I remember taking my first Asian American Studies class freshman year of college. I loved every minute of the lectures, it was a whole new world to me. I also loved my professor, who had written one of the seminal Asian American textbooks used at universities around the country.
My T.A., however, was a different story. She didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual.
One of our semester projects was to interview someone from the Asian American community. This paper was to serve two purposes. First, it was to teach us that the lives of Asian Americans around us were a part of Asian American history, and second, to teach us about the process and importance of recording oral history.
Like many of my classmates, I chose to interview a family member—in this case, my mother. I interviewed her while home for Thanksgiving break, and painstakingly transcribed the recorded interview before turning in the paper.
Back at school, I had a dorm mate who was also in the class. He was more of a science guy and had asked for help with his writing. And what a mess it was. He had chosen to tell the story of his grandmother, who, back in prohibition days, had sold bootleg alcohol down in Chinatown. I had never known another fourth-generation Asian American, so I found the story riveting, if messily told, and worked hard to help him organize the paper and tell the story right.
A week or so later we both got our papers back. My friend got an A+ and I got a B-. On his paper, our T.A. had written that it was a fascinating tale but he should work on his writing. On mine, she wrote that, while excellently written, it wasn’t an interesting enough story.
Wow. My mother’s story wasn’t interesting enough? Who could say that to an 18-year-old kid?
It went unsaid, but I knew what she was thinking: The story of a Korean American woman moving with her family to the States and marrying a white American was not the narrative she wanted to hear. It was not the version of Asian American history that pleased the activist language of our coursework.
It was the kind of story that propagated academia’s definitions of assimilation, of bowing to the mainstream society, to Eurocentric beauty ideals, etc.
The crazy thing is that my mother’s story, and my story at that, is so much a part of what made and is making post-1965 Asian American history. If you look at patterns of what the community calls “out marriage,” it is an undeniable statistical reality. One that continues to grow, whether the community welcomes the idea of interracial marriage or not … It is a reality that many Asian immigrants married Americans of other races, just as much as it is a reality that some people came for economic reasons, others as refugees and still others as wives of military personnel.
I never felt the same about that T.A. again.
I did, however, continue to take Asian American Studies, which I eventually majored in … And I joined Korean American, Pan Asian-American and multiracial Asian American organizations throughout my undergraduate years. The latter brought me into a fold of fascinating people and interested academics and inspired in me a strong desire to help redefine what it means to be Asian American. I got to travel to conferences, speak on panels and even participate in documentaries about the movement to include mixed race individuals as a legitimate part of the Asian diaspora.
I continue to be involved in the Asian American community to this day, thanks to other instructors who were much more encouraging and inclusive about my identity and interests.
Whether your relatives came over on the first diplomatic mission from Japan or flew east into LAX in 1985, you are still part of Asian American history. Your grandma could have sold illegal liquor in the old Chinatown or, like mine, worked tireless hours, folding and refolding towels in a family-run Georgia motel. Either which way, they came to the States and made it work.
So I’m proud of my Korean immigrant mother who married a Connecticut-born frat boy she met on a blind date … Because she made history; she made part of what is Asian America today.
After note: I hung out with my old dorm mate two years ago while in Maui for a wedding. (He’s an optometrist there.) Over dinner he mentioned that paper and thanked me again for helping him get an A. Ha. A happy ending for all!