In popular culture, Asian Americans always seemed concerned with building bridges from old country to new country, first generation to second generation. The books I read and the movies I watched featured disconnect and miscommunication between two separate worlds. Watching “Flower Drum Song” with my third-generation mother, I often felt my narrative didn’t match the typical Asian American tale of struggle to be understood.
My mother is an American, born in Oahu and raised in a Korean American family. Her parents’ own separation from traditional Asian culture was a constant source of embarrassment. A favorite story of hers is an account of childhood mortification when, after badgering her mother to pack her sushi for lunch like the rest of her classmates, she opened up her lunch container to find “two cannonballs of rice and tuna salad.” Her father, originally from southern California, answered the phone “like a haole” according to her friends and brought home pizza for dinner – equally bizarre. My mother grew up as a military brat. Her family left Hawai’i for three years, following her father to Segregation-era Indiana. Her paternal uncles had fought for America in WWII – one lost his life in the war effort. Like good Americans, her brothers fought in the Vietnam War and, like a good American, my mother went on a speaking tour of mainland universities to protest it.
I always believed she and I spoke the same language. And then I came out.
Growing up, I was grateful that my mother and I shared the same cultural values and native tongue. Being a typical American kid – watching Nickelodeon, listening to the Spice Girls, and speaking English – was something I took for granted because I wasn’t rebelling against tradition. When friends complained about their Asian mothers who didn’t understand mainstream American culture and sometimes couldn’t understand their own English-speaking children, I was thankful that this struggle was a foreign one to me. Coming out to a first-generation parent, pop culture and friends had informed me, posed difficulties I would never have to face. I never imagined that, in explaining my queerness, I would have to build a bridge of my own to navigate the gap between my fourth-generation consciousness and the third-generation consciousness of my mother.
When I came out to my mother she immediately engaged me in debate. She wanted me to explain myself, challenged my definition of homosexuality, and tried to discourage me from a lifestyle she felt would condemn me to unhappiness. While I realized her reaction came from genuine concern for my well-being, I wondered where she had learned the prejudice that being queer means being unhappy. Although straying from heterosexuality certainly leads to adversity and complication, for example, when starting a family or getting and keeping a job, it doesn’t prevent a person from leading a fulfilling life. And, I argued to the female Asian American facing me, differences of any kind lead to struggle, but it’s nothing that can’t be overcome. Everyone has it tough, I reminded her. But life for me, she persisted, would be so hard. There was no anger when she said this. Life will be hard, she kept repeating with a kind of mourning for some impending misfortune.
I didn’t understand. All I’d done was confess my attraction to girls. My mother knew what it meant to be queer; we lived just outside of San Francisco. She wasn’t homophobic; she’d had gay and lesbian friends and spoke fondly of them. We lived in America, where you can be anything you want to be. My mother, part of an interracial couple for the past thirty years, must’ve understood that. Why was she so convinced my life as a queer woman would be marred by sorrow and pain?
This question troubled me for a time too long to measure. There is no single answer to it, but one from the archives of her stories has helped me to create a working response.
Before I was born, before she left her family in Hawai’i to come to the mainland, my mother had a cousin on her mother’s side, the side that was insular both in location and in thought. Although this cousin was part of the third-generation, he was surrounded by the convictions and traditions of an involved extended family. Aunts, uncles, Halmeoni and Haraboji, everyone lived on one small island, aware of and influencing the business of each family member. Under these circumstances, living in a pressure cooker of taboos, prejudices, and filial obligations, this cousin came to realize he was gay. Feeling he could not sustain living when his orientation so violently contradicted all other aspects of his identity, my mother’s cousin took his life. I’ll never know the magnitude of the effect his suicide had on her, but in describing it to me she still remembers very particular details: the confession in his note, the glasses left on the ledge.
I’ve come to realize that, in my efforts to communicate my orientation to my mother, and to describe to her my sentiments, hopes, and dreams as a queer person, I have to build a bridge. I have to build a bridge from my understanding as an optimistic fourth-generation queer Asian American to my mother’s understanding as a third-generation Asian American who has absorbed the misfortune that results from homosexuality confronting Old World mentalities. I have to build a bridge from the oppression and persecution, the guilt and silence of the past to the constructive struggle for freedom of the future. But even that is not enough. I have to build this bridge, and once it is built I have to cross it, holding my mother’s hand from one end to the other.
Julia Katz is the proud descendant of coolies and picture brides. She is working towards her PhD in History at Rutgers University, where she researches Asian belonging in the Hawaiian Islands and accommodation to American empire. Her creative writing explores family, history, and the permeability of all things.