It started before a friend told me that he wanted to date white women and before another friend told me “fuck white people.” It started before two 14-year-old girls on their way to a birthday party were crushed to death on the Yangju Highway, before George Bush put North Korea on the Axis of Evil, and even before either of my parents was born.
The Korean government turned a blind eye to prostitution at American military bases so the soldiers would stop raping civilians and the Korean people boiled leftover hotdogs, spams, and beans from American military bases to create “military soups,” once known as the “Lyndon B. Johnson soup.” MacArthur was hailed as a national hero and phrases like “even shit tastes better American” were thrown around while, halfway around the world, America did its best to continue its worst by beating and killing its own people.
A decade later, people in both countries held hands and sang “All You Need Is Love” with four British boys from Liverpool, but neither really started confronting the growing hatred towards each other or their own people. And I am their child. I am the child of these two nations with unresolved past, with public love and private hate, with open disdain and secret fetish, and with sons and daughters who grow up to lose their parents.
Before I knew any of this, I knew I had two passports while my parents only had one. I had the blue passport that they didn’t have and was told that being born in Queens was a good enough reason for me to have it. I had no memory of the place because our family moved to Korea when I was three. But whenever New York City came on the news, my parents would call out and say “Look, there’s your city!”
They told me and my brother that Abe Lincoln and Neil Armstrong were part of our history. They told us that we belonged to the strongest nation in the world. History books said the same thing. Hollywood movies said the same thing. Olympic Games said the same thing. And when another Korean found out that I had this blue passport, I saw in their faces that they were thinking the same thing.
In 1998, I liked being Korean. I loved being American.
Sometime that year, Aunt June came from California with a giant bag of assorted candies. I had been saving up lollipops in my candy box for months and had only collected five or six. So when Aunt June came with enough candies to fill the box ten times over, the message I received was clear: Fuck saving, here’s three thousand candies – there’s more of these where I’m from.
Although I could never get myself to like the Laffy Taffys or the Lemonheads and ended up throwing most of the candies away, I wanted to go where Aunt June was from. And while I sat on the sofa opening a bag after another, tasting candies, and spitting them out, mom sat across from Aunt June and listened to her stories. She heard about Aunt June’s white engineer husband, her two story house with a peach tree in the back, and her son who had just skipped second grade. Three years later, Aunt June called my mom and asked if she wanted to send me to America. My mom and I were so enchanted by the illusion of America that we agreed in a heartbeat.
In 2001, I moved alone to Aunt June’s house in California and my dad told me over the phone that my new name would be David. And at this time, I was more ready to be David than any other. Aunt June bought me a pair of Jordans that she called “Nike IIs,” jean shorts with side pockets, and a bunch of polo shirts in different colors. She suggested that I slip a book in my side pocket to accentuate the cool, so I grabbed a yellow Nancy Drew book and slid it in my right pocket. And in the morning of my first class in America, I spiked my new “four on the top, two on the sides” hair with lavish amount of L. A. Looks Mega Hold.
Over the weekend, I watched cartoon episodes on Disney so I’d have something to talk about with the kids. But when I met the kids in Mrs. Drippes’s third grade class at Desert Christian, they carried Pokémon lunch boxes and backpacks. They watched Dragon Ball Z. Jackie Chan was still cool enough to have his own cartoon show and his Rush Hour 2 was one of the highest grossing films of that year. Even Jet Li had a number one movie alongside DMX around this time. When I arrived in America, kids and adults were already consuming Asian culture and other twisted, distorted, and untrue forms of Asianness.
So in 2001, I let others fetishize my Asianness, because I was desperate to become American.
Along with the rest of the boys, I just watched Dragon Ball Z in which the Asian martial arts gods fought aliens by turning supersaiyen. When a character goes supersaiyen, his skin become pale, brown eyes become blue, black hair turns blond, and the strength increases fiftyfold. I watched and enjoyed Asian characters transforming into white gods without being hurt, because that hierarchy made sense. And it made sense to Asian American kids across America, to the Asian kids in Asia, and to the Asian animators who created this visual endorsement of white supremacy. And after all, that’s what many of our parents wanted for us—to become white, become powerful, and become what they couldn’t be.
