Even though we were together, each member of my immigrant family—father, mother, me, and my younger brother—went through his or her own individual journey of immigrant life. Only recently have I come to appreciate how remarkable my mother’s journey was.
Born in 1952 and growing up in a small city in Korea, she faced the ambient sexism of the time that demanded that women be uneducated and obedient housewives. My mother overcame that prevailing current of her life with outstanding intellect and flinty determination. In a time when higher education was a pipe dream even for most Korean men, she left home and attended a teacher’s college on a full scholarship. There, she learned English, and won a grant that put her in a study abroad program in New Zealand, in all likelihood making her the first Korean woman who visited the country from her small town. Unlike most of her peers, she was college educated, internationally sophisticated, and had a successful professional career as a teacher at a prestigious private high school.
Our immigration was her idea. She saw that her two sons were chafing at the restrictive Korean school system, and wanted us to be in a freer atmosphere. She was unafraid to move to an entirely new country at 45 years old, well into her middle age. But our migration was ill-timed: the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, and our unscrupulous immigration attorney, wiped out much our family’s net worth. We lived in a series of crappy little houses in Southern California, dealing with nasty landlords who never fixed any broken thing. My brother and I would wait for a once-a-week special from the neighborhood McDonald’s, when it would sell ten hamburgers for 99 cents. For years, that was the only treat we could have, because cheeseburgers were too expensive.
Our run-down life deeply wounded my mother’s pride. In our early days in the US, she spent days in a cold-burning rage because a well-meaning neighbor lady suggested that my mother should find work, and the Korean supermarket nearby was hiring a cashier. Cashier, my mother spat the word with contempt, as if she was firing a spent chewing tobacco into a spittoon. Do I look like a cashier? When our fancy furniture and dinnerware finally arrived from Seoul after months of shipping, my mother made a point of serving tea to the neighborhood lady in our nicest tea set, just to make clear that despite her current conditions, she was simply not the type of person who worked at a supermarket.
Instead, my mother did what she does best: she studied to be a teacher, again. At age 48, she passed the exam to earn the teacher’s credential for the State of California. She began as a substitute teacher, then was hired as a full-time teacher, teaching Korean in high schools throughout the Los Angeles County. By the time she retired, she was teaching at the magnet high school in our town, the one for which my brother and I were too stupid to attend. We would joke that, in our immigration that was done for the sake of education, mom was the biggest winner of our family.
All this is to say: my remarkable immigrant mother would refuse to be associated with the Korean American masseuses who were killed in Atlanta last week.
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On March 16, a deranged racist attacked several Asian American owned spas in the Atlanta metro area, killing eight. Six were Asian American women. The killer claimed that he was a sex addict who wanted to “eliminate temptation”—a claim that’s not only disgusting but also bitterly ironic, because those spas were not brothels, nor were the murdered women sex workers. The four Korean American victims, who were masseuses and helps at the spas, were aged 74, 69, 63 and 51. The shooting served as a terrible allegory of the increasing amount of violence that Asian Americans have been facing in the past year: an act of violence occurring at a racialized space (an “Asian massage parlor”), targeted against the most vulnerable demographics, namely women and the elderly.
(More after the jump.)
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Reacting to the shocking killing, Asian American writers and thought leaders have been airing out the numerous different manners in which they were discriminated, reaching high and low, from all kinds of angles. Asian American historians drew a throughline of violence against Asian Americans stretching back for 150 years, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act and going through the lynching of Chinese rail workers, the Japanese American Internment, the murder of Vincent Chin and the racist violence against South Asians post 9/11. Asian American foreign policy experts said the US’s adversarial posture against China is contributing to anti-Asian American hate crimes. Congressman Andy Kim shared a story in which the State Department pre-emptively denied him from an assignment regarding North Korea because of his Korean heritage. Connie Chung lamented that the media was “miserably late” in covering anti-Asian violence, because news rooms were not interested in Asian American stories.
Asian American women writers pointed out that racist violence against Asians often take on misogynistic forms, as the American image of Asians is sexualized. Several Asian American writers noted that the police mangled the names of the Asian American victims, and the mainstream US society’s inability to deal with Asian names was another form of subtle violence. Pop culture writers connected the mainstream media’s stereotypical depiction of Asians—including K-pop superstars like BTS—with the American society’s continued treatment of Asian Americans as foreigners. Many Asian Americans shared their own story of racist violence and intimidation—slurs hurled at them, racist gestures made at them, or microaggressions like being mistaken for a different Asian person, reminding them that Americans did not see them as one of their own.
