Tuesday, May 8, 2012

America the Beautiful

Like all actors, I have imagined my Oscar acceptance speech.  Upon announcement of my name, I throw my hands up in the air, kiss my husband -- like I said, this is all imaginary -- then walk up the stairs in my custom Alexander Wang dress and Louboutin heels.  After words of sincere yet obligatory thanks to my production company, director, agent and cast, I close with words to the 40 millions TV viewers.  Clutching Oscar by his legs, I say straight to camera, "Nowhere in the world can children of immigrants rise so far, so fast.  Thank you, America."

I was born in Los Angeles to two South Korean immigrants, both of whom graduated from the highest-ranking high school in the nation.  My father came for his Master's degree.  My mother, due to family finances, came as a high school graduate hoping to eventually attend college in the US.  She fell into the familiar rut of marriage and motherhood, never furthering her schooling before her death.  As many of us know, education is not a path to happiness.  Happiness is the only path to happiness, but that is a topic for another post and another day.

When I was in sixth grade, my family relocated to Seoul for a year.  After college, I taught middle school science for a year in Switzerland.  I also grew up in Springfield, Illinois at a time when Asians were few and far between.  In a graduating class of approximately 400, I was the only Asian.  In the entire high school there were 3 Asians.  I never introduced myself to the Chinese-American girl who was a couple of years below me.  In retrospect, I wish I had said hello.  But I was too busy keeping my own head above water, trying to fit in with the white crowd, to expend any energy on racial relations. 

Although I've been in the racial minority in my birth country, I've been in the minority abroad -- both as an American and as an Asian.  In Korea, even with my mouth shut, I'm clearly American.  I walk like an American and observe like an American.  I am not "one of them."  Sort of like the Irish-Americans showing up in Dublin proclaiming that they're Irish.  The nationals think it's quaint, but to them, an American is first and foremost an American.  As the ex-fiancee of an Irish national, I write from experience.

On the ski slopes in Switzerland, however, I experienced racism of the playground strain from adults.  Here I was, a college graduate, and grown men pulled back their eyelids and mocked me with "Asian sounds" in front of laughing Swiss children.  I also had similar encounters in Italy.  In countries which have been homoethnic for centuries, the idea of an "outsider" is backed by millenia.  We were easy targets.  When I asked my Japanese middle school students if they had ever been mocked, they remarked off-handedly, "Oh, Ms. Shin, it happens everytime we go down to town."  Theoretically Europe seemed romantic, but my Asian face brought out a puerile reality.

America has grown out of publicly mocking me.  We know too much.  We have Asian faces on billboards now, too.  Racism now is not