Matthew Salesses wonders how he can explain to his daughter that no matter what talents she grows up to possess, much of the world will see her in only one way.
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a group of teen writers at my alma mater, in which I read from my essay on Jeremy Lin and offered two pieces of advice: 1. to make yourself vulnerable and 2. to get involved in the community. The first question I got was from a black student who asked if, when I wrote about race, I was worried people wouldn’t read it. I said, “If by people you mean white people.” I said she shouldn’t worry about trying to reach everyone; she should worry about connecting.
Maybe this was the trouble I had, as a child growing up in white America, reading desperately. I never found anyone like me, except for in a single book, We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo. A book I recently realized has become a huge part of my subconscious past, so much so that I can no longer tell book from reality. I’ll get to that.
I love books. I loved them as a kid. I was always reading fast enough for multiple personal pan pizzas at Pizza Hut (Book It!). I could get lost in a book completely, closing off the outside world. My parents would ask why I hadn’t done whatever they had asked me to do while I was reading, and I wouldn’t be able to recall ever hearing the question.
But I was never able to have that moment, which I realized other kids had, where the character seemed to be me. I was always aware that I was reading about other people. Sometimes people I wished I was. White and with secret powers.
Recently, another writer told me he thinks the world is getting better for people like me. For Asian Americans, he meant, and for adopted kids. This was a white person, though he was full of hope. He is an adoptive father himself. I found myself thinking immediately of Jeremy Lin. Yet not as a positive example.
Lin is back at the top of the media cycle, and the Asian American consciousness. This time, it’s about money. Or, rather, it’s still about race. When the original story was playing out, the underdog story—in part because race had made Lin an underdog—people were rooting for Lin or at least were caught up in the narrative. Then the first loss came, and with it the Chink headline and lower TV ratings, and finally, injury, and Lin was out of the news cycle. Sports media shifted its focus to articles explaining why we should at last stop hating Lebron James for rejecting his hometown team in a public broadcast.
Now the season is over and Lin is in the news for getting paid and “leaving” New York. At first, the media seemed to blame James Dolan, the owner of the New York Knicks, for letting Lin go. Then articles started to appear in which the decision was explained as being about money and loyalty. Dolan didn’t like the way Lin had stayed out of the playoffs when he was physically at “85%” (which he clarified later to mean 85% of the bare minimum to play). Dolan didn’t like the way Lin had shopped around and gotten a high-paying offer from the Houston Rockets, an offer that, if the Knicks matched it, might cost them over $30 million in Lin’s third year. Dolan thought Lin was being disloyal, wasn’t the “hard-working,” “humble” player he was before the Knicks “gave him his big shot.”
When Lin announced his decision on Facebook, the responses looked like this:
It seems to me that the racism in those responses is not so far from the factors behind Dolan’s “decision.” The money argument simply doesn’t hold water. Lin would have made the Knicks much more than he cost. His rise to stardom had already increased the value of Madison Square Garden, their home court, by an estimated $600 million and $228 million during said rise. The advertising money and the TV rights abroad would have added even more. Lin’s jersey was the highest-selling jersey last season. So what we are left with as a possible reason is loyalty.
Loyalty on a team of highly paid superstars who left other teams to go to New York. Loyalty on a team that nearly cut Lin, was rumored to dismiss his talent all season, and only played him when they had no other option. Loyalty when the Knicks hadn’t re-signed Lin right away, when they had told him to shop around instead of making an immediate offer that would have shown they wanted him. Where does this notion of loyalty come from?
I keep going back to what one coach said about why he had passed on Lin in the first place: because he “didn’t have a frame of reference” for him. He didn’t have a model for Lin as a basketball player, as there were no other Asian American point guards in the NBA. But that coach, and Dolan, had a frame of reference for Lin as a person. That was the problem. The frame of reference didn’t include basketball star. I will bet it included quiet, reserved, humble, loyal, studious, hard-working, etc.—all the labels the media put on Lin after he broke out—as well as weak, effeminate, exotic, and so on.
As others have brought up, I cannot escape thinking about Dolan’s loyalty issue, an issue he applied only to Lin, as racial.
