Finding Myself in Asian American Literature
“How can you be Japanese when you’re Korean? You aren’t Korean because you don’t even speak the language! You aren’t one of us.”
If you were to take one glance at me, you would see a tall Asian American girl in front of you. Technically, I am a first-generation Korean American immigrant, but also a Yonsei, a fourth generation Japanese American by adoption. Being raised in a Japanese American household, I personally identify more with Japanese culture than with Korean culture. I was never taught how to speak Korean, and I traded my kimchi for ramen.
Growing up in a predominantly Asian community, I never questioned that I was Asian. I was surrounded by a bubble. My parents and my brother Jarron (who is also a Korean adoptee) were Asian and we lived across the street from a Korean market. Epic, the church I grew up in, was multicultural and multiethnic, but about half of the congregation was comprised of Asian American families. My high school was predominantly Asian, and some of my closest friends were Asian American.
It wasn’t until I arrived at college that I began to wrestle with my Asian identity. Back home I had friends who looked like me yet were still so different from me because I felt more acculturated to American life. Even among the few Asian Americans and Asian international students I have met in college, I wasn’t able to connect with them deeply because I wasn’t always able to relate to their Asian experiences. I didn’t struggle through SAT tutoring; I didn’t have absent parents who governed me with grades; and I didn’t grow up learning Korean or very much Japanese, so I was at a loss when it came to communication. On the other hand, here at my small liberal arts university—a predominantly white school—I am surrounded by a majority culture and demographic that doesn’t quite look like me or understand me.
I was neither white enough nor Asian enough, which led me to feel isolated as I wrestled with finding my own sense of belonging and community. Eventually, I began trying to downplay my Asian identity in order to fit in. I stopped wearing my hair in buns, afraid I would be associated with Mulan, and I stopped cooking Japanese food my mom sent me through the mail. I wanted to hide the Asian aspects of my life from my peers (even though my appearance makes my Asian identity quite unavoidable). I wrestled with my own identity and how others were going to perceive me.
Feelings of loss are not uncommon within the Asian American community. First-generation immigrants move overseas to areas and lands unknown, where they encounter different customs, languages, and cultures. Second-generation immigrants often have to deal with racism and the pressures of assimilation while trying to figure out how to achieve the “American Dream.” In an attempt to assimilate to dominant American culture, second- generation Asian Americans can undergo a significant loss of relationship, a loss of voice, and a loss of cultural and ethnic pride.
This loss was not something I fully understood until I encountered Asian American literature. In one of my classes, we were assigned excerpts from John Okada’s No-No Boy. The novel follows Ichiro, a second-generation Japanese American who returns from being incarcerated for refusing to serve in the military during World War II. Reading Ichiro’s own story, I realized that his thoughts and feelings mirrored my own and I was awestruck. I didn’t know many authors or characters who could pinpoint my exact feelings on a sheet of paper. Ichiro throughout the novel struggles with figuring out his own bicultural identity while wrestling with society’s perceptions of him.
For me, Okada’s novel expresses the kind of emotional and cultural loss that second-generation Asian Americans often feel. We see this kind of loss in the tension between Ichiro and his mother, Mrs. Yamada. When Ichiro returns home to his family in Seattle, he finds his mother a stranger to him because she is in denial that Imperial Japan had lost the war to America. Mrs. Yamada’s hope that her family will still return to Japan angers Ichiro, because she was the one who convinced him not to pledge his allegiance to the U.S. The tension between Ichiro and his mother is symbolic of Ichiro’s conflicting sense of identity as a second-generation Asian American. In a powerful confession, Ichiro states:
There came a time when I was only half Japanese because one is not born in America and raised in America and taught in America…But it is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half as an American and know it is an empty half. I am not your son and I am not Japanese and I am not American.
Ichiro describes his conflicted bicultural identity as both Japanese and American, but also neither Japanese nor American. This dissonance resonated with my own struggle of figuring out how to balance my own bicultural identity. How can I be Asian in a space where I feel I can’t be Asian? How can I proudly say that I am Asian American when I can’t even say it to myself?