These were brave parents who packed their bags and moved their families to America or sent their children to live with friends, relatives, and strangers. But these were also scared parents who renamed their kids as Davids, Daniels, Jessicas, and Amys. They gave up on keeping their family together by sending their children to host families, or they left their careers to become storekeepers; dry cleaners; nail salon, massage parlor, and donut shop owners; cooks;, and domestic workers so that their children would have the choices and paychecks that they could never have. They wanted their kids to be able to permeate the white spaces and escape their horizon of Koreatowns, Chinatowns, and ethnic churches.
“If you’re not white, you’re missing out because this shit is thoroughly good. I’m not saying white people are better, but I’m saying that being white is clearly better. Who could even argue?” Louis C. K. says in “Chewed Up.”
And this is exactly what our parents thought. So when they saw that their children could perform as white, they encouraged it without teaching us or telling us to love our Asian side. And as the line between performing as white and being white blurred, so did the line between thinking white people are better and thinking that being white is better. In hindsight, our biggest mistake was having believed in the line at all.
In middle school, we grew out of the Dragon Ball Z phase and entered the Jackass phase. To us puberty-stricken Christian school kids, Jackass and its spinoff shows like Viva la Bam and Wildboyz—in which white dudes ran around not giving a fuck about others, themselves, and the consequences—were not only funny, but even somewhat admirable. Aunt June had a son named Billy who I looked up to like my older brother, and he incorporated this not-giving-a-fuck mentality into himself in the form of Asian jokes. He was the funny Asian kid in his grade who didn’t care about saying racist jokes about himself and the other Asians. That gave him a pass on saying other racist jokes toward other groups of people as well.
As little brothers do, I learned from Billy and performed this character to my friends. On a daily basis, I told jokes involving Asian parents, bad driving skills, nerds, rice and eggrolls, small dicks, dog eaters, squinty eyes, accents, kung fu, and William Hung. And as long as my friends laughed, it felt great. I invited other kids to do the same with their race or ethnicity. There were only about 60 kids in my grade and soon, these racist jokes became a part of our language. Saying one more of these jokes became easier and easier. With no other Asian, black or Hispanic students to tell us that the jokes were hurtful, we just continued with white students laughing at our jokes and encouraging us on. The worst and most hurtful jokes, we often told ourselves. And we thought not giving a fuck, not being so sensitive, but, instead, being “cool with it” was our way of saying that we were not what we made fun of.
But every once in a while, I secretly feared that I wasn’t so different from what I made fun of. I was scared, despite all my Asian disses, that I was still an Asian boy who joked his ass off to become American and failed. So I overcompensated by over-consuming culture. I read books, listened to music, watched movies, and watched television more than any of my friends. I broke every Accelerated Reader record at my school, watched every movie in the IMDB Top 250 that I could find, listened to whatever album got over 8.0 on Pitchfork, and watched whatever television show that kids talked about in school. I figured that if I knew more, read more, watched more, and listened to more of American culture than any of my friends, no one could tell me that I wasn’t American.
In 2004, I hated being Korean, but I was obsessed with being American.
Around this time, however, my parents sensed that I was slipping away. They saw that I spoke English well, that I had white friends and girlfriends, and that I could become—as they wished—a part of “them.” But they missed being a part of my life. And they feared that they would lose a son and never get him back. They feared that I would lose a family and become lost.
So my parents found an international school in Korea where I could continue studying in English. They called me back to Korea in 2005 and I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and returned to Korea.
The international school was filled with other Korean kids who had American citizenships. They were also sons and daughters of scared Korean parents who’d given them the most boring and safe American names. And even here, the kids didn’t blend in with other Korean kids, but formed their own community of Asian Americans. We were all fixated on consuming and learning American culture, and didn’t even try to learn or love the people and the culture we lived among.
These confused kids watched the Super Bowl without knowing the rules, called each other “niggas” and “G’s” and said shit like, “You’re from California? I’m so jealous!” Kids made fun of Korean accents, and the teachers sent students to the principal’s office for speaking Korean. The school sponsored programs like Habitat for Humanity and volunteer trips to South Asian countries, when, five minutes from the school, people lived in unauthorized housing, not knowing when the government or the landowners might force them to move out.
In 2005, these Asian-American kids and I were bad at loving our Korean side. And like many of our parents before us, we continued to uncritically accept all things American.
After two years there, I moved to Texas with my brother, to the house of a friend of my mom’s. My brother had stayed in Korea after our family left New York, so he spoke little English and had no idea what America would be like. But he had all the same illusions that I had. He willingly consumed American culture like me and dreamed about going to an American college and living up to his blue passport.
But at Paschal High School, teachers proudly talked about the existence of two different schools within one—one school with kids taking honor and AP classes and another with kids taking regular classes—and they didn’t care that the system separated most black and brown students from white students. They used phrases like “better opportunity” and “academic excellence,” but they didn’t love their students enough to teach or motivate all of them equally. The socioeconomic and racial divide was evident even during lunch times, when one group of students ate 40-cent government lunch while the other group ate homemade lunches or bought lunch from the in-school Pizza Hut vendor.
On my first day of school, my English teacher told me that I looked like “the Chinese kid in Disturbia.” I had no idea what that meant. Then a white student said to me during class: “Your eyes are so black, it’s almost like you don’t have an iris.” A couple days later, the school asked me to take an English proficiency test in which a lady asked “Man is big, bears are bigger, and dinosaurs are?” and “Grass is green and sky is?” My soccer coach, when I told him not to call me Bruce Lee, said “Other Asian kids liked it when I called them Bruce Lees.” Then a kid in my soccer team told me to show him my dick, because he’d heard Asian dicks were small.
When I asked for my college counselor’s help because I didn’t even know what SATs were, she laughed and said “That’s such an Asian thing to ask.” Then, the week before my college applications were due, she went on a vacation without writing my recommendation letter. The office ladies refused to call her cell phone, because we needed to “respect her privacy.” After the due date, she returned and said “Oops, sorry.” When I asked my English teacher if she could check my essay, she returned it the next day, unmarked, except for the comment “interesting.” A couple weeks before graduation, some students asked me to be in a photo and represent diversity so they could get Obama to come and speak.
For the first time, I started to feel something that I hadn’t felt when I was with other nine-year-olds in California or the confused Korean kids in Seoul. I knew that I wasn’t seen as an American by these people. And I thought, maybe, I had been deceiving myself into thinking that I was something that I couldn’t ever be. The term Asian American didn’t make sense to me. The people who we described as successful Asian Americans seemed to be the ones who successfully grew out of their Asianness and become Americans.
Nobody I knew had ever articulated what being an Asian American really was. Having an accent was a failure. Not speaking their parents’ language was not. Having no white friends was a failure. Having no Asian friends was not. Having a white partner was a success. Having black and brown partners was not. Many Asian American kids ate kimchi at home, loved ramen noodles, had Asian parents, and had exposure to Asian culture and language. Yet, they hid and distanced themselves from Asianness. They tweaked their last names on Facebook to sound white and separated themselves from Asian kids from Asia saying “I’m from New Jersey,” “I’m from North Carolina,” and “I’m just American.”
In 2010, I didn’t feel Korean. And I felt unwanted as an American.
I have taken language classes, econ classes, art classes, sociology classes, film classes, and English classes in college. I have learned to start sentences with “I feel like. . .” or “I think it’s interesting that. . .” I’ve learned to define people and their experiences. I’ve learned to use and misuse detached academic words like “diversity,” “privilege,” and “safe space” in my arguments and conversations. But I’ve never been asked to see my relationship to the people we defined. I was never asked to use “love” in the place of these impersonal words we leaned on.
I have written about gay marriages, black cinema, Asian images, woman’s rights, but never about love. And never with love. I have forgotten about that word for so long that I couldn’t remember how I wanted to be loved, how I loved, and how I failed to love. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I haven’t ever loved myself.
When I watched Bobby Lee, Ken Jeong, and Psy, I hated myself as a Korean. When I watched a YouTube video of white guys harassing a Korean girl saying “Why can’t you get plastic surgery like every other Korean bitches” and yelling “We gotta get the boobs in there,” I hated myself as an American. But even before these incidents, I have seen Korea failing to love its own people, America failing to love its own people, and both countries failing to love each other.
About four years ago, my brother went back to Korea, after three years in America. He started having nightmares, so he would stay up as long as he could until his body gave up to sleep. And when he sleeps, he shrieks. He wakes up crying. My mom called me one day to tell me that he drank alone at a bar and punched through five windows. “What happened in America?” she asked.
