Who We Are: Moving Beyond the In-Between

On behalf of the editors and our entire team of writers, I’d like to welcome you to As I Am: A PAAC Writers’ Collaborative. The honor has fallen on me to launch and introduce this special collaboration, and so, true to its name and spirit, allow me to begin with a personal story.

I was born in Garden Grove, California in 1984. In 2004, I visited South Korea—my ethnic homeland—for the first time as an adult. The plan was for my mother, younger sister, and I to visit all the major destinations—Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island. But the area I was most excited to see was my mother’s childhood home in Seosan, which is in Chungcheongnam-do, a province in the western part of the country.

I can’t really describe in words what it meant for me at the time to make this visit. I wanted to know what it felt like to be surrounded by people who looked like me, had hair like mine, who ate the food I loved. I wanted to be wrapped in the warm glow of bright, neon signs with Korean lettering, and I wanted to breathe Seosan’s air, which my mother said smelled of seaweed and freshly caught fish.

My high school years had been rough. I attended an all-boys Catholic high school with a student population mostly comprised of white and Latino students and very few Asians. The few of us who did attend banded together and cloistered ourselves away, but we were still mocked and bullied on a near weekly basis. I often wondered what it would be like for Asians to be in the majority. Would we treat other racial groups this way? I was eager to know what it felt like to be among my people.

In preparation for my trip, I enrolled in Korean language classes at UCLA. I did understand most of the language at the time, but my speech was broken. I took the classes so that I could have meaningful conversations with my relatives and other local Koreans.

To say my time there was dispiriting would be an understatement. On our very first taxi ride, I was accosted by the driver for saying the wrong word in Korean. “What kind of a Korean can’t speak the language?” In marketplace after marketplace, shopkeepers would take one look at me and ignore me, presumably to have a better chance at making a sale with real Korean shoppers. My clothes marked me as a clumsy, boorish American, a bumbling fool in cargo shorts and Reebok sneakers.

I resorted to my high school tactics. I closed myself off and I didn’t engage. Even when I was in the safety of my extended family’s home in Seosan, I withdrew into a shell, terrified to say the wrong thing and embarrass myself. I left Korea feeling utterly rejected by its culture.

After that trip, I wanted nothing to do with Korea. My identity underwent a subtle, yet profound shift. I went from being a Korean who happened to be born in America to an American who happened to be Korean. It would take me years to learn what it meant to be Korean American.

***

In Dictee, avant-garde artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was born in Korea but relocated to the United States when she was eleven, described her experience of returning to Korea for the first time since she moved away:

You return and you are not one of them, they treat you with indifference. All the time you understand what they are saying. But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity. They comment upon your inability or ability to speak. Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality. They say you look other than you say. As if you didn’t know who you were. You say who you are but you begin to doubt.

Cha’s reflections resonate with my own return-to-the-homeland experience. But in the past year, in this noxious post-2016 political climate we find ourselves in, I find it striking how the sentiments contained in this passage might also be felt by immigrant families in the United States. Many if not all of us, know what it feels like to be othered in this country—to be mocked, caricatured, reduced, fetishized, emasculated, and/or sidelined. These experiences, which some of us may have been content to ignore in the past, have taken on new salience and relevance in light of the current anti-immigrant mood.

The fault lines that cut across our body politic are many, but lately, I’ve been attuned, in particular, to the emerging split between those who fundamentally see immigrants and people of color as guests of a white nation and those who are fighting for an expanded imagination of what America can and should be. The ways in which we express our identities matter a great deal to this struggle. Otherwise, the stereotypes and myths that others have constructed for us will endure in the nation’s consciousness.

Within this broader context, we launch As I Am to articulate a positive, front-facing expression of Asian/Pacific Islander American identity. We are, of course, indebted to countless luminaries who have done the hard work of forging the space we need for our stories to be told. Resonant themes of loss, liminality, tension, and belonging have sprouted from this fertile soul, speaking authentically to APIA’s often fraught experiences of navigating vastly different cultures on a daily basis.

And while it remains important for us to continue this interrogation, new questions have emerged to propel us forward. What would it take to move beyond this feeling of in-between? What does true belonging mean for API Americans? What are the unique aspects of our identity that need to be spoken into the world?

On this final question, I believe that creatives will show us the way. What is our art, our poetry, our music, our food, our film, our voice, our stories that we want to share with the rest of the world? Toward this mighty endeavor, we thankfully do not stand alone. As I Am joins a chorus of API creatives—too many to list here—who are busy answering these questions through a variety of means and mediums.

They light the way.

***

Every Tuesday, one of our writers will share something. New rules or adjustments might be added as we go along, but at the start of this project, sharing something every Tuesday is about all we can promise. Though our writers will be writing loosely around different monthly themes, cohesion is not our aim. Would you describe API America as cohesive?

Instead, expect our styles, content, and editorial direction to vary from post to post, month to month, reflecting the wild diversity that is API America.

The common thread that binds us are the four distinct identities that our writers have rallied around: 1. Progressive 2. Asian 3. American 4. Christian. We may write implicitly or explicitly about these identities, but our overriding goal is to write authentically as individuals who embody the various complexities these identities entail. To write simply as we are.

At the end of our project, whenever that may be, we hope to look back and find a vivid tableau of thoughts, expressions, poetry, and stories.

On that day, we hope to be able to say, “Look, this is who we are.”


Created by: Christopher Paek

About the author: Originally from Orange County, home of Disneyland, aka the happiest place on Earth (unless you’re homeless). Fled in 2009 and I’ve been wandering, not traveling, the world ever since.

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