An Asian in Yellowface?
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.
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…