I am worried about singular models. My daughter just turned one, and we spend most of our money building a library for her. The more books we buy, the more I find myself liking animal protagonists, because the English books with human characters are largely books with white children. On the other hand, the animals are defined by their physical characteristics, and I worry too that this presents a message to my daughter that what you look like determines whether you get to play in the Reindeer games or not.
Maybe I am being oversensitive. My wife might say so. But I have experience with this.
It wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when I was reading through my daughter’s bookshelf for the books that might best instruct her in life, that I realized I had been confusing my experiences and even difficulties as an adoptee with those of Benjamin Koo, the character in the children’s book my parents gave me.
Imagine me as a kid in rural Connecticut, in a college town full of white professors’ kids. I have one Asian friend. My parents have told me I’m adopted, but I don’t really know what that means. I think of my parents as my parents, and how do I reconcile that with what they’ve told me? Always I try to forget that I am a kid from another family, that my mother left me not knowing whether I would live or die, that my parents are not my biological parents and who they are does not make a genetic difference to who I am.
What I get at that time of confusion is We Adopted You, Benjamin Koo. And Benjamin Koo is 9 years old and was left on the doorstep of an orphanage as a newborn, where the orphanage workers found him and gave him a name and a birthdate and raised him until his adoption. Benjamin Koo, as a child of white parents, was called “Chink” and teased and got strange looks from people when he went out with his family, and didn’t know who he was. Benjamin Koo would draw pictures of his family with him brown and his parents white without realizing what that meant. Benjamin Koo, one day in second grade, looks in the mirror and is shocked to find that he looks like almost no one he knows, that he is the only one who is different in his particular way.
Benjamin gets angry and confused. He wants to know who his birth parents are. He tells his mother he is going back to Korea, to find his “real mom.” He wants to run away, but doesn’t know where to go. Then the guidance counselor tells him a story about a duck looking like a duck and quacking like a duck, and he sees that his mom is his mom after all.
This is the turn in the book, the realization, that his mother is his mother, because of a story about ducks. He never comes to grips with who he is, but all seems happily resolved.
I feel something lodged in my throat as I look at this book now and type these words, making the comparison.
There were the similarities to my situation, you see: being left by my birth mother and taken in by an orphanage, being named by someone else, being made fun of and looked at strangely, being adopted by a schoolteacher, that day in the mirror. I saw myself for the first time as not white (literally saw this) around the same time I read Benjamin Koo, and I didn’t know what to do with this knowledge.
I began to confuse my life with Benjamin Koo’s, I think because I had little else to help explain what I was feeling. For a long time, I thought that like Benjamin Koo I didn’t know my real birthday, that I was the one who arrived in America in pink and was mistaken for a girl, that I drew those pictures and made those same realizations about my mom being my mom. And that I had gotten over all of that and was fine. Because I didn’t have any context for what my parents had told me, I borrowed context from a story written by a white woman who had “consulted” an adopted boy to know how he felt.
As if a boy, an adopted boy, knows how he feels as an adopted boy! That realization with the ducks. That happy ending that focused on Benjamin Koo knowing that his parents were his parents. That fucked me up. How simple it seemed, that someone could tell you a story about ducks and you could all of a sudden feel at peace. What was wrong with me, that I didn’t? That even if I accepted that my parents were my parents, which I eventually did, I didn’t feel any less confused about myself?
I had only that one model, you see, for resolution. And there wasn’t even any resolution in it, a fact I didn’t see until those few weeks ago. I didn’t realize until then how much of my experience I had conflated with a fictional character’s, and I am still unsure about what this could mean (and has meant) to me.
Singular models. How dangerous they can be. And how often they are applied to minorities. The way we extrapolate a person from another person we know, when we lack context.
Recently, I had a short story published with the subtitle, “How to Be Asian American.” The story deals with a half-Korean kid who grows up always confused about the white and Asian sides of himself, unable to figure out who he is. An Asian writer on Twitter said she wasn’t sure what she thought of it, but it made her think, and I asked her to share her thoughts once she was ready. When she emailed later, one of her points was that she knew a half-Korean man and he wasn’t like the protagonist of my story. This was an Asian person telling me this. I couldn’t help but think no one ever says, I know this one German American person and he’s not like the German American person in your story. To give the writer credit, she did also mention that we each have our own experiences, and I did title the story as I did. Perhaps I was worried I wouldn’t get people to read it, otherwise, as the teen writer asked me. By people here, I mean Asian Americans.
