In my piece “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang,” I misrepresented both Chinese and Korean naming practices. First, though I knew that Cho and Chang could be Chinese names, I phrased the joke in a way that did not show that information. Second – Chang, if it is a Korean name, should be pronounced Chong/Jong (장). Unfortunately, this line got turned into a gifset (gotta love Tumblr) and it understandably offended many people. Though I was trying to prove that Cho Chang’s name was stereotypical and badly researched, I ended up perpetuating further ignorance.
But this post is not about my embarrassment or guilt. I’ve done my best to address my mistake in my subsequent blog posts and response video.
This post is talking about why I made this mistake, and how it relates to my identity as a transracial adoptee.**
I grew up in a Midwestern suburb, where there were only a handful of other Asian kids, and only a couple in my grade. Therefore, I grew up hyper-conscious of the fact that I was Asian, and thus constructed a lot of my identity around that fact. I also went to a Korean culture camp for ten years, so I learned Korean culture and language. Because of these experiences, it felt accurate and comfortable for me to identify as Korean-American.
However, this identity and cultural knowledge was complicated by the inescapable fact that I was raised in a white family and in a white community.
When I applied to college, I struggled with my identity: Should I check “white” or “Asian” on the box for my application? Didn’t the colleges want to know so they could increase cultural diversity? If so, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer, because my family was white.
Still, I somehow felt more comfortable identifying as “Asian,” so that’s the box I checked.
During my first year of college, I remember watching the video “Shit Asian Dads Say” and finding it hilarious, because I knew a bit about typical Asian family dynamics from friends and I thought the video was funny and accurate. However, part of me questioned my ability to laugh at the video: Here was a situation in which my visible identity as Asian clashed with my family’s identity as white. Was it okay for me, as an adoptee, to laugh at this video? Wasn’t it racist, because my family was white, and therefore I was an outsider looking in?
However, I was not challenged for laughing at this video and sharing it with my friends, because I am perceived as Asian. It was yet another case in which an adoptee’s outward appearance is mistaken for cultural knowledge.
More importantly, I didn’t truly challenge myself on my racism, because I still clung to my identity as Asian.
The same thing happened with my piece, “To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang.” When I wrote the piece, I researched the points I make about Cho’s name. However, I didn’t ask someone who would have actual knowledge of Chinese naming practices. Why not? It didn’t occur to me to even approach someone else, because I saw myself as Asian. I felt like I was “allowed” to say what I felt about this issue. I could act like I was the authority, the expert. And others allowed this as well, because I am perceived as wholly Asian.
However, in many ways, I am extremely ignorant of Asian culture and heritage. To what extent, by taking on the voice of Cho Chang, was my piece appropriation?
The answer would be obvious if I was white. However, as an adoptee, I’m left — as always — somewhere in-between.
Due to the backlash I received on this poem, I’ve learned that my identity is more complex than growing up in a white community made me think. Even though I am used to viewing myself as Korean, my racial identity is much more complicated than that one word. (Not to say that non-adoptees’ identities are simple, because everyone has multifaceted and intersecting identities.) I now find it necessary to be aware how my visible identity as “Asian” makes me seem to be an authority on Asian culture which, as an adoptee, I am not. With this recognition comes the responsibility to be aware about how I am positioning myself in relationship to the broader Asian-American community.
(Of course, part of the “authority” issue is that each person of color is viewed as spokeperson for their race.)
Now, I turn this over to you: Has anyone else had similar experiences? How do you navigate the tension between your family’s heritage and the ethnicity that others perceive you to be?
**From here on out, I will just use “adoptee,” when I really mean “transracial adoptee,” just for convenience’s sake.