Thursday, October 09, 2008

Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time

Before going to the Kundiman poetry reading at Fordham University last night, Pauline and I had dinner at Nook in Hell's Kitchen. Dinner was very pleasant, sauced by talk about the ekphrastic stories she is writing, and about the book of poems I am publishing next April. She gave me a copy of her essay published in an anthology of women's writing, Homelands: women's journeys across race, place, and time (edited by Patricia Justine Tumang and Jenesha De Rivera, and published by Seal Press). Pauline's essay charted her own journey towards accepting her ethnic identity as a Korean adoptee, and her gender identity as a transgendered woman.

The essay--and the life--is remarkable for the geography it traverses. At the age of eight months, Pauline was flown from Seoul to Tokyo, then to Anchorage, and then to Chicago, where she was picked up by her foster parents, and brought back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That flight set the pattern for a peripatetic life afterwards. Madison for college. London for her master's. Chicago for corporate career. Urbana-Champaign for PhD. Queens in NYC for activism and living out a chosen life.

The years spent pursuing her PhD proved "pivotal" for Pauline in redefining her identity.

When I finished my dissertation in December 1993, I discovered Foucault while taking a graduate seminar in political theory. Reading the work of this radical gay French theorist helped me rethink my lifelong identity complex. I had labored for years under the feeling that I was a "fake Korean," unable to live up to the expectations of others. In light of reading Foucault and other theorists, I came to understand that my pursuit of--or flight from--Koreanness was doomed to fail from the start, since there was no essence of Koreanness to pursue. I came to see myself as having a distinct identity as a Korean adoptee--neither ethnically Korean in the way that Koreans or recent Korean immigrants are, nor Korean American in the way that U.S.-born, English-speaking Korean Americans are.


I could identify with the feeling of being a "fake" whatever. Growing up in Singapore, even before I went abroad for college, I was often made to feel that I was not a real Chinese since I could not speak, read or write Mandarin fluently. In Singapore, Mandarin was so identified with being Chinese, that other dialects (such as the Cantonese I speak at home, along with English) came to be seen as sub-cultures. An English-speaking Chinese was labeled a "banana," yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I was no victim, however, since such insults came from a class which was losing political and economic influence to the rising English-speaking class. My experience confirmed what Pauline discovered in Foucault: there is no essence to an ethnic identity. Rather, identity is historically determined, and is contested by class and other interests.

In the same years Pauline came to accept herself as a Korean adoptee, she also came to terms with her gender identity.

I would eventually come to call myself a "male-bodied woman," a concept radical even within the transgender community, because I reject the assumption that the presence or absence of the penis determines my status as a man or as a woman. While cross-dressers often find me too transsexual to relate to because I live full-time as a woman, transsexuals find me puzzling because I have not pursued hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. Even within the transgendered community, I find myself in between.


To see who we are clearly, we need to re-name ourselves. The phrase "male-bodied woman" probably consolidates--crytallizes?--how Pauline sees herself. If we are to look away from society's mirror, we need language to hold up another mirror. Language, in its power of abstraction, can change our perceptions, or, at least, show us how much our perceptions, so intimate and individual to us, are shaped by society.

One person's changed self-perception can transform the self-perception of others. Pauline, in her essay, wrote of the first international gathering of first-generation Korean adoptees, in September 2001, in Washington D. C..

Being at a conference with more than two thousand Korean adoptees was an extraordinary experience. While a few of the attendees were initially shocked by my presence--most had never met an openly transgendered person before--they soon realized that my life story as a Korean adoptee was one that they could relate to.


This passage reminds me that identity is not just a matter of authenticity and integrity; it is also a matter of community. Accepting her ethnic identity as a Korean adoptee, Pauline was willing and able to participate in this conference. When she entered this community, she brought with her all her other identities, including that of being a transgendered woman. Now, that community's self-definition must shift, however slightly. The community cannot disown one with a "life story" like its own, but needs to come to terms with the variations on the same theme.

I am stimulated by this passage to think through a little more my confused ideas about identity. My default position has been that identity is bad, is unnecessarily confining and intolerant. I am especially suspicious of national identity, with its flag-waving and five-year-plans, its armies and Olympics. Perhaps a more wholesome approach is to embrace all the identities jostling in me ("I am large. I contain multitudes."). I would like to be a poet in pragmatic Singapore, and a Singaporean in the English poetic tradition. I would like to be religious among the agnostics, and gay in my family.

Not for the sake of confrontation, but for the sake of authenticity. The talk of the performance, or construction, of the self leaves me cold. To be true to myself still seems an ethical imperative, and a psychological drive, even if the self is a moving target. The heart of Pauline's essay, the place she calls home, is a passage about what music means to her. In it, she follows "authentic" in one sentence, with "fullest sense" in the next. That juxtaposition seems suggestive to me. To be true to a thing is to possess the fullest sense of the thing. That argues for an idea of authenticity more in line with plenitude and complexity, than with singularity and correctness.

I bought a piano and thereby filled my little apartment with the music of my childhood and the spirits of those since lost to me. Sometimes when I play a Bach prelude, a Schubert impromptu, or a Chopin etude from my childhood or youth, the distinction between my past and present dissolves. And when I sing one of the German hymns from the Lutheran hymnal of my childhood, I realize how much music continues to shape my search for an authentic identity. My piano represents "home" in its fullest sense. It is not simply a musical instrument--or a decorative piece of furniture; it is an instrument of self-determination in the creation of my own culture of home; it is an instrument of the art of memory, a tool to be used in the archaelogy of the self.

4 comments:

Christopher Hennessy said...

Great post! I linked to it on my blog.

ram4hire said...

Dear JL, You are clearly more than what you are, or what you thought yourself to be. And you, are beautiful. =)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Christopher, for linking it to your blog.

ram4hire, you make me blush.

gayle said...

True, you can learn a lot about Australia from the air: you can discover its size with incredible views of the vast emptiness; the unchanging.
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smithsan
seo