Another publication story: a piece of mine was accepted at a literary journal a few months ago and I was contacted by the editor who said the major misstep was that the narrator, who is Korean American, refers to another character as Asian—“simply Asian,” wrote the editor. The editor said he didn’t know any Asian Americans who wouldn’t specify another Asian person’s ethnicity. Setting aside the fact that the person being described is a ghost, and that I am an Asian person who often calls other Asians “simply” “Asian,” there is the issue that because this editor doesn’t know anyone who would do this, that my protagonist should not do it. I debated pulling the piece or writing back with the above facts, but in the end I tried to be happy for the acceptance at a magazine I deeply love. I made the changes.
Singular models. Or limited models. And our insistence on them.
Maybe why all this Jeremy Lin news keeps getting to me is because I wanted, as a kid, to be a professional basketball player. It was my one true dream, the path I would have chosen if God had let me be anything I wanted. I grew up thinking I was going to be—different. I didn’t have a player like my friends whom I could point to and say, I want to be him. Now with Lin it feels as if the world is telling Asian American kids that even if you can be different, be the first Asian American basketball star, that difference means you have to follow different rules than white or black stars, that that is the bigger difference and you can never get away from the Asians in movies, you have to be “loyal,” “humble,” etc. That is the model you must not break.
After a while, when I realized there was no way I could play in the NBA, I had very serious dreams of playing basketball at least in college. I remember distinctly telling myself that if I couldn’t make a Division I team, I could at least play Division II. That my best friend could play Division I, but let’s face it, I wasn’t as good as that, so I would settle for Division II. This is the friend who turned his back on me, in sixth grade, without warning. His father was the coach of our travel team.
I didn’t play much. Mostly I sat at the end of the bench, wishing I had a real opportunity but never getting one. Years later, when we were no longer friends, a fact that only seemed to bother me, this former best friend had me and another childhood playmate over to shoot some hoops for old times’ sake. His father, our former coach, was there, too, so we played two on two. This was a summer home from college, I think. My former friend was playing Division II somewhere. In his driveway, I had a good game. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that I was the best player on the court that day. As I sank a shot on his father, my former friend said, “Were you always this good?” I felt a rush of angry pride, a pinch behind my eyes for all of the games we had played together and the games we could have played if we’d stayed friends. You can see how I was still trying hard to show him why he should have loved me. I never really got over losing his friendship, and I thought of basketball as the one way I could show him I was different, better, than who he thought I was now that he no longer knew me.
My daughter turned one-year-old a month ago today. In Korea, a person’s one-year birthday is a huge deal. My wife and I decided to throw a couple of parties back-to-back, one for my relatives (hers are in Korea) and one for our friends. We rented all the traditional decorations and the materials with which our daughter would, as is the custom, choose an item that represents her future life. An old coin for wealth; a bow and arrow for the military—I made my wife leave this one out; a stethoscope for medicine; a notebook for the world of letters; and so on. I know, I know, models, but I am superstitious and fond of the traditions of this birth country I hardly know.
For one of my daughter’s presents, my aunt sent a book that must have been hard to find, about this “game” and the traditional one-year birthday, 돌. It was a very thoughtful gift, in one way. I was able to learn from the book a full explanation of what the traditions meant. But on the other hand, it was very clearly written by a white person, like my Benjamin Koo book. The baby is described as having “silky black hair” and a “round-as-the-moon face,” etc.—the pervasive descriptions you find in many stories where a white person describes Asians (not to mention unnecessary in an illustrated book). Things that white people say by rote, but an Asian person would avoid because they know it’s how white people think of them. How do I read this to my daughter? How do I explain to her that this is probably all my aunt could get, a book about Korean tradition written by a white person who had “consulted” a Korean?
How do I explain to her that even if she grows up with the multiple talents her choice in items predicted, that the majority of people in this country will still see her in only one way?
Also read How The Rules of Racism are Different For Asian Americans by Matthew Salesses
Originally appeared at The Rumpus, photos in the body of the article courtesy of original publisher.
Lead Photo: AP