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April 21, 2008

Where I accept they aren't Asian

Last week my young and reckless classmate Amy gave me a good grilling. "Your wife is Filipina? How did you meet?" she asked. "Was she a mail-order bride? Did you actually know her before you bought her?" This is typical of the conversation that we have leaving class.

"You have an Asian fetish, don't you?" she continued, without pause. I laughed, countering her assertion with the fact that she, being Chinese-American with a white boyfriend, either was an unwitting victim or actually encouraging the stereotyping. Maybe she had a "white fetish" that merited discussion. As you can guess, the remainder of the discussion didn't really hit any breakthroughs.

But the issue of an Asian fetish is one that hits close to home, for a unique reason. I've never felt the branding applied to me; from the time I met Fru until now, I'd say that my preference for females was most occupied by latin and mediterranean attributes. But recently I've discussed with Fru the worry that I'm becoming prejudiced against Asian-Americans, both male and female.

"Great," she says. "Now you're gonna hate me too."

Never that, dear. :) Seriously, though, I'm telling you that I struggle with Asian-American existence, particularly regarding language and tradition. Being a person that had few friends outside of black and white growing up, minorities of other heritages fascinated me when I reached high school. I knew nothing of my mother's family in Costa Rica until I was in my twenties, so Spanish-speaking friends made me feel ashamed of the disconnect between me and my history. In my eyes, that was something they could be proud of; something that made them citizens of two cultures, really. I was envious.

In high school I had a couple Korean friends. Years later, when someone voiced a need for a Korean study partner, I took up Korean on a lark. I guess I thought it'd be funny if I saw those guys in a reunion and could converse in Korean. Nothing more than that; I should've been improving my Spanish instead. But when I started to apply myself to Korean language study, I found that it revealed an additional layer of perception to the mindset and thinking of the people who speak it natively (this is true of almost all languages: if you lose the phrasebook and learn the literal translation of words you'll discover a depth easily overlooked). I became interested in Korean as a way to understand Koreans. I think this is where I went wrong.

You see, I never knew Koreans--I knew Korean-Americans. Going over to Korea to study only worsened the issue: I ate, drank, laughed and cried with Koreans until I felt I knew the mind and method of the average Cho (look, I made a language funny!). I visited Singapore and Japan, finding subtle differences but also the same (mostly Confucian) principles. I had found the inroad to Asian culture, and I was intent on utilizing it for maximum efficiency.

Imagine my surprise when I came back to the US and found myself surrounded by Koreans who didn't act that way and primarily spoke English. And some of them didn't know Korean at all! Inwardly, I curled my lips in disgust at the thought of the heritage-less people I encountered. If I saw two Asians and only one had an accent, I automatically gravitated toward the one "fresher off the boat." Yes, in the same way that Koreans in Korea do to Korean-Americans. I had unknowingly adopted their prejudices perfectly.

I found myself awkward around Asian-Americans. I didn't want to talk about American things; I wanted to talk about the Asian things I knew. In the same way that my Asian-Am friends were never seen as Americans in Korea, I couldn't see a face of Asian definition and think American. Going to California over the holidays was a huge shock, as there were several places I visited where my default black/white/hispanic community was unknown and asian/white/hispanic was prevalent. Racial issues I thought of as norms were completely blown away, and for the first time I had to face the truth...

Fetish: noun.  A course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment.
I have an Asian fetish. I prefer Asians over Asian-Americans in a prejudiced manner. Ironically, I still know little about Asian-Americans, so I rely on stereotypes that are fostered by ignorance and nationalist bigotry. As hard as it is for me to write, and as hard as it may be for you to believe, I have yet to recall a person of Asian descent that I've viewed solely as American.

I hope that, after reading this, all my Asian-Am friends don't react with bitterness and resentment. In fact, I need them now more than ever before--now, you see, I've decided to learn more about Asian-Americans, see these Americans for who they are, and recognize their essentialness to this American community.Perhaps through this I will come to a better understanding of my existence as a partially hispanic black American as well; I feel more American than anything else, and that's not much.

We all have prejudices and fetishes that we carry. If we are perceptive enough to recognize them and strong enough to objectively prove them, we can improve ourselves and the world around us.

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