How white are you?

Sometimes I catch myself thinking/acting in a privileged or colonizer way and I’m appalled. I feel like I’m 99% white inside and the more I learn about the world, the more I regret that, despite all my opportunities. How white are you? Do you want to reduce that? Is that even possible? How much does it matter to you?

11 thoughts on “How white are you?

    • It can be (and is being) taken in whatever way speaks to the respondent.

      For me, it is more about thought, as I can’t see myself or what color I am. I am only reminded I am different when others react to me in an extraordinary way. And my thought is that of a person whose culture dominates the world and who enjoys the privilege of colonizers, even though that has been far from the reality I live.

      Take, for example, the comment, “that’s mighty white of you.” Whiteness here is a state of mind, and not always flattering. I probably do much better than some in managing what I feel are naturally racist tendencies in most people, simply because I replay this recrimination in my ear, but it is also something I have to consciously make an effort at.

      Living here in Korea, strangely being a magnet for natives to ask directions from because they can’t tell I wasn’t raised in Korea, one would think that would affirm how very Korean I am. But it doesn’t. The awkwardness that ensues only confirms how separated I am from everything that really makes a Korean, which would be informed and assisted by learning the language, but which would take longer than the remainder of my life to close the distance of. Because though the raw materials came from Korea, they were shipped to America and molded there. I wasn’t forged in Korea, and I’ve got no legitimacy here as a Korean once I open my mouth. My similar skin and blood only takes me so far. Not very far at all, in fact…

      In America, (or with ex-pats here that don’t recognize my inner whiteness) I have to earn legitimacy by speaking. That’s okay with me, since in my battle to not let race be a factor in how I assess people, in return I measure their legitimacy through their communication as well, though my reality is that I am not quite legitimate anywhere I go. Which is what happens when your looks don’t match how you communicate, and the thoughts you’re communicating don’t match that race’s culture.

      And I think like a liberal American, in all its glory and shame, and I don’t think like a Korean. Thought and communication is a huge portion of who I am, so that is why I say I am 99% white. The Korean in me was annihilated when I was put on that plane, when I lost meaningful connection to what unites the people who look like me – what drives their thoughts – and when I lost the ability to speak those thoughts I lost all authenticity. All I have left of Korea is my skin and eyes.

      Do I want to reduce my whiteness? I’d like to become a better person to the extent that I don’t need to police my own thought. I’d like to excise my ugly American, expel my internalized racism, and have the idealistic lover of freedom and all wo/men created equally be second nature. But I don’t want to be more Korean. Coming here, I am even more comfortable around, sympathetic and empathetic to Korean people than I ever was before. But it’s futile to try to be them, or to find/resurrect a Korean me that lived for only a brief moment. And I especially don’t want to live the rest of my life in reactionary mode.

      Nor does that identity search even matter to me anymore. I think a better strategy is to just get comfortable with the walking contradiction I am.

      • p.s. Also, I think that Chaotic Soul and I, though we may embrace different things, are essentially saying the same thing.

        And I’d also like to add that having to spend my entire life being put in this position is an aggravation that my adopters will never be able to appreciate or be able in any way to lend me sympathy for. Because it’s so much bigger than myself, or them.

      • “The awkwardness that ensues only confirms how separated I am from everything that really makes a Korean, which would be informed and assisted by learning the language, but which would take longer than the remainder of my life to close the distance of.”

        That is what I’ve discovering, with the exception of that last part, as I am younger than you.

        I either have half-successful fragmented conversations, or I’m SOL with staff who don’t speak a word of English. I do not think I have managed to get by at a food shop solely using Mandarin yet.

        “I wasn’t forged in Korea, and I’ve got no legitimacy here as a Korean once I open my mouth. My similar skin and blood only takes me so far. Not very far at all, in fact…”

        I wonder if having a known blood family makes a difference in this type of thinking. I mean, having a family who sees you as one person, but then having everyone else seeing you as different because you weren’t culturally raised there.

        So you have to go out of your way to compensate the cultural differences, which is ultimately what sets you apart from being a “real” native-raised Asian. And then of course, the white foreigners think you’re ‘just like the Asians’ there, so like you said, you have to open your mouth and speak to prove the legitimacy of your foreignness.

        It’s so lonely.

  1. We had an Korean Adoptee gathering with at least 100 participants. It was an odd feeling of us all feeling ‘white’ (I am assuming) but ‘looking Asian’ standing around in close proximity crowded together, all speaking perfect english….It felt as if we were all incognito to who we really are…a paradox of some sorts….

  2. Pingback: My Whiteness « Exile of Xingnan

  3. For the benefit of those that don’t follow ping-backs (your loss), I will quote some of Mei-Ling’s excellent post here:

    Because white means, you’re not like us. White means, you belong solely to the adoptive environment in which you were raised. White means, you will never be like us. White means, you were adopted and you can never escape that so you will never fit in. White means, your parents saved you and in our eyes, your blood family deserved to lose you because they weren’t privileged enough to support you. White means, why do you listen to Asian pop?

    White means, why do you want to go back to a country you don’t know? White means, I can call you a banana because you belong over there, we don’t accept your kind. White means, why do you exist?

    White means, your family doesn’t deserve to know you. White means, your adoption should have been good enough for you. White means, you will never be real to them. White means, be thankful for the privilege adoption gave you.

    White means you are telling me who I am.”

  4. White means, you will never be real to them.

    Really powerful, Mei-Ling. Thank you.