A second kind of loss that Asian Americans can face is that of cultural and ethnic pride. In Kim Ronyoung’s novel Clay Walls, we are introduced to Faye Chun, a second-generation Korean American who befriends a Japanese girl named Jane Nagano. Growing up, Faye was reminded by her mother, a Korean immigrant, that Koreans hate Japanese. This hatred stemmed from the Japanese occupation of Korea. We see how this generational prejudice comes to affect Faye’s relationship with Jane adversely when she first meets her in gym class. After hearing Jane say her Japanese last name when they are signing up for activities, Faye narrates:
my heart sank in my shoes. Her last name was Nagano, a Japanese name. Every March first and just about every day in between, Koreans reminded each other to hate the Japanese…“Next!” the teacher snapped. I gulped. “Faye Chun….C-h-u-n,” I spelled it for her. “Faye with an ‘e’.” “F-e-y?” she asked. I wanted to die.
As a second-generation Korean American, Faye’s understanding of Asian identity is shaped by her mother’s stories. Scared by the images of Japanese people she grew up on, Faye is terrified to reveal her Korean name in front of her new friend. In order to remain friends with Jane, the only other Asian American around her, Faye subverts her Korean identity. But by doing so, Faye erases a part of who she is as a Korean American.
Clay Walls speaks to the complexity of ethnic erasure. Here, Faye hides her Korean ethnic identity because she wants to be able to fit in. She longs for a sense of belonging, but she doesn’t want to unveil her true self afraid of losing that connection with Jane. Faye’s downplay of ethnic identity is used as a shield of protection.
Sometimes, downplaying one’s ethnic identity has less to do with finding alliances and more to do with direct prejudice. This becomes clear in Clay Walls when Jane’s parents subtly reject Faye for being Korean. While hanging out at Jane’s house, Faye is questioned about her ethnicity. When Faye’s father finds out that Jane’s mother speaks Japanese, he responds with raised eyebrows and asks, “Is that so?...Where did she learn?” When Faye replies that her mother learned Japanese in Korea, Jane’s father simply replies, “I see.”
With a sense of uneasiness lingering in the air from Jane’s father, Faye dodges the question, feeling uncomfortable with her own ethnic and heritage background. Not only does Jane’s father’s line of questioning make her uneasy, but it has an effect on Faye by making her crawl back into her shell of insecurity. Instead of embracing her Korean identity, Faye rejects it in order to deflect the pain, which also causes her to exit the house early, unexpectedly and without explanation, which in turn leaves her relationship with Jane in limbo.
By downplaying my own Asian identity, I hoped that I would shield myself from different microaggressions. However at college, I’ve had people ask me about my “marginalized student experience” and even had one girl say to me I looked really Asian one day! Number one, I don’t even know how that wouldn’t be possible because I am Asian. And number two, what the hell. But with these microaggressions, it had rubbed an open wound, resurfacing unwanted feelings of questioning my Asian American identity that I so desperately wanted to run away from. I didn’t want to confront any of these feelings because I just wanted to blend in. I wanted to fit in like Faye, but I only wanted to be recognized as Charis, not Charis the Asian girl.
Both of these stories encompass similar feelings of loss that can affect one’s ethnic identity. These outcomes find their source in forced assimilation and the struggle to acculturate into dominant American society. Hiding one’s ethnic and cultural identity can lead to division in relationships, lack of communication and understanding, and ethnic insecurity. Even within close familial relationships, an individual can harbor feelings of conflict that affect who they perceive themselves to be in relationship to others. I let other people’s perceptions and insecurities about Asian American women harbor into my own image of who I thought I was. I realized through these stories that even if I am often neither American enough nor Asian enough, embracing my bicultural identity is vital because that is who I am.
About the author: Charis Doi (she/her) is a freshman at Seattle Pacific University studying Social Justice and Cultural Studies. You can find her enjoying her time eating soft tacos, taking pictures of her dog, or listening to indie music!