Asianness in America

By Isak Yoon

March 24, 2021

I should be writing a personal statement for a doctoral program I’m applying to. I should be writing a one-page fluff essay talking about how much my dreams are important to me, how I’d be a good fit for the doctoral cohort, and how much I want to pursue an advanced degree. But I’ve gotten  distracted, and I’m writing this instead.

I didn’t sleep well last night. I couldn’t go to sleep. Part of the reason for that is the events that transpired in Atlanta yesterday which left seven women, “many of Asian descent,” and some of which were Korean, dead. I’m experiencing mixed emotions. I’m angry. I’m sad. Part of me wants to be apathetic. It might seem  easy for me to disregard, ignore and shutter that event since it happened 3000 miles away from me in Los Angeles, but I’m still deeply bothered by it.

I’m bothered by a lot of things lately: elderly Asians being attacked without cause all over the country, Asian-American-owned businesses and churches being attacked and vandalized with racist intent and hate speech, political leaders and news outlets creating even more division with their divisive language and the racial undertones in their speech. Then there is the anger, outrage, fear that followed claims of Dr. Seuss being “canceled” after the company made a conscious decision for the proper representation of Asian, Asian-American, and Black communities. There is a general “Outrage Culture” that permeates our social media feeds on both sides of the political spectrum.

I don’t know where to even start and how to unpack.

So let me start with this:

Dr. Seuss did not get “canceled.” I’m not a proponent of “cancel culture.” I actually have a general disdain for it. However, as an Asian-American, I appreciate Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ stance towards inclusion and their desire to appropriately represent Asians and Asian-Americans in the context of the present and future landscape. The representation of Asians in those books is  antiquated. Conversely, if there were children’s books published in the 1920’s depicting Christians in white hoods and robes and carrying crosses and torches, that would be an egregious misrepresentation of Christians, and a call for change would be in order, wouldn’t it? Dr. Seuss Enterprises listened to the criticism and the company, itself, imposed the change they desired to align with their vision and mission. They shouldn’t be considered a victim of “Cancel Culture,” but a champion of progress, inclusivity, and change.

It would be naive and ignorant to think appropriate representation and language does not matter. It would be naive to believe that the racial undertones in the language surrounding the pandemic is not a factor in the uptick of anti-Asian sentiment in the country. In San Antonio, a ramen shop was vandalized with racial slurs and the same language used by Conservative leadership and media outlets. In Seattle, a Chinese-American church was attacked with abject racism and hate. At worst, the events in Atlanta occurred because a white supremacist targeted Asians out of a fear and hate incited by the language conveyed throughout the pandemic. At best, the assailant is mentally ill and misguided. From his mental illness, he may have believed the stereotypes surrounding  Asian spas and massage businesses and the misrepresentations from the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women to be factual.

As I try to make sense of it all, I’m reminded of my own Asian-American experiences. I’m reminded of when I was in college in 2007 and a baseball player told me, “Bro! Isak, your English is really good. You don’t even have an accent.”

Or in 2012, when I was condescendingly instructed by the third  baseman of my team on the “proper” way to salute the flag during the national anthem under the assumption my “Asianness” made me a foreigner and not a Los-Angeles-born U.S. citizen 

Or 2015, when the third  base coach of the opposing team from Reno, asked our third baseman, “How much English does that guy speak?”

Or, when I was escorting an athlete with a broken hand to get X-rays and the hospital worker in El Paso told me, “Hey, you’re teaching him wrong! It’s this, not this” while motioning a karate chop.

Or in 2016, when I traveled to Portland and the Airbnb host was unsatisfied with my answer of “Los Angeles” when they asked “Where are you from?”

Or, the countless times I’ve heard, “You’re one of the good ones!” as if my Asianness makes me a second rate citizen, but my Americanness made me good.

After each one of those incidents, I’m reminded that I can’t hide my Asianness, and I can’t display my Americanness enough, regardless of how much I think the T-shirt-and-jeans look is all-American. As an Asian-American, I can’t help but to believe that maybe white privilege is this: the ability to blend in.

These incidents  are a result of biases influenced by poor representation and the stereotypes inundated in our society. The biases are now being hyperbolized by the language surrounding the pandemic which is causing the seeds of misrepresentation to sprout the fruits of hate and racial injustice. We need change at the roots of the problems;  otherwise we’ll be destined to repeat this cycle. Proper representation is needed because it normalizes our differences and promotes unity.

I don’t want to hide my Asian heritage. I’m proud of my culture, my food, my language, and my clean floors inside the house, since I don’t wear my shoes indoors . I’m also proud to be American: born and raised,  through and through. I love chanting “U-S-A” during the Olympics, fireworks on the 4th of July, $1.50 Hot Dogs from Costco, and my 1st Amendment Rights. However, improper representation in conjunction with racially charged language is relegating the AAPI community to a disease and continues to emasculate (men), hypersexualize and fetishize (women), or caricaturize us as dumb/stupid (immigrants or non-English speakers). Without proper representation, we will always be considered foreigners in a country we’re told to love but doesn’t love us back.

As I ruminate on this social climate and on my own thoughts, I’ll likely grieve for those people who lost their lives last night, the elderly who continue to be at risk from both the pandemic and the racism, and worry about my own family’s safety moving forward. I’ll be frustrated because I’ll feel powerless. But maybe I’ll find some hope. Maybe I’ll focus on Dr. Seuss and see that we’re trying to move in the right direction.

Maybe I’ll doodle and oodle 
with a bowl of rice noodles.
Maybe my eyes will ooze, 
then I’ll finally be able to snooze.
But I’ll probably pray until my face turns gray 
with hopes to see the Sonshine’s rays.

Isak Yoon is a certified athletic trainer who resides in Los Angeles, CA. Isak has worked as an athletic trainer for 12 years and previously worked in professional baseball for 7 years. Through his work in professional baseball, he’s had the privilege to travel throughout the country and experience life with a diverse group of people. Outside of work, Isak is a fitness enthusiast, runner, and avid rock climber. Pre-pandemic, he enjoyed traveling and looks forward to when he can do it again.