And a couple months ago, my friend Daniel said to me after watching Louis C. K. perform: “I think white people are just better.” A couple weeks later, I got a call from another friend saying that Daniel went crazy, ran around Third Avenue barefooted, and the police took him to a hospital. I went through two password-protected doors at Beth Israel to see him, and he told me that he ran for his life because he saw “I’m in your area” pop up on his computer screen. He said that when he tried to run away, a man in a red hoodie carrying a knife came to kill him. He said things that I couldn’t even understand, and then started writing down names of white artists that we idolized for years.
“They always knew,” he said.
What the fuck happens in America? What happens in America that my brother spends three years here and starts having nightmares too freighted to forget? What happens in America that my best friend who loved and consumed American culture all his life says, after spending two years in NYU, that white people are just better? What happens in America that makes him run for his life because he thinks someone is coming to kill him?
I couldn’t tell you what. But I can tell you how America failed to love. I can tell you that America doesn’t love its inarticulate. Instead of asking my brother “How can I help?” or “What can I do?” teachers suggested lower level classes and punished with words and grades. College professors did the same. When he turned in essays much more articulate than his speech, they asked “Who helped you?” and “What did you plagiarize?”
Instead of thinking about why all their friends and girlfriends are white, white students ask “Why do they only hang out with other black kids?” or “Why do they only date other Asians?” They say minorities are being exclusive. And in the classrooms, rather than trying to understand and love, we learn to define and patronize other people and their experiences.
America tries constantly to ignore the weak and break the strong. Korea has no love for itself or for the others. We worship, consume, and imitate forms of whiteness, forms of blackness, and forms of Asianness, but we still label them Yankees, niggers, chinks, and Japs. And America and Korea both don’t love their beautiful or the ugly. We define and limit beauty. Korea decided that double eyelids are beautiful, so we put them artificially on those who don’t have them. America can’t love a crooked smile, so our kids live with metal in their mouth for three years.
We’re bad lovers, so we continue the cycle of hate and self-hate. We let the producers of 21 whitewash Asian characters. We let Spike Lee remake Oldboy and cast Josh Brolin as its lead. We let shows like Friends and Girls show only white relationships and use Asian and black actors and actresses to play interim lovers. We let SNL go thirty-nine years without casting a single Asian comedian. We make talented Asian actors come to America and play ninjas and yakuzas. We cast Asian actors and models with stereotypical Asian faces and un-stereotypical Asian bodies. We fetishize them by giving “sexiest man of the year” or “sexiest woman of the year.” And we ignore Baldwin’s warning that we could “lose our faith—and become possessed.”
We lose our faith in ourselves and lose our faith in our ability to love.
And instead, we partake in phony performances and dialogues of love. Drake singing “Shout out to Asian girls, let their lights dim-sum” is not love. A commercial saying “White, black, brown, yellow, purple, green, we’re all the same” is not love. I want to hear our pop culture honestly try to articulate love. I want to stop reading buzzwords like “safe space” that generate the false illusion of safety and the false sense of invasion. I want to see us love and fight for each other when no one is watching.
I have learned to perform love without loving, I hurt the people that I love. I wrote about them in stories and essays and talked about them in classes and meetings, but I failed to love them when I was alone. I didn’t return my mom’s calls and responded to her five paragraph texts with two sentences. “Sorry, I’ll call when I’m not busy” or “I’m working on an essay” were my responses to her love letters. I didn’t tell my friend to stop taking drugs until he was in the hospital. I didn’t listen to my dad’s stories when he was drunk. I didn’t tell my brother that I loved him. I never even asked how he was holding up. Yet I asked them to love me in all those ways. And, in all those ways, they unreasonably do.
This is a crazy-making environment, but some of us never go crazy—even if we want to. And it’s because we have people who love us too much to let it happen to us. We have people who give us calls, who miss meetings to talk to us, who fight for us, and who try to interpret our jumbled utterances and understand our quietest groans. We have people trying to love us in ways that won’t be on posters and t-shirts and in ways that won’t be written in emails or spoken about in meetings.
In 2013, I thought about love and talked about love. I tried to love, failed to love, tried again, and failed again. But the people who loved me unreasonably kept me sane and kept me trying.
In 2013, I could have been an orphan. But I remained a child of Korea. I remained a child of America.
Now it’s my turn to love.
David Byunghyun Lee is a junior at Vassar College
[Image by Jim Cooke]