An Asian in Yellowface?

What would make me an expert of “The East”?

YJ Jun
Human Parts

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Image generated by the author Hotpot.ai. Licensed for commercial use.

I’ve often wondered if I’m an Asian in Yellowface. It must be a convincing mask. Koreans have told me, “I thought you were one of us.” Americans have said, well, you know.

I’m taking a class on Greek tragedies. The instructor asked us why we signed up for the course. Most of the class are older, snowy haired, dignified. Their backgrounds are often offices with giant bookcases or skyline views (no, they’re not filters). I am the only person of Asian descent.

One man spoke. Let’s call him Jack. Jack said he took the course to learn about foundational texts,

“At least here in the West. I don’t know anything about the East, YJ.”

It caught me off guard. I felt a bit sad. Sad that his attempt to be more inclusive mechanically implied I was not already included. He was trying to bring me in because he considered me an outsider.

I grew up brushing against Ancient Greeks and their plays throughout grade school. One of my favorite assignments to this day is the essay I wrote on Artemis, demi-goddess of the moon and the hunt — overlooked twin sister of Apollo.

Korean history I learned in a couple summer camps that a Korean church hosted, and from K-pop videos. “Daechwita” by Agust D (a.k.a. Suga from BTS) is rife with references to several of Korea’s mad kings — something I only learned from YouTube.

An analysis of Agust D’s “Daechwita” with thorough historical context, by a Korean culture YouTube channel. All copyright belongs to the original owners, @DKDKTV on YouTube

Sometimes I find myself reciting facts as if to defend my American-ness. Though my parents are Korean, I am the first person on both sides of my family to be born outside of Korea. I was born and raised in America. I took the SAT, not the Sooneung, the day-long Korean entrance exam that’s so competitive it compels a handful of students to commit suicide each year. I have an American passport.

But I have facts to the contrary, defending my Korean-ness. I spent four of my most formative years — high school — in Seoul. Before the pandemic, I used to go back once or even twice a year to visit my parents. Some of my cousins have lived or studied abroad, but South Korea is still where we meet up for the holidays. I like wearing modern hanbok, traditional Korean dress. I have a Korean passport.

Still, citizenship and family history are insufficient for quantifying just how Korean or American I am.

All that to say, I don’t have authority over “Korean” things. I’m ecstatic to see the rise of Asian and in particular Korean culture. But I had nothing to do with it, just one kinda fan among millions who are more enthusiastic. And I wasn’t even always a fan. I used to cringe at Korean content — drama, music, variety shows. This flipped on its head when I went to Korea for the first time and totally fell head over heels for my mother country. Now, I am an avid K-pop fan, and I watch about one K-drama or K-variety show a month. Obviously I love the food.

As much as I let myself enjoy the pride that washes over me whenever Korean content or creators do well, I keep myself in check. I cannot take credit for their hard work and well-earned spotlight. I am an individual, just as they are. We have different inputs for the same stupid function: work begets rewards. The reward-to-effort ratio differs by person, country, background, and any number of factors. It bears repeating that everyone is born with different access to resources, and that even hustling your ass off might not totally obliterate those obstacles.

But it also bears repeating, over and over, that the individual reigns. I have to believe in this, for my well-being: I have the power to overcome and achieve. I have free will over my life.

The play we were studying this week was “Medea.” It’s about an evil witch from the East (back then, considered roughly where Turkey/Georgia/Syria is today). She ends up killing her children to spite her husband, who went off and married another woman. I’m omitting a lot of details here, but the key themes are men’s suspicion of clever and powerful women, and of Greece’s suspicion of the East — or Orientalism.

There’s a passage where Jason, the asshole husband, tells Medea she should be grateful he saved her from her “barbarian land” and brought her to a place where she, “hast learnt what justice means and how to live by law, not by the dictates of brute force.”

Growing up, my parents would tell me this to comfort me: “The world doesn’t change.” Naturally, I rebelled against them. I dug my heels further into charity and compassion because I didn’t appreciate their fatalism.

My views have changed. Overwhelmed by a serious of systemic injustices, as I’m sure we all have been, especially since 2020, or even 2016, I have found myself grasping for things that could improve my well-being. Meditation. Journaling. Dancing.

What I discovered — what I built for myself — was a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Turns out, my parents were right. The world doesn’t change. I used to feel guilty for thinking this. Was I being overly pessimistic? Was I being weak, giving in to evil? Was I not doing my part to change the world for the better?

That’s where Taoism and Buddhism came in. Accepting and letting go are not defeatist cop-outs. They’re deceptively difficult strategies for dealing with the whirlwinds of life, for grappling with the crushing weight of the world.

