By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Describing herself in pieces makes Sharon Chang cringe.
Chang is the mixed race child of a Taiwanese father and a white American mother of primarily European descent. But describing herself as “half” or “part” anything makes her feel as though she is being pulled apart, viewed as a strange creature stitched up by blood, rather than a whole person.
Still, Chang doesn’t quite know how else to describe herself, but it’s a question she has pursued for much of her career as a writer and activist, even publishing a book on the subject. Growing up, she said, she straddled the worlds of her Asian father’s heritage and her white American mother’s reality.
But unlike the environment she and her husband — a mixed race man — try to create for their son at home, Chang found herself unable to talk with her parents about this strange liminality.
While she was a generally happy child, Chang admitted she also felt a sense of loneliness and encountered invisible, but firm, barriers between herself and her peers, as well as between herself and adults that didn’t seem to exist for fully Asian or fully white children.
“For me, it was a really strong sense of ‘othering,’ expressed through people’s fascination with the way I look. So, for white folks, it would be like, ‘Oh, you’re so exotic, what are you?’” Chang said. “In Asian communities, a fascination with, ‘Oh, you’re mixed! What does that mean? It’s so fascinating.’ And it’s different, almost in a zoo animal kind of way.”
Harry Dixon knows this feeling well. Raised part Korean and part white American, Dixon said he made “massive adaptation efforts” in order to mask his feelings of discomfort in both communities.
“At school, I would have to do more adaptation efforts to show my friends, ‘Oh, no, I am one of you guys, I am white. Ignore the fact that I am bringing kimchi to lunch,’” Dixon said with a laugh.
This feeling is only amplified, especially in the Korean community. Dixon is a queer man, who also currently works as a licensed mental health counselor at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service in south Seattle. Sexuality and mental health are not typically topics the Asian American community talk about.
“In the … Korean community, there isn’t an acceptance for people like me who are queer and in the LGBTQ continuum, and so, with that, especially in the queer community, I am more having to pass as white,” Dixon said. “Being in the mental health field is also not allowed in the Korean culture.”
Dixon’s Korean mother is also unsupportive of both these aspects of her son, preferring to believe being queer is a choice, and he is only “choosing” queerness to harm her, while also believing that he “quit” after getting his master’s degree, instead of pursuing higher education.
In the white, LGBTQ+ community, Dixon said he often feels tokenized. Too often, he has gone on dates where the person he was with admitted he was interested in Dixon only because, as a part-Asian man, that person views Dixon as exotic.
Still, Dixon gravitates more towards his white heritage, choosing to blend aspects of his Korean heritage with the more accepting space of American culture.
“It’s definitely more about finding those places I feel comfortable accessing my culture. … Every so often, I might go out and get Korean food. … Sometimes, I’ll find … a Korean-owned establishment, and I can converse with the owners in Korean,” Dixon said. “Sometimes, I might just listen to K-pop, or watch a Korean drama, as a way of really connecting back to my heritage.”
Chang finds herself in a different space, choosing to surround her family with the diverse cultural influences she finds around her home in south Seattle. She said she and her husband keep open lines of communication with their son, and try to avoid describing him in the pieces that make her so uncomfortable.
“We don’t say things like, ‘You are part white, or you are part Japanese.’ We just say things like, ‘You are … an Asian mixed American,’ or ‘You are mixed race,’ or ‘You are a Japanese American, or a Taiwanese American,’” Chang said. “And he has an affirmation in his parents that my husband and I never had.”
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.