Asian Am 20A: My story too

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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!

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Korean American Hapa foodie, I die!

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The Kim Family on their annual seaside vacation somewhere beyond Seoul, circa 1960s. My mom is the one in the funky cat-eye shades!

Props to KoreAm magazine’s recent article on “The Kimchee Chronicles,” a show on the wonders of Korean cuisine hosted by Hapa Korean American adoptee Marja Vongerichten. Not only is Marja a stunning former model and actress, but she happens to be married to the famed Jean-Georges, global chef extraordinaire. But what really gets my wheels turning is her apparent love for Korean food — the connection it brings to her culture of origin and her desire to share this love with the world.

Marja and I are the same age, which I like to think means something … Even though our experiences are worlds apart: I grew up with my Korean family in close connection and in Florida to boot. But I did spend several years in New York City, and I do know what it’s like to never have relations with part of your family until adulthood.

The show airs on PBS sometime soon … Can’t wait to see where she takes us. Makes me want to dig out my hanbok, some old family albums and a map. Perhaps I’ll plan a trip back to Seoul. (It’s been more than a decade since my first and last visit. What a shame!)

I have, however, been to French Polynesia recently, where I dined at Jean-Georges’ Lagoon restaurant at the St. Regis hotel in Bora Bora. It was quite a treat! (More on the Lagoon on Food & Wine’s site.)

Dining at Jean-Georges' Lagoon restaurant, which hangs over the turquoise waters of a motu.

Gratis creme brulee for dessert. We had a lovely French expat waiter, and it was magical to watch the fishies swim in the lights over the lagoon.

You can see a video preview of “The Kimchee Chronicles” on the New York Times Website, at http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/11/26/dining/1248069100729/preview-the-kimchi-chronicles.html.