Stop Telling Me That I Don’t Count

I sit here writing, after hearing of the mass shooting in Atlanta, leaving six Asian women dead, four of whom were Korean. 

This is not the first attack on the Asian American community, as there has been a sharp increase in anti-Asian violence in light of former President Trump repeatedly calling the Coronavirus, “The China Virus.” It doesn’t matter that the media and authorities are saying that the suspect was a self-proclaimed “sex addict” and that the shootings were not racially motivated–you have to be living under a rock to not see the connection. 

At this moment, according to there have been “3,795 reported incidents from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021” but “The number of hate incidents reported to our center represent only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur.” 

This past year has caused me to confront and unpack my Asianness and adoption in more ways than I ever could have imagined, and it’s shed light on some dark and ugly corners. 

I have tried, numerous times, to write eloquently about my adoption experience and what it has been like growing up as a Korean American adoptee, but if I am being honest, in aiming for eloquence, I have softened some hard truths. In this entry, I am not striving for eloquence, or even cohesiveness; I am striving for brutal honesty and openness. 

If this blog entry reads as angry, frustrated, or desperate–it’s because it is. I am. I feel as though I have been screaming my entire life and my screams have been silenced or quantified as a direct result of being an adoptee. 

People don’t understand what it is like, and I suppose I don’t expect them to because I’ve never come flat out and said some of these things, but I am going to now. I am going to now so there is no question, and in the hopes that anyone who reads this will reflect and can no longer feign ignorance. 

Stop telling me or yourself that “I don’t count.” 

The first time I heard this was at the dinner table with some extended family when I was in middle school. 

One of the members was complaining and lamenting about “All the Chinese people” who were coming to work at her spouse’s company and “taking all the jobs.” She openly criticized them for sitting together in the cafeteria and only speaking to each other in Chinese. “If you’re going to work here, you should speak English. You work at an American company,” she said. 

The conversation made me unbelievably uncomfortable. Knowing that I likely wasn’t going to change her mind by making the points that English is difficult, and it makes sense that they would sit together in the cafeteria and speak to each other in their native language, my twelve-year-old self instead said, “You know that I’m Asian, right?” Hoping that would make her take pause and think about the things she was saying. 

“Oh but you don’t count!” she immediately said. “Besides, you’re more Hungarian than you are Korean” in reference to the fact that my grandmother had done an excellent job of teaching me to cook Hungarian dishes and about Hungarian traditions while my knowledge and exposure to Korean food and culture was next to nothing.  

This phrase, “Oh but you don’t count” is something that I’ve continued to hear throughout my entire life.

Friends used it as a way to absolve themselves of offending me when making jokes or comments about Asians. Teachers used it when I raised concerns over curriculum telling single stories of Asians (even though we rarely ever encountered anything about Asians in my education). Later, as an adult, it was said when I needed to be put in affinity groups and was often placed in the white group instead of with other POCs. 

It became synonymous with the remarks, “But you’re not really Asian” and “You’re a fake Asian” anytime I did or did not do something that failed to uphold Asian stereotypes. For example, “I am bad at math but excel in English because I’m not really Asian” or “I need to point at the numbers of the dishes in Korean restaurants when ordering instead of fluently ordering for everyone in Korean because I am a fake Asian.” 

Even the nickname of “Twinkie” that I carried all throughout high school and into college reinforces the idea that when it comes to being Asian, I don’t really count because I’m only “yellow on the outside but white on the inside.” 

“But these comments are harmless. What’s the big deal?” 

They are NOT harmless, and they are a HUGE deal. And here’s why: 

  1. Hearing these comments so frequently made me shy away from engaging with the few opportunities that I’ve had to connect with Asian American or Korean American communities. They fueled my impostor syndrome and made it so I used to have near crippling anxiety whenever I found myself in the presence of other Asians or Koreans because I felt as though I could never identify with them. As a result, I grew up completely divorced from my heritage and have only now as an adult been able to slowly gain the confidence to independently research and learn about a culture that should have been mine since birth. 
  1. Perpetuating this idea of colorblindness is literally dangerous. Yes, you might not think of me as Asian, or you might distinguish me as being more assimilated, but that hasn’t stopped Joe Schmo on the street from launching racial slurs at me or men following me home at night while saying things like, “Me love you long time” or “Come on China doll. I love me some wet Asian p*ssy.” 

