Like all stories about Americans, it's kind of long. It's kind of confusedly muddled. It's kind of wonderful.
It's a story about loss, about disconnection.
Traditions are the first to go. Born here, raised here, half a world away, your parents try to keep as many as they can, but it's a losing battle. What holiday is this? 추석? Well, we're not going over there. Mom's too tired to make the traditional foods, whatever they are, so let's just go out to dinner. Maybe call 할머니. Then, later in the year, maybe the next, you fly home, across the Great Flat Ocean, and you visit the shrine of your ancestors. How many 절 do I do? Am I even doing it right? Am I spelling it right? My knees are getting tired. Why prostrate myself to these ancestors I've never met, whose gaze of my life is so distant, clouded by time and space, whose memory I can't even conjure?
The language is the next to go. You have a fight with your mom about going to homecoming. You want to go. You don't know why, exactly, since you don't care much for the football team. You're angry all the time. Angry because they get all the funding. Angry because all the 'traditions' that come so naturally to others, you don't know about. Angry because the white girl you kinda like and want to go with can trace her family back to the first settlers, and you don't know anything past the hint that your grandfather might have been in the Resistance. Angry because of hormones. Your mom yells at you, demanding you study. That you stay home and spend time with your visiting relatives. She shouts in Korean at you. And instead of shouting back in Korean, you yell back in English. You slam the door to your room, cursing in English. Years later, in a college class you picked because you thought it would be cake, you realize the only Korean you know comes from the few movies you watch, what you learned at home, and how you order at restaurants. You barely pass.
The ties are the last to go. You rarely speak to your relatives unless you visit or call, the distance becoming more than just geographical. You try to keep up with them on Facebook, but you hide parts of your life because you don't know how they'd react. Even your mom gets in on the gig, saying that it would be best if they didn't know some things. You dream of living back in your ancestral homeland, but reality reminds you that it would probably only be fun for a little while, before you want to come home, here, to the Americas.
It's a story about gain, about building.
When your roots are loose, the first thing you do is to put new ones down. You end up in a place you find rather agreeable. You make friends, build your own 'extended' family. You let your best friends' families 'adopt' you, and you bring your own to their Thanksgivings, their Christmases, their Seders. You get hurt when these friends move away, but you eventually realize that wherever they settle, you have carte blanche to visit them, to make new roots someplace new.
When your knowledge of your ancestral culture is fractured, the first thing you do is try to create one. You do this by voraciously reading up on your own. You still don't remember all the details, but you go through the motions, hoping that there's some meaning there. You read up on others', and you discover ones that you never knew existed. You fall in with the nerds, the punks, the gays, the outcasts. You pick up their slang, their argot, their mannerisms. You move on, sometimes, after you get bored, but they're always a part of you, and you make your own.
And when your traditions are hazy and gone, you make new ones. Your Christmases are now spent with your family, watching bad movies like Jingle All the Way. You always block time out at the major holidays to visit your best friends. When you're sick, you always order out from that same Korean restaurant that makes 짬뽕. Is that what your relatives eat when they're feeling sick? No? You don't care. It makes you feel better. Every birthday, you invite your friends out to a Korean restaurant, and put what little Korean you still remember to good use, and on theirs, you learn how to wrap gifts in 風呂敷. It's Japanese, actually, but you don't care, and neither do they -- it's elegant, and beautiful.
It's a story about bridges, about synthesis.
At potlucks, you're the one everyone's curious about. You bring dishes that are usually a little bit interesting, outside of the norm. Risotto, but what's that flavor? You used miso as the broth? Amazing. These dumplings? Chorizo and scallions? Wow. They come to you after hearing about the Korean taco stands, and you go together, to everyone's enjoyment. You hear about this amazing phở place, or a brand new place that serves fufu and melon seed soup, and you drag your friends along.
Sometimes you answer questions. What exactly is that Gangnam Style he's singing about? Why is the North so weird? Is the internet there really better? And even though you preface your answers with a little bit of uncertainty, you muddle through. They're just as interested as you are, maybe more so. But you're interested in what your Romanian friends' experiences were when Ceaușescu fell, and you ask. You want to know what your friends from Zimbabwe eat. You want to see this 'Austin' that your Texan friends rave about. And everyone understands each other more.
You've flitted in and out of various subcultures and groups. Your facility with English is top-notch. You've experienced all these new things now, sampled from various plates and listened to all sorts of songs. So you take all these things home with you; you take your mama out all night, and you show her all these things you've done, that you've learned. You see her eyes open, like Sokath's, and she understands this place in a new way, a way she never has, as a native, as an American.
It's a story, like every other story.
When I first sat down to write this, I thought a little bit about writing about the little things that trip one up every day. The assumption that we're foreigners. The stereotypes and the suspicion that hangs over us whether we pretend to ignore it or not.
But that's not the story. That's not what it means to be Asian American. To be Asian American, you start to realize that you put more and more of yourself in the American category, and you view the Asian as a slight spin, like Irish, Newyorican, German. You know that while you could pass in the old country, for a little while, you grew up with a few too many cheeseburgers and cokes, a taste for grits, and a soft spot for Country Pop that you keep deep in the closet, deeper, probably, than the affection you have for really bad action movies like The Expendables. You know you're too loud, abrasive, and obnoxious to be anything but American, too proud, and maybe even a too little knee-jerk patriotic. You can talk shit about America, because it's yours. Those people in other countries can't.
And you know that no matter how others see you, it doesn't really matter. Your blood might have come from overseas, but your heart started beating here.More questions on Asian Americans: