What Walks like A Duck is A Goose

By: Paula Young Lee

December 21, 2013

This has been the week of Loud Asians in the News.

First, Suey Park’s Twitter hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick, posted this past Sunday, went viral so quickly that the London Guardian boldly declared it the rallying cry of a “civil rights” movement. On Monday, college student Eldo Kim emailed a bomb threat that shut down half of Harvard University campus and made the national news. On Wednesday, Han-sol Kim was placed under police protection. A student at a prestigious university in France, he is on record calling his uncle “a dictator.” That uncle, Jong-un Kim – or, if you will, Kim Jong-un — just executed another close family member for being a traitor.

Of these three, Eldo Kim is the only one whose actions don’t make any sense. In my day, panicking kids used to pull fire alarms to get out of exams. Today, apparently, they manufacture bomb threats. On the one hand, it was pretty clear to the Harvard community that the threat was probably a hoax. The four buildings gave it away, as did the timing: the ominous email appeared in various administrative inboxes a half hour before the first set of finals. The question remains: why? A report in the Harvard Crimson suggests that Eldo Kim was, by all accounts, a sweet, nice, kind, thoughtful, and highly accomplished young man who was doing pretty well in the fateful class. According to Edward Cho, one of his friends on campus: “it was pretty surprising to hear that he went to such great lengths to avoid a final that he probably would have done well on anyway.”

So, let me see if I have this straight: Because he was unsure about getting a top grade, he was willing to break the law, send the campus into panic, and risk his future and his freedom?

Apparently, yes.

On Harvard campus today, talk of Eldo dominates water cooler conversations. But the Korean and Korean-American students are especially worried how this one young man’s actions will impact the way they will be perceived. In theCrimson’s comments section, one “smakdaddy99999” noted:

“Are Asians so obsessed about academics and getting into Ivy League universities that they are forgetting about morals and characters. Lie, cheat, and stealing are okay as long as you get into Harvard. It’s like affluenza with a Tiger Mom twist.”

Stories about the lying, cheating, backstabbing antics of the Singapore super rich turned Kevin Kwan’s novel, Crazy Rich Asians, into one of this year’s blockbuster hits, with a sequel and a film now in the works. However, it’s a work of hyperbolic fun, not an anthropological exposé. In case anyone needs reminding, I would point out that the decadence of the .001 percent is not unique to the Chinese. Holly Peterson’s book, The Manny, 2007, was a roman-à-clef about her life as a billionaire’s daughter, just as the Nanny Diaries was also based on true tales from the social wilds of Park Avenue. More to the point, despite “smakdaddy99999″s insinuations, Eldo Park was not super rich. His family is middle class. In short, it is highly doubtful that he suffers from “affluenza,” or, for that matter, from “tiger mom” syndrome.

My sister, who used to be a rock musician, isn’t a tiger mom. My niece calls her a “hello kitty” mom. My sister doesn’t believe in putting grade pressure on her 12-year old daughter, who nonetheless excels at math and science. By all accounts, my niece is a sweet, nice, kind, thoughtful, and ridiculously happy kid who was doing pretty well in the fateful class in which, this past Monday, she had an exam – and she cheated. Around the same time that Eldo sent those emails. We were mystified as to why, since she wasn’t in danger of failing, and the worst punishment she would have had to endure was a long, hug-filled, heart-to-heart with my sister.

So, to recap: because she didn’t want to let her “Hello Kitty” mom down by performing beneath her abilities, she cheated on an exam, risked a permanent black mark on her record, and jeopardized her chances of getting into Harvard in six years? (Yes, I know, but it’s Cambridge.)

Apparently, yes.

When you are in 7th grade, you do stupid things. This is what 7th grade is for. You throw spit balls, start food fights, behave like angels, and act like jerks. You learn how to make mistakes…and how to make amends. My niece felt so badly that she confessed rather than carry around the guilt. She ratted on herself to the teacher, and accepted the consequences. Maybe it will happen again, maybe it won’t. The future isn’t here yet and the past cannot be redone. My niece and Eldo both did a really stupid thing. Unfortunately for him, he’s a college sophomore, and his mistakes were far greater. (It’s not for nothing that one of the root terms of “sophomoric” is “moron.”). But where is the sense of pressure coming from, that a twelve year old girl and a twenty year old man decided that it was better to do something colossally foolish that no-one could see rather than accept the responsibility for…what, exactly?

This is where Suey Park comes in. Her tweet sparked off an unsuspected reservoir of resentment, but if she was the catalyst, it was supported by wider, deeper shifts in the politics of the polis. Ironically, the phrase, “Not Your Asian Sidekick,” is precisely the reason why Suey Park’s rallying cry struck a nerve, because she’s Korean-American, just as Kevin Kwan’s book is more precisely about Singapore Chinese, who are different from Shanghai Chinese, who aren’t Vietnamese, Laotian, or Indian from India. And if Amy Chua, the original “Tiger Mom,” isn’t Chinese but Chinese-American, it’s also true that “Hello Kitty” is Japanese.

Try telling any Korean who lived through the Japanese occupation that “all Asians look same,” just one generic blob where the actions of one automatically stand for billions of Asian others.

It’s the pressure of that representational burden that hyphen-Americans of all ethnicities feel, because every non-white immigrant is an unwilling synecdoche. If a Vietnamese teenager accidentally runs over Mrs. Washington’s dog, ALL ASIANS EVERYWHERE just turned into cruel-eyed pet killers. In order to escape scrutiny, some kids turn themselves into pretzels, not realizing that it’s a dangerous thing to be a delicious carbohydrate during exam week and best to be avoided.

As more details emerge regarding Eldo Kim, it would appear that he was not a pretzel but a “gosling,” the offspring of a “goose family.” A distinctly (if not uniquely) Korean phenomenon, “goose family” designates a family where the young Korean child attends grade school in an English speaking country such as the United States. One parent, generally the mother, accompanies the child, and the other parent, typically the father stays in Korea, working very hard to earn enough to support this arrangement. In part, it’s so the child will master English, which is seen as a key to social and economic success in Korea, but it’s also because the American school system is…easier. As reported by NPR last year: “

The American parents at the school are proud of its above-average standardized test scores, so it can be a little disconcerting to hear that the Korean kids see it as a place to kick back.”

Eldo’s father passed away three years ago; his mother is in Seoul; he attended high school in Washington state, and he is now an American citizen. In which case, he’s not that Korean kid, he’s that “lying, cheating” American kid who is, to all extents and purposes, an orphan.

I don’t know him, he’s not my kid, and it is not my place to judge, especially before the facts are in. But I can put myself in his shoes, and I feel badly for him. Kermit the Frog sang, “it’s not easy being green,” but at least he knew that he was a frog. (Same could be said of Han-sol Kim, since the French have taken it unto themselves to protect him.) Ah, but what kind of frog? A bullfrog? A tree frog? A frog in a fishbowl? If it’s silly to question these things, think about how all those not-your-sidekicks feel when asked, “What are you, anyway?” “Human” is not an acceptable answer, and neither is, “I’m me.” The answer lies someplace between the species and the individual, but it’s exhausting to be at the frontier of a new social reality when you aren’t sure who you are in the first place.  And tired people sometimes turn into things they never expected. Including fodder for the nightly news. When roasted on a spit, geese are delicious and everyone is happy — except, of course, the goose.

Paula Young Lee is a faculty Fellow at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the author of several books, including Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee; on facebook at “Paula Lee, Author”; or look for her in-progress website and blog, WeedCuisine.com.