Thursday, August 30, 2012

Who am I?

I need to write about my race/ethnicity/culture, but I have no idea where to start. I can't make up my mind how I feel about the various cultures I partake in, or whether I can claim to belong to any of them. Genetically, I am half white, half Korean. Socially, this makes me neither white nor Asian. As a child, I lived in Japan, where I stuck out as an obvious foreigner. There, children demanded that I teach them English, but simultaneously asked how I could be an American since my hair isn't blond. Then we moved back to California, where I did all I could to conceal my differences. I avoided mentioning that I'd lived in Japan. My sister, who may not have been as discreet, had classmates make fun of her "Chinese eyes."

My memories are a patchwork of confusion and exclusion. In Japan I was a gaijin; in America I was an Asian. In Japan I counted myself a staunch American, but in California I realized I didn't fit in here either. Only when I moved to New York for college did it become apparent that ten years in California had made their mark, and I felt entitled to call myself a Californian. Finding out more about the way things are in the rest of the country, I only became more set in my Californian identity, declining to identify myself with the country as a whole. Yet now, married to a Turk who doesn't really believe in democracy, I find myself defending American ideals and institutions with a patriot's indignation.

What am I to say about myself? Who am I? American, Californian; Japanese by adoption, Korean by heritage, German somewhere in the tangle of genealogies; a smidge French after my term abroad in my teens; turning Turkish in infinitesimal adjustments to my husband. How much of what? How many dimensions of identity are we talking about? Genetic, ethnic, cultural, familial, geographical, ... On each dimension, what would be the percentages? Racially, I am half Caucasian and half Asian: 50% each. Ethnically? Is that the same as racially or genetically? What about my culture--is that about food and dress and language, or about the deep, subconscious structures, the filters that determine how I communicate and what I expect? what I value and what I condemn, what I feel entitled to and how I respond if I don't get it? Impossible to determine which cultures influence me to what degree--Korean, Japanese, my father's Hawaiian upbringing, the political correctness of northern California, my innate personality, the expectations of my mother?

I turn away.

Such calculations are impossible and, in the end, useless, even foolish. They are just another way to draw lines around reality, to compartmentalize, to pin down and dissect, to control. But personhood doesn't have a body to dissect, except my body, which breathes and sweats and will not be pinned down. And when I try to dissect my personality, it is not like my seventh grade lima bean dissection (too simple), nor like my eleventh grade cat dissection (fascinating, but dead).

It is more like trying to pull up a sturdy plant whose roots grip the stones and soil, too strong for me to break with my hands and too intricate for me to untangle with my eyes.

I can look at myself through a dozen or a hundred filters, to pull forward this or that set of characteristics, to mute one color and find hints of another in unexpected places. Every filter may reveal something new.

Still, my soul is an atom, and I have no desire for fission. So I wait. Perhaps in heaven I will understand what quarks and leptons roam the spacious hall of my self.

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