All fair points, and I personally experienced several of them. I know my Asian American history, I adopted a Christian name for the sake of easier pronunciation, and people at my workplace frequently assume I’m just visiting US from one of the Asia offices of my company. But even as I nod along in empathy at each rendition of these stories, I come away with a nagging feeling that these stories are inadequate. It’s good to have these stories out there. But it’s not good enough, when the stories we told have settled into the ground, and there we see eight dead bodies.
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Many have argued that the horrific tragedy of Atlanta shooting may give rise to a new and unified political consciousness for Asian Americans. I would like that result, but I’m not so sure if it will happen.
When the news of the shooting broke, I was revisiting what I consider the best article about migration into South Korea, titled Globalization Through the Eyes of Rural Areas by writer Im Myeong-muk. Im recalls that as he grew up in a small town in Korea, the first non-Koreans he met were migrant laborers and mail order brides from China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Central Asia who spoke survival level Korean. Then, as he was undergoing a doctorate at a prestigious university in Seoul, the composition of foreigners he met changed dramatically: they were usually white people from US, Canada or Europe, speaking exclusively English. Seeing this disparity, Im said Korea was undergoing two different types of globalization:
The globalization is happening in two separate worlds: one inhabited by people who speak fluent English and travel to cities around the world, and the other inhabited by people who survive with physical labor, working in rural areas far outside of the capital city. …
The gap between the two worlds will only continue to grow. Korea’s urban middle class will want to raise their children in an international atmosphere, and Seoul, the attractive metropolis, will continue to draw people from all over the world. Meanwhile, most of the rural areas will face extinction [because of population decline], and will increasingly rely on foreign migrant labor as the last resort. In this situation, I worry that the people of the “upper globalization” will not understand those in the “lower globalization.”
South Korea is thousands of miles away from the United States, and its history of immigration is short compared to the United States’. Nonetheless, the description of the two globalizations struck at the heart of my discomfort. What if, instead of imagining “Asian America” as a unitary body traveling through history, we imagined it as a story of different streams of migrations, collecting eventually into two pools?
The discourse about Asian America rests on the two pillars of cliches. First, Asian Americans are the successful “model minority,” and second, Asian Americans are not a monolith. Asian Americans are more educated and disproportionately represented in the high-earning white-collar profession, but Asian Americans are simultaneously less educated and poor. This apparent contradiction is typically explained in terms of Asian Americans’ national origin: for example, Cambodians, Laos, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrated to the US as war refugees, while Filipino nurses and Indian software engineers arrived at the US already as middle class.
But a story of Asian America based on “two globalizations” paints a more accurate picture than the one based on national origin. Some immigrants, and/or their children, have the wherewithal to plug themselves into the service industry that forms the upper crust of the US economy. Other immigrants, and/or their children, do not, and are swept into a different flow of migration that follows the demands for physical labor or, frequently among women, companionship with American men. (Of the six Asian American women slain in Atlanta, at least two—Xiaojie Tan and Yong Ae Yue—moved to the United States because they married an American man traveling their part of the country.) Even if we just focused on ethnic Koreans, tons of Korean Americans are doctors and lawyers and engineers, and tons of Korean Americans are manual laborers and sex workers and subsistence-level small business owners.
Here, we are presented with the core of problem, a more granular look at the issue that is clumsily labeled with the cliché that Asian America is not a monolith. It would be enough to say that America is not a monolith. It would be enough to say that Asian Americans are divided in the same way Americans are divided, with bourgeois and professional-managerial class (PMC) on one hand and the labor class on the other. What distinguishes the division of Asian America is not the major fault lines, but the many factors that add to the severity of the division—the fact that Asian Americans come from different countries, different languages, different histories.
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Im Myeong-muk wrote: “I worry that the people of the upper globalization will not understand those in the lower globalization.” As applied to Asian America, I have the same worry.