    I think it is possible to “go back”, though I use the analogy of Zeno’s Paradox of the arrow to describe it: “That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal.” He thus “proves” that an arrow will never arrive at its target, because there is always another half-way point. This is of course reductio ad absurdum, but even that can be used to describe the “going back”; there are times where I feel my life is completely surreal, or that I’m living on the razor’s edge between two worlds.

    When I first arrived in Lebanon I fell in with the Beiruti ex-pat crowd, which was a logical choice, but it didn’t last long. It was strange, this flip side of what I lived in the States (people seeing me as a foreigner in my own country) only here I was “seen” as an American, and thus was privy to statements made about the Lebanese and Arabs that were pretty vile. Same thing from the nuns in my orphanage, actually. Given my inability to speak the language, I threw myself into my work and a few NGOs, spoke English and French all the time, and made it to my first “half-way” point.

    I then made the decision to move to a different neighborhood, one which was decidedly a realm away from the university class-wise and otherwise, and which would force me to speak the language. One of the first people in the neighborhood to speak to me was a guy who worked at the corner shop; he asked me if I was Moroccan (I was leaning on my French) and we started talking. There was a lot of intrigue in an American/Lebanese in this neighborhood (to this day there are many who think I’m a spy), and I think this curiosity on their part mixed with the normal day-to-day of shooting the breeze over tea had me, on most nights returning from work, hanging out in their shop.

    Over the course of the next two years I spent most every night in the shop, trying to understand what was being said, especially when it was obvious that I was the topic of conversation. This was excruciatingly painful. There is absolutely no part of my makeup that would have me do this in any other context–I always hated being in a room of strangers, having to make conversation, etc. I relied on my friends to field any questions, and help me through my stumbling Arabic. There were many moments I truly just wanted to hole up in a cocoon and never go back. But I stuck it out. My apartment became “public space” more or less, as the local tradition would have it. This required a complete re-evaluation of the supreme “individualism” I had grown up with, as well as concepts of privacy….I started shedding all of these and other identity markers I maintained while in the States.

    I stayed in the neighborhood during the July war in 2006, refusing to evacuate. I stayed in the neighborhood during the week of street conflicts of 2008. By this time I had pretty much proven my desire to stay, and coupled with improvements in my language, allowed me to call my neighborhood “home”. Neighbors were always checking on me, and anything outside of my normal day-to-day (coming home late, for example) brought on a slew of questions—these were expressions of “family”, as it were. At the same time, my colleagues at the university started referring to me in the same way they would to the residents of this neighborhood, calling me az’aar which translates as “hoodlum” or perhaps “street thug”. The ex-pat Americans referred to me as “Little Orphan Danny”. I have since shut these people out of my life as much as possible.

    My research took me to the local culture and to whom I refer to as the “Voiceless”, because it was interesting to me that the people most responsive to my own story were likewise from either marginalized or dispossessed communities: Palestinians, bedouins, Syrian migrant workers, etc. I was having a hard time resolving the conflict of life between these two worlds represented by my neighborhood and the university; it reminded me of when I was teaching at both NYU and City College in Harlem, though at the time I had no sense that I had a place to “go” to in the community of 135th Street and Amsterdam Ave. Here, on the other hand, I had my claim of birth, as tenuous as that was.

    I started making “vows” to myself that I would limit myself to the lowest common denominator of Beirut in terms of public space and public transport; if my neighborhood friends couldn’t go there, I wouldn’t go there. I grew closer to those in my neighborhood, and further from the “class” of my upbringing at both my orphanage and university. By this time the guys in the shop referred to me as the “manager” as well as their “original brother”, and I had full run of the store; half the neighborhood still thinks I work there. I am jokingly on a permanent “internship” in the shop, though they did in all seriousness offer me a job when they heard the university had not rehired me.

    Now during Ramadan I cook food and bring it down and we have iftar sitting on the floor of their shop. Cab drivers have gone from asking me “where are you from?” (in English) or “you sound Moroccan” (again, the French lilt perhaps) to: “Are you Syrian?” because of the dialect I’ve picked up. I can walk through any neighborhood without turning a head. I don’t fear interactions like I used to because of my shoddy language skills. My students tend to speak to me in Arabic instead of the English of classroom instruction. I am able to argue Qur’an when such questions come up. On the flip side, I think my friends and family Stateside see me as “giving up” on all I was raised as, whereas I see it more as coming into my own. I feel more and more at peace with myself as time goes by.

    And yet, and yet….each new half a distance seems to take twice the energy as the one before. And there is that last “half” a distance that is still unbridgeable, that means I will never “arrive”. I’m still a percentage “white”. People tell me this mix is what makes me “me”; I still tend to focus on this other “me” that I imagine “might have been”, that I see reflected in my friends; in the kids playing in the street. I know this is not rational, but that’s where I am. At any given point in time I am avowedly angry, and unfathomably sad; but at the same time I finally feel “myself”, approaching something whole.

    And I am resolved to continue this journey, come what may.

  5. I was born Vietnamese, I will die Vietnamese, I will always be Vietnamese. I am NOT white even though I was adopted into the privilege which by the way was very short-lived since even if my parents vehemently see me as “American” (which is often synomous to white in most people’s ignorant dictionaries), the rest of the world see me for the color I am truly in. I have spent the latter half of my life rejecting “whiteness” and engulfing “Asianess” but no matter how much you do one or the other, our unfortunate society is going to judge that that is not “enough”. But what should it matter? Life is about your ownself. Only YOU can be the expert of YOU.

  6. After 10 years here, I find it increasingly impossible to “speak white” or communicate as Anglo convention would have me do. This gets me into big trouble in discussions online, but…. The relief from the liberation from it is much more powerful than what might be “gained” by remaining within its constraints….

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