Greetings, dear reader, from the Evergreen State, where my spouse and I have been sick (on and off) for the past three weeks. So…that’s been fun. I look at the reading I have to do for class, and it seems like a loose collection of words. “Am I stupid?” I keep thinking. And then, “Am I too stupid to understand this, or is my real fault in trying to chip away at the massive amount of reading I have to do while everything is hazy because my eyes just won’t focus?”
To add to my general mood of “HUH???” I received feedback from my profs on some required pre-class response questions to the readings. I’ll spare you the long introductions to my questions, as they were basically:
- How can we, as individuals, know when to push ourselves in fighting for social justice and when we need to step back for our own sakes?
- Do you think a person can self-identify as an ally without somehow dominating or co-opting the experiences of the marginalized group?
- Where is the line between informing one’s self to the experiences of others, and co-opting those experiences?
Their responses were much more multifaceted than I’m about to make them sound, but really, the reason I’m writing this is because their response to my last two questions included something along the lines of, “I think you have an opinion/answer.”
But here’s the kicker: I don’t.
That’s why I asked the questions.
I was born in Korea and I look Korean, but I can only speak English and was raised in the suburbs by and around thoroughly U.S. American white folk. I grew up in California in the 1990s, where messages of materialism and authenticity blurred together. On one hand, I believed that I could buy my way into an identity through careful study and clothing selection. On the other, I grew up with tales of the City where everyone was diverse and had deep knowledge of their roots in steep contrast to the dull, stultifying suburbs. I was (and still am) hyperaware of nuances, symbolism, and deeper meaning. And, starting about 5th grade, I felt like a fraud.
Things at home weren’t great, and when I learned about slavery, civil rights, and Jim Crow in school, a part of me knew that those were my parents’ people, my people who benefited from these systems of oppression. But I also knew that I never asked to be made a part of this. And, I knew the burning shame of feeling somehow malformed I would feel when the other girls in my elementary school class would pick me up, swing me around, and call me “China Doll” just because they could.
I may have been nervous anyways, but these dualities have made it so that ever since I became aware of them, when I close my eyes, I feel as if I am balancing on the thin side of a pane of glass that hangs over a bright, sunny void of nothing while the wind whips my hair.
So, you see, I don’t know when it’s okay to self-identify as an anything. I only know what people tell me I am. I only know what I feel like inside. I am a woman of color with an oversized sense of white guilt.
And, I don’t know where educating one’s self bleeds into appropriation, because all my life I’ve had Asians telling me it’s a shame I don’t know Korean, but to me, my skin just feels like my skin. What does that make my history?
Over the past few years, the thought has often occurred to me that I picked the wrong major—that I should have stayed in English Literature. I was so much happier, I am so much happier in books and literature analysis. I think back to my project last year. Did I ever tell you about that? It’s a comic book: a mildly sci-fi, action-y dystopian thing with Wuxia elements where women are the center, because my world too often feels dystopian, and in my world women are the center.
And maybe I don’t understand this grad school thing. Maybe it’s not for me. Or maybe that’s the illness talking. Or maybe it’s all the upset and sadness of my (undergrad) life come back to tell me that I am still too sensitive, that I still don’t understand, that I should learn how to fall in line.
Perhaps it’s e) All of the above.
For now, all I know is that I am working on knowing what I don’t know, and the truth is that a lot of things others take for granted, I simply don’t know.