I empathize with the fact that Asian Americans are grieving, and airing out the litany of abuses we have taken—historical injustice, denial of career advancement, random racist slurs from the street—is a part of that mourning process. But as days go past, I worry that those mourning words, the intellectual expression of an outburst of grief, would solidify into a plan of action—and that plan, for all of its good intentions, will not be good enough. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if, as a result of this shooting, more people watched the PBS documentary on Asian American history, read Joy Luck Club, put another Asian face into the next big superhero movie, or even learn to pronounce the names of their Asian American colleagues correctly. But they are not enough.
Seeing Asian America as two globalizations clarifies the fact that all this historicizing and intellectualizing are much more relevant to the members of the upper globalization: the Asian Americans who speak English, who work in a white-collar job, who can get their words printed on the New York Times and the Washington Post. (Obviously that includes me.) Too often, our historicizing and intellectualizing are articulated through the trite cliches of white liberalism, about how it is all about white supremacy, US imperialism, or misogyny. That may be, but that’s not nearly all of it. Failure to recognize this truth leads to a kind of trickle-down social justice theory—that if we made one more Asia-themed Marvel movie, spent one more hour of high school history class talking about Vincent Chin, or promote one more Asian American investment banker to being a managing director, that will stop the bullets directed at Asian American masseuses.
If there truly is to be solidarity among Asian Americans, more is required. The privileged members of the upper globalization must set their sights beyond their own racialized pain arising from slurs, microaggression, or delay in career advancement, and stare into the racialized pain that we are much less likely to experience. In our suburban homes and our drives to the office, we are much less likely to spend an extended amount of time in a racialized space (like Asian-owned massage shop), be exposed to police brutality (as was the case with Yang Song in New York), be under constant threat of deportation through this country’s appallingly inhumane immigration system, or just be poor and broke.
We must also recognize that pan-Asian solidarity is much easier to imagine when it only involves people like us, the members of the upper globalization. My mother is 69 years old, around the same age as three of the slain Korean women. You might think my mother would have an easy time empathizing with the spa workers, because they are all first-generation immigrants from the same country, speaking the same language, belonging to the same age group, even belonging to the same socioeconomic class within the United States. But no.
My mother, like many other low-income first-generation immigrants, is not of the labor class; rather, she is a temporarily embarrassed PMC. She, and the vast swath of the Korean American community who think like her, will not find solidarity with whom they see as lower-class women who touch people for living. Young Asian Americans, look back to your parents and grandparents: how many of them were educated elites back in the home country, only to be relegated to low-income status in the US? Did they find solidarity with the poor people around them, or did they drive themselves and their children to be educated and get a white-collar job, and get out of that status as soon as possible? The vanilla expression that Korean Americans are dedicated to education covers up a sinister streak in our drive for success—that our parents did not want us to be like those people. My mother accomplished the incredible feat of becoming a white-collar professional in an entirely different country, language and system in her late middle age, because her entire life story is about elevating herself above being a housewife or a cashier.
This is but one schism that exists within the Korean American community. Imagine this type of schism existing in dozens of different AAPI communities of all different national origins. Imagine the size of the gulf that exists between a third-generation medical doctor who is Indian American, and an illegal immigrant food delivery worker who arrived from Cambodia five years ago. Imagine the lives of Asian Americans whose news and media consumption is entirely outside of English, such that even as they live physically in the United States, their worldview and political orientation are still tracking along the patterns set in their home country in their first language, and their opinion about the United States and their current conditions are refracted through that lens. Imagine how irrelevant they would find the talking points in the upper globalization world, delivered through the jargons of white liberalism that make sense only to people in a specific social group. Why would we want to “defund the police”, they might wonder. “Don’t we need the police to prevent the assaults that are happening to us?” How will we bridge all these gaps?
This is not a counsel of despair; rather, it is a call to be clear-eyed about the complex challenge that lies ahead of Asian Americans as we try to sublimate the deaths of eight in Atlanta. It is a call to those Asian Americans who are fortunate enough to have the time, energy, money and social capital to respond to this tragedy to look beyond ourselves and our own peculiar brand of pain. Stop making this about us, so that when this moment is in the past, we are not just left with more diversity training in the office and more cops in the streets who will only contribute to the bloated carceral state. It is fine to mourn, but when we are finished with the mourning and begin to act, I hope that our actions will be more about the concrete measures that improve the lives of Asian Americans who are the most exposed, like immigration reform, gun control, healthcare for the needy and protection from workplace abuse. It would be nice if the Karen in our office got our name right, but that’s not going to stop bullets.
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