As unfortunate and as sick as it is, I’m glad that I dated boys in high school and later, men, who would tell me things like, “You’re hotter than other girls because you’re Asian,” “I’ve got yellow fever. Once you go Asian you can never go back” because if they hadn’t, I never would have known just how pervasive the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women is. I wouldn’t have consciously made decisions to start dressing differently, or to be hypervigilant anytime I walk by a group of white men on the sidewalk. I wouldn’t have been prepared with actions and responses on the occasions when men have come up to me on the street and tried to solicit me for sex or attempted to trick me into being trafficked. 

  1. As a result of these comments and beliefs, I am not fully permitted to acknowledge my grief, fear, or anger regarding the violence towards the AAPI community. I am told that I shouldn’t be so upset because my experience growing up as an Asian American wasn’t the same as those who have mostly been targeted. It’s as if I am only allowed to watch from a distance, and am not justified in feeling any kind of kinship or shared identity with the AAPI community. I am resigned to be someone who has experienced racism as an Asian American, but isn’t Asian enough to be hurt, concerned, or speak out and be taken seriously. 
  1. My existence in people’s minds as someone who “doesn’t count” creates and feeds opportunities for those in my life to be passive about anti-Asian racism. It enables them to continue believing in the model minority myth and to not actively engage in critical conversations around race, racism, and prejudice. It allows them to never confront any personal feelings or beliefs about any Asian or other marginalized groups in the US because they have me as their sole “token” of accepted and palatable racial diversity. In short, holding me in a space as someone who “doesn’t count” condones any racist or prejudiced views they might hold. 

I am so sick and tired of being even more invisible in an already seemingly invisible race. The AAPI community is still fighting to be seen as a marginalized community that experiences racism, xenophobia and discrimination, and as an adoptee, to be told that I’m not even included in that? It’s infuriating. 

The silence from white people in my spaces is deafening. And honestly, that might be the most painful aspect of all. 

Does anyone know that I second guess myself whenever I share a post about anti-Asian violence or my struggles as a Korean adoptee on Facebook because I’m afraid that I’ll be seen as a wet blanket or a Debbie Downer? Does anyone know why I post these things anyways? I post because I know that if I don’t, no one else in my circles will. Until recently, I could not count on the news to report on or call attention to such incidents. I had to independently work to seek out and follow other AAPI individuals and news outlets shedding light on the plight of Asian Americans. And even now that anti-Asian hate has been covered by more mainstream media, I cannot count on people to watch or take notice. 

Moments ago, a white woman in Boulder SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) sent me a message on Facebook. I have never met her in person, and our interactions have only been through liking and making brief comments on the SURJ Families Facebook page. 

Her message read, “Hey, just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing and say that I’m here to support <3” 

I immediately burst into tears when I read it. Do you know why? Because she is the first and only white person to ever see or hear about an anti-Asian incident and reach out to me to check in. 

An essential stranger. Not family, not a friend, not even my husband. 

Let that sink in. 

Not once has anyone else asked me how I was doing or if I was okay. It’s always fallen on my shoulders to broach the topic. Often, I might add, only to be met with comments that minimize my feelings or the situations with phrases like, “to play devil’s advocate…” “Well, you can’t expect people to…” “It’s unfortunate but it’s the way things are right now…” or “try not to let it upset you too much.” 

The irony is that whenever I post a feel good piece about my adoption, the loving and supporting comments come rolling in. I’ve tried to justify why to myself because I honestly don’t want to acknowledge that the possibility of people in my life only further cherry-picking the parts of my identity that are shiny and desirable while “not counting” the rest of me exists, but I don’t have the energy to do it anymore. 

I am tired of not counting, and it’s time I say the truth. 

3 thoughts on “Stop Telling Me That I Don’t Count

  1. My heart is with you. My heart, head and actions are with the AAPI community and dismantling white supremacy and it’s horrors, not just today, but until the job is done. Your words and your voice are so powerful, I hope you never stop speaking and when you need a break, we got you, in this by your side. 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My heart hurts with you and reflects back so much of your words. So much of your words resonate and are similar to many of my own experiences. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your vulnerability. You are not alone. I see you. I hurt with you, truly.

    Liked by 3 people

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