It was so, so difficult to believe this as I watched the rise of attacks against Asians, especially against old grandmas and grandpas. Yao Pan Ma. Guiying Ma. Vicha Ratarapaknee. Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go. Brutalized, murdered, even sexually assaulted. I oscillated between finding comfort in and being horrified by the fact that anti-Asian sentiment is nothing new. I was angry, and I wanted it to stop — the attacks, and also my being angry. I was spiraling. I searched for answers.

I took up martial arts, boxing, and shooting. I attended protests, hosted a memorial, volunteered for an organization, and “raised awareness on social media.” Predictably, I wore myself out. I still was angry, and I still oscillated. I knew I was doing the best I could, but it didn’t feel right to stop trying even harder, because to do so felt like I would be accepting limitations. My black-and-white thinking told me that to do so would mean accepting that “The world doesn’t change.”

But accepting that “The world doesn’t change” didn’t mean lying down, belly up, and waiting for the end of days. It just meant accepting limitations — respecting boundaries with myself — in order to free up capacity for other things, like enjoying dinner with my wife, or taking my dog on a hike.

This is where Christianity helped me. Christianity aimed me towards a higher good, one that I still have to convince myself most days exists. “Sufficient unto the day are the troubles therein,” the Bible says. We all have crosses to carry, so lay down less necessary burdens. Let go, and Let God, as they say, or “put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.”

This is an act of faith. I have to trust that taking care of myself is a worthwhile act. That means it’s okay to let go of the Atlas-ean task of trying to hold the entire world on my own shoulders.

This blend of East and West is exactly what helped me find a balance between helping others and taking care of myself — or rather, taking care of others through taking care of myself. Every day I strive to embody the Christian prayer that, when you listen to it, is incredibly Buddhist: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

All that to say, when I read Jason’s disgusting tirade in “Medea,” I was pleasantly surprised. What he said was not that different from what a lot of sex-pats (who are now trying to rebrand themselves as “passport bros”) say to the Asian women they bring to America, wed, and then neglect or abuse: “You should be grateful I saved you from your backwards nation.” It’s something a white boy from New England said to me about the cousin his family adopted from Korea. It’s a comment I see plastered all over any Instagram reel of an Asian American girl saying one nice thing about her mother country relative to America.

Anti-Asian racism is nothing new, and I don’t have to waste life trying to “fix” it.

I thought about what Jack said while I was in the shower. It bothered me, but nowhere near as much as it used to. Like I said, Jack is old. Call it ageism if you will, but he came from another generation.

I’ve talked about Buddhism, Taoism, and Orientalism in the class. Obviously that’s not all I had to contribute, but if I was in his shoes, I might have made the same association: YJ = Eastern. At the very least, it is true that I am the only person of Asian descent in the class. That doesn’t make me an expert, but statistically speaking, it would give me more insight into “the East” relative to the average white person. Forget the demographics: based on his manner of delivery, I could tell he was well-intentioned. Plus, honestly, the whole thing is sadly funny (that in trying to include me, he excluded me).

Forget about Jack’s intent. The solution lies within me. I’m secure in my foundation, even if my foundation isn’t solid. I am a product of two countries, two cultures, two strains of thought. I am a blend of East and West. I spent so much of my life trying to figure out which box I fit into before accepting that I don’t need to fit neatly into either, that I already belong to both. If it took me so long, of course other people will get it wrong.

I don’t mean to downplay these type of incidents for other people. I don’t want to steal away anyone else’s power to interpret the events in their own lives a certain way. I’m not saying other people should do what I do.

For me, accepting that these type of things can happen and moving on with my life is the right answer.

After Jack told the class why he took the course, I gave my own answer. Though my heritage is from Korea, I was born and raised here in America. I wanted to know more about the foundations of Western civilization, particularly Western thought, and you can’t do that without taking about the Greeks. I’d love to take a similar course on Eastern and even Korean stories in particular. I suspect most of the seminal stories would stem from Ancient China or India. But it seemed to me prudent to build a foundation somewhere as a baseline for comparison, and it only made sense to start here in the West. The West feels closer to me.

Someone told me my handwriting must be beautiful because I’m Asian, but I know I’ve just inherited the academic scrawl from my professor father. Someone asked me concernedly if I pursued a Ph.D. due to “external pressure,” but I knew I pursued academic success despite my parents trying to hold me back out of concern that I might burn out because I’m dog-headed and a bit obsessive.

I’m not an Asian in Yellowface, and I’m not an Asian in Whiteface.

I’m just YJ.

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YJ Jun
Human Parts

Fiction writer. Dog mom. Book, movies, and film reviews. https://yj-jun.com/