This blog post is Part I of II, written by BKA member Jenna G.
Part II will be posted in a week.
I recently attended a couple of screenings during the Boston Asian Film Festival. One of the days I went, a series of Shorts was shown. The last one was about a Sikh-American man, living in New York, with his wife and son, and they’re about to celebrate July 4th together. During the day, Mandeep, the main character, hears about a hate-crime that has taken place, where a man has been shot. Although you can see he’s pretty shaken up, Mandeep goes about his day, practicing a pitch for a project he’s working on. He later wraps his hair in a traditional turban before heading out to meet his family at a BBQ. Along the way, as he rides the train, you see passengers around him staring apprehensively and subtly shifting themselves away from him.
Once Mandeep reaches the party, he winds up talking to one of his colleagues, who informs him the client he was supposed to be pitching to, wants to work with someone who is more “traditional.” It’s painfully obvious that the client does not want to work with Mandeep because of his skin tone and background. After their conversation, Mandeep escapes the party to get an update on the news and learns the victim of the hate-crime has died.
Once the family leaves the celebration, we see a group of “white” guys catcalling and provoking Mandeep’s wife. As he steps up to defend her, they start getting in Mandeep’s face. His wife pulls him back and tells Mandeep to walk away—it’s not worth it—they have their son with them.
At the end of the movie, we see Mandeep locked away in the bathroom as his wife sleeps. His eyes are full of pain as he stares at himself in the mirror. He grabs a razor and begins haphazardly shaving his long hair off in chunks, before frantically and violently shaving his once beautiful beard off. He takes a step back to look at what he’s done, blood spots forming on his chin and upper lip, and chunks of hair left everywhere.
The next day, Mandeep sits silently on the train, clean shaven and with a shorter, sleeker haircut, but looks around to see he’s still getting uncomfortable stares, and nothing has really changed.
While I have never experienced anything quite like Mandeep, growing up as a Korean-American adoptee, I often felt out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong, didn’t have many role models to turn to, and felt uncomfortable sometimes when I was out with my family, who are all Caucasian. I endured stares and questions, even at a young age. And when I was in seventh grade, a handful of the kids I went to school with, made it very clear they didn’t want to accept me. They put stickers on my back that said, “Made in Korea,” called me a “chink,” pushed me, pushed me up against a locker, threw books at me, and made other snide comments. It was a miserable time- and left me with emotional scars—some of which have not completely faded.
Although my parents moved me to a new town for high school, one that was more affluent, with a better school system and more diversity, and my situation improved a great deal, that didn’t put an end to biased encounters.
When I was a teenager, it didn’t occur to me that calling myself Twinkie or putting up with, or even laughing along with some of my friend’s Asian jokes might be a bad thing. Or at least, something I didn’t have to put up with. While High School was a much better time for me, I still felt like I didn’t fit in with the Asian Americans there. I wound up dating a Chinese-American guy, and his family was warm and welcoming, but there were still a lot of differences from my own family (and certain cultural aspects I couldn’t relate to).
Once I got to college, I joined the Asian American Society and became Vice President my Junior year but felt like I wasn’t completely welcome. I remember one of the members talking and laughing in Korean in front of me and later was “surprised” to learn that I am Korean as well.
And throughout my life, I’ve dealt with comments ranging from odd or ignorant, to inappropriate and/or rude. I once went to fight a parking ticket at a local office and brought my mom with me. My mom added some comment while I explained the situation and the employee interrupted her to say that “I could talk for myself since it seemed like I spoke English pretty good.”
I’ve also had a guy I was “dating” make fun of my Korean name and sing “Chinese-like” words at me. At the time, I rarely stood up for myself and was afraid to be assertive. The best I could do was try to ignore the biased and/or racist comments.
As I’ve gotten older and moved past some of these incidents, I have come to value my background much more and often try to find ways to honor it—including by tattooing my Korean name on my left ankle. I’ve become proud of my roots and while I still don’t always know how to address certain questions or comments I encounter, I have learned that it’s totally okay for me to NOT be okay with someone else’s bias. And it’s okay to tell them so. I’ve also learned that not everyone is aware that their comment is biased or hurtful. Sometimes I have to take a step back and think of where someone is coming from, and why they might be asking or saying something that I feel is inappropriate. Although it’s not always an easy thing to do—the first feeling is often frustration or even anger. And most times, I think of something I could have said after the fact.