tigers and tulips: on being a fake asian

I find Asian stereotypes riveting. Specifically, reflected in writings by American Born Asians. They strangely validate and invalidate my experience, because I am a fake Asian.  A trans-racial adoptee. A Korean-Dutch Adopted American. Korean because that is my ethnic identity. Dutch because my family (adopted) is of Dutch heritage.

I just finished Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers in the New York Magazine. The first quasi-memoir by an ABA I read was American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Yesterday, I consumed, in virtually one sitting (actually 2 because I started at Discount Tire where I was having my tires rotated on my Hyundai Sonata) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Of course, Amy Tan‘s Joy-Luck Club has always been a favorite.

All books present some kind of alternate universe–a what-if for readers. However, adoptees are often questioned about their “real family.” Outside their white family’s silent explanation for them, transracial adoptees contend with an identity they don’t fully understand. The unanswered question presented by uncontrollable often mysterious events in their lives that left them in the hands of strangers who became family.

Strangely, Yang–who is not adopted–provides a spot-on observation of this alienation from his own Asian features in the first paragraph of Paper Tigers.

“Conversations” with Asian Born American Writers:
How did Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel about being ABC (American Born Chinese) become my “looking glass” into the world of Asian American memoir? Have I experienced Wesley Yang’s bamboo ceiling (The statistics that point to high-achieving Asian Americans among the ranks of the academically elite, but not comparatively represented in the corporate power.)? Do I wish, like Amy Tan, that I possessed the actual details of the generational tragedy that would explain the desire to please everybody perfectly? Will I strive to be a tiger mother, like Amy Chua?

I met Gene Luen Yang at the Festival of Faith and Writing, after he fielded questions from some visiting Chinese scholars who questioned him on the unflattering representations of Chinese stereotypes caricatured in his book. Yang referenced The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as examples of how Americans satirize in an attempt to expose injustice or absurdity. This was met with blank stares. I realized that his brand of Asian American was closer to my own fake Asian than I thought possible. He was explaining America to “real Asians.”

Wesley Yang‘s Paper Tigers focused on Asian men who are just beginning to claim a right to define themselves as alpha males, to be a corporate success and conquer a white girlfriend. Touche since the stereotype for Asian adopted females is that they tend to marry white guys.

What I connected with is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Asian adults have the potential to annoy white people. Because when they speak up, they seem like someone’s younger brother or sister–You’re still talking? 

Also, it goes without question that Asian students are desirable and beloved by teachers and professors for their perceived hard work and respect for authority. These qualities don’t automatically translate into social power. Like aging child actors, puberty divides ethnic minorities from when they were harmless and adorable to when others perceive them as overstaying their welcome.

Why was I so drawn to Amy Tan‘s invitation to enter her family’s secrets? This contrasted with my contention that I was not interested in my birth family. As a loyal adopted person I always denied wanting to return to Korea. Of having any desire to connect to a people or culture that, I was reluctant to admit, had rejected me. So my denial served two purposes: to please my parents and blunt the sting of rejection with apathy.

I carved out my own identity and I didn’t need other Asians to remind me of where I came from. I always had the suspicion that when two Asians were in the room, one of us was redundant. Drawing attention in larger numbers, always made me uncomfortable growing up. Yet, I could safely do so in books. Amy Tan was a safe, distant Asian confidante.

I do not hesitate to dive into the controversy that is Amy Chua. I found her book funny, brave and completely contradictory in the best way. I got her. Like a long-time friend.

Her “motivational speeches” launched at her daughters were undeniably sharp. Possibly wounding. But she didn’t sugar coat them. She included them for others’ review. She reflected on them. She admitted that the tiger mother code is usually secretive, guarded. She exposes it. For that I give her credit. Yet, I am grateful with a complicated pang of regret for my American parents who did not push me into gymnastics after I expressed a fear of the balance beam. Even after a coach had said that I had the potential to be competive.

When it comes to being a fake Asian, these vicarious glimpses into the lives of second generation Asians, specifically writers are like a reflecting pool out of the Harry Potter series.

I attend Tulip Time in my small adopted hometown of Holland. My white parents grew up here and moved to Asia after they got married, which is why there is no picture of me in Dutch costume marching in the Kinder Parade. We moved back to the U.S., but not to Holland when I was six.

Strangely, as an adult I have made their hometown my own. Last night my Dutch-American sister and I attended the traditional dance around Centennial Park. I kept wondering, “What is it like to have your heritage so accessible?” Which is the same question I ask myself among Korean Born Koreans when I visit Busan–the city where I was born.

Thanks to the Slate Culture Gabfest for discussing Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers. Also to Nina Shen Rastogi for her reaction.

About jaclynfre

Tech integration specialist, recipe adventurer, fast walker, sporadic writer, aunt, sister and daughter
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