It was the year of the Gwangju Democracy Movement, in which thousands of civilians, including young students, as young as middle-school age, protested against the authoritarian government and its military regime. Hundreds were shot down by the martial-law army, thousands injured.

Forty years later, gun violence is unfathomable in South Korea, Gwangju, an antediluvian history for many younger generations.

In 2021, Suncha had a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren. In her spare time, she liked to line dance.

At 16, there were times when I felt immortal.

At 16, my best friend S, a Chinese Canadian girl, and I would casually exchange comments such as: “If you’re Asian, you automatically get 50 more points in attractiveness.” We had already recognized that Asian fetishization existed, even among our peers in high school; what we didn’t realize yet was its dangers and the Western history of dehumanization attached to it.

When grown men whistled at us as we roamed downtown in miniskirts, we giggled and strutted with pride.

It was only in my 20s that I read about the history of the Asian American movement. I found out that “Asian American” was a highly political term, coined in the ’60s in a drive toward Pan-Asian solidarity against the larger culture of racial oppression. However, what do we imagine when one utters the word “Asian” or “Asian American”? An East Asian face like mine? So when we use the terms, or identify the self as such, we need to be aware of whom we are addressing, referring to, including, and excluding. In using the terms without rigor and introspection, are we not reasserting a certain supremacy?

Toward the end of seventh grade, walking home with N, I said something about being Asian. I think about how everyone expected me to be quiet, good at math, which were in fact all true for me. But it was that they already “knew” that before they knew me.

“You know, I’m Asian too,” N said.

“You are?” I said, taken aback.

“Iraq is part of Asia,” she said.

Now that I live in the U.S., and my parents in Korea, all they are curious about is my safety wherever I live. Is there discrimination against Asians? They would want to know, and to that, where do we begin? I should note that the word my parents, and seemingly the general population in Korea, use for “Asians” here, however, is dongyangin, which might translate to “Easterners” or “Orientals,” but the Western connotations embedded in “Orientals” do not exactly translate here. Every time there was a shooting, my mother hints that maybe I could move back to Korea. But my life is here, I say.

Soon Chung Park had moved to the Atlanta area from New York only recently. Her husband, Gwangho Lee, says that he called her up one day at work just to tell her he missed her. It made her so happy. He laments that he didn’t do it more. Now, her life is no longer here.

I read Jean Chen Ho’s essay “Sex Work Is Care Work,” which contains tender recollections about her Chinese American aesthetician and Korean hair stylist in L.A., weaved into reflections on the Atlanta shooting and sex work as care work.

“I want to love them,” she writes, regarding the victims. “I want the families and friends who survive them to know these women were valuable. For all the care they gave, all the times they administered or yielded touch. I want to touch back.”

I think about the body scrub I would get every time I went back to Korea. I, too, paid women to touch me in bathhouses, while I was naked and surrounded by other naked women, and how safe and peaceful I feel amid all our denuded bodies and desexualized glances. I miss the bathhouse women, who would converse among themselves as they scrubbed clean their clients, laughing between strokes.

Of the victims who were Korean, Hyun Jung Grant was the only one who kept her citizenship. She had two sons, and worked late hours at Gold Spa to pay for rent and their tuition. She loved to dance. She was one of those moms who’s their children’s best friend. Unable to legally prove their relationship, the sons could not obtain her body after the shooting.

The Asian body as vehicle of germs, disease, illness. At least for East Asians, I know this is not a new trope that rose alongside COVID-19; it is one that has persisted throughout the histories of East Asian migration in the U.S.

But the model-minority myth is such a strong, pervasive one that many East Asians themselves didn’t realize until the virus that we were still deemed threats, perilous, nasty. That the narrative can change just like that.

Asian American Community in Shock, Asian American Community Petrified, How to Support the Asian American Community. I’ve wondered ever since I started living in the U.S. if I am part of this community. Is the right nationality also a prerequisite for membership? What is the difference between “people” and “community”?

“Community” requires building. If we claim membership to such a broad category, the “Asian American community,” imagine it as fellowship, friendship, family, we must ask — what work does it entail? What have we been given by others, and what can we give?

In 2007, one month shy of turning 16, I read about a mass shooting at a place called Virginia Tech. The next day, on a stairway at school, a boy stopped me to say:

“Hey, he was Korean. Are you going to shoot everyone too?”

His laughter, and that of the other Taiwanese international students standing with him, fell around me.

Yong Ae Yue moved to the U.S. to be with her soldier husband, whom she separated from in 1982. Even when she herself didn’t have work, she would extend kindness to others, giving them food, flowers, gifts.

I became myself an Asian American — without American citizenship.

“Asian” and “Asian American” feel at once too big and too limiting to encompass all groups of people of Asian descent. Plus, without an American passport, what does it mean if I say I am part of the Asian American community?

For now, for me, it means to intentionally align the self with the lineage and the history of resistance to whiteness and allegiance to community-building with people of Asian descent in the country I live in. It means to extend kindness to those whose experiences and backgrounds are unfamiliar to us. It means to “speak nearby,” in the words of filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha, and which Cathy Park Hong describes as speaking “in proximity (whether the other is physically present or absent), which requires that you deliberately suspend meaning, preventing it from merely closing and hence leaving a gap in the formation process.”

It means to acknowledge and thus dispel the notion that East Asians have representative status in both “Asian” and “Asian American.” It means to use critical language to continue complicating and challenging these categories as well as “community,” terms we often automatically insert ourselves in, all the while leaving out others, without asking what these acts mean.

When nothing makes sense, how can I write?

Then I remember that I came to write precisely because little made sense — my linguistic, ethnic, cultural, racial, and gender identities, reflected and refracted in ways I didn’t always expect, want, or understand, in the countries I came to call home.

Ever since I bought my first journal so I could become my own historian, writing was an act to preserve myself against forces that tried to diminish and distort me.

Last year in Korea, someone asked me, “When there are so many tragedies, issues, how can we possibly remember them all?” To which I said, “We can remember more than we may believe. We can.”

I write to render that into truth, to try.

A few years ago, a poet named J and I read together. Our books were “born” in the same month, same year. We talked about how excited we are for the books to take on new lives, pass through different hands beyond ours and our friends’. We talked about how people are already asking, “What’s next, what’s next, what’s next. What are you working on now?”

“I’m working on my life, damn it,” J and I joked, and laughed, two poets of color, shoulders touching. We’re working on our lives.

I Became Asian When I Left Asia