I have spent the past few days sifting through the catalogue of experiences in my head, trying to find a story. As a woman, person of color (PoC), Asian American, and Korean American, I have a plethora of experiences that have made me the person I am today. But as I flipped through these moments in my head, I started to get anxious. I couldn’t find anything worth writing about. None of the events that came to mind seemed good enough to share. I didn’t think any of the things I’ve lived through were good enough to add to the growing body of PoC narratives. My life stories just didn’t seem to stack up next to other PoC stories. And then I stopped the snowballing thoughts. My experiences have made me who I am today, so why weren’t they good enough? And for whom were they not enough? I see myself as a proud woman of color, so why was there insecurity festering in the value of the experiences that make me who I am?
I think my insecurity, at least partially, stems from the fact that I felt like my story wasn’t different and therefore offered nothing insightful. I grew up in a city with a sizable Asian American population and coming to Ann Arbor didn’t change any of that. I still see people that look like me and generally feel safe on campus. I continue to amass privilege with higher education, something I know that too many will go without. What could I have to complain about? My socioeconomic status has protected me from a lot. But what I’ve come to realize is that these are affordances that also serve as distractions. The reason that Asian Americans are allowed to attain these things is because institutions in power make the conscious decision to give us permission. They see potential for us to assimilate and make contributions to society as long as we fit into the model minority stereotype. However if we settle for this stereotype, we render ourselves invisible.
Mitsuye Yamada, a prominent Japanese American author, wrote about the condition I battle in an essay called “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman.” She outlines the dangerous ways in which Asian American women specifically are conditioned to be invisible by settling for the things society allows us to do.
“My experience leads me to believe that contrary to what I thought, I had actually been contributing to my own stereotyping. Like the hero in Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, I had become invisible to white Americans, and it clung to me like a bad habit. Like most bad habits, this one crept up on me because I took it in minute doses like Mithradates’ poison and my mind and body adapted so well to it I hardly noticed it was there.”
What Yamada has helped me realize is that just because I wasn’t the only Asian American in my town or haven’t experienced a xenophobic attack, doesn’t mean I should settle when there are still concrete inequalities between me and my white counterparts. People still ask “what I am” and have the audacity to guess my race. Even on campus, here at the University of Michigan where we call ourselves the Leaders and the Best, some white boy saw and my Vietnamese friend then tried to speak Chinese to us, completely unprompted. In that moment, I was othered; I was foreign. But I was too passive to say anything to him and his ignorance. I let his narrow and racist perception of Asian people–that was apparently limited to Chinese people– be projected onto me and my friend. Because of my passivity, I accepted his definition of what an American was. In that moment I was invisible.
So as I sit here at my desk in this Predominantly White Institution, I realize that I was invisible because I was letting others shape the language around my identity. But I reject this form of oppression. I refuse to let my stories go unheard or let ignorant white boys shape the rhetoric around my identity. Every word I write will be an act of resistance, for as I contribute to the body of language surrounding the Asian American experience I will become more visible and hopefully lift the voices of those in my community who feel similar sentiments. Through my stories, I will cement myself as a proud and visible Korean American woman to illuminate issues third world women face, dissect complicated immigrant familial relationships, and revel in the joy that comes with being everything I have become through all of the experiences I have grown through.