Image Credit: AP
I was recently approached by the Seattle Asian Art Museum to create an evening program for their exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Artists. It's a wonderful show, and I mean, it makes sense, right? Museum exhibition from Korea? Invite a local Korean-American artist!
But for some reason, I hesitated. Something about the whole arrangement seemed, perhaps unintentionally, to put me in a box. It was a little too...matchy-matchy.
I asked if I could be honest with them because something wasn't sitting right. To their credit, they listened when I said I wasn't down with doing Korea Night at The Museum.
So I proposed something different. I invited six radically different artists and cultural thinkers from diverse backgrounds to examine a single work from their six distinctive perspectives in a single evening. This exhibition could be a lightning rod for a shared, inclusive conversation around issues of ideological warfare that splits people: entrenched racism and enthnocentrism, the effect of continual occupation and subjugation of a society, the role of women, and the relationship among class, capitalism, industry, and soft power.
These aren't issues exclusive to being Korean. By inviting a Marxist filmmaker, a peace broker, and artists of different genders, races and ages to share their perspectives, the evening could underscore that looking is never neutral, never unbiased.
How we see tells something of who we are.
But because my thoughts rarely stay on one trajectory, later I began to second guess myself. I thought, "Wait a second. Why don't I want to do a Korea Night? What's wrong? Am I ashamed of being Korean?"
No. That definitely was not the issue. It's not because I'm not proud of being Korean. That pride is earned, not appropriated.
So the short answer? I didn't want to do Korea Night at the Museum because mainstream America isn't ready.
* * * * *
In less than one generation, Korea went from an agrarian country devastated by wars and widespread poverty to a global powerhouse in industry, technology, and pop culture. And now you see Korean celebrities, Samsung phones, marinated beef tacos, and Kimchi-fied food everywhere. It's all fashionable and fun now, but remember, White America, you came to this party only once the party started rocking. You weren't there when it was awkward, and often a party of one.
You love kimchii now, but you didn't grow up embarrassed when your school friends asked why your house smelled funny. Or that your mom, ever-conscious of being "out of place," would fling the doors open to air out the smell, even in the dead of winter when it was 20 below.
You might say you envy our straight hair and "almond" eyes, but you were never called a Chink on the playground. You never internalized the stupid childhood rhyme "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these," making a hollow show of pulling your eyelids up and down and laughing because others were laughing.
It might be cool to know all the lyrics to Gangnam Style, but you didn't grow up one step removed from your parents by language because they wanted you to speak flawless English. They put their ability to communicate with nuance on the chopping block for their kids. It was, they believed, one of your only shots at not being seen as a foreigner.
My father told me that, when I was 8, I came home from the YMCA in tears because a boy kept asking me "Where are you from?" and wouldn't accept "Pennsylvania" as an answer. Over and over he said, "What are you?" refusing to believe that I was an American.
I asked my father who I was. Was I American or not? Why would that boy talk to me like that? It utterly broke my father's heart because he didn't have the words, literally. He didn't know how to explain to his 8-year-old what racism was.
To get to a place where you can even begin to have a semblance of pride in a non-white identity comes cautiously and carefully. It starts when you realize you might have a right to choose how to "fit in" or not fit in. For me it helped to find people of color who felt nearly every facet of my experience in their own bones without need for explanations or justifications. It's never a linear progression, but a twisted knot of inherited shame, resistance to that shame that seems like compensatory pride, pride that easily aligns with the rising tide of society, and pride that feels lonely and hard-won.
* * * *
Let's go back to the kimchi-fied craze. What's the big deal with mainstream culture being "inspired" by this magical food for the body? That's how cultures advance, right? Share and share alike?
Pablo Picasso once quipped, "Good artists copy, great artists steal," and as an artist, I can certainly identify with this sentiment. But even with all its appropriation, the art world is hell-bent on lineage, provenance and history. No one's going to forget to remind me that, as a woman, the inspiration for my video art comes from white men like Bill Viola and Andy Warhol.
But if I don't insist on a pause in the Korean-cultural fusion narrative, that I'm not simply and passively pleased that white America has "accepted" something as "strange" as kimchee, history becomes co-opted by those with privilege. Innovation from non-white cultures becomes something invented by "geniuses" in white culture. Already, the original kimchee recipes developed over generations by "anonymous grandmothers" are now fused with European tastes via celebrity chefs staking their claim on fermented vegetables. Finally, even the "inspired by" footnote gets wiped out of the story, and in a few short years it will be "Wolfgang Puck's Amazing Spicy Cabbage with Pork Tenderloin.™" We've seen this time and time again with Black culture erased or left with barely a footnote in food, music, dance, and language.
Co-opting and appropriation are ways of looking from the outside, not interested in knowing the experience from the inside. There's no empathy, no real desire for understanding context, no bridging of cultures. It's just a pick and choose, buffet-style.
What white America sees of Korean culture right now is not at all in line with what I understand. In 2016, it's time to be more conscious and more accountable. It's time to be far more public and intentional in acknowledging people of color whose cultures you're inspired by.
Until then, we're not ready for Korea Night at the Museum because we're still at the pick and choose stage of this conversation. You want kimchi, but you don't want Korean executives in your companies. You want straight black hair, but you don't want thicker, shorter thighs. You want "Asian" but you don't want individuality. All rook same, right? As a culture, we still can't see Asians beyond stereotypes, if we see them at all, and if you're totally honest, I bet that when many of you see an Asian person, for a brief moment you're surprised they speak English so well.
So we're not ready for Korea Night at the Museum. Not until we've done away with the tendency to fetishize and appropriate; plunder and pillage.
This is why I'm holding fast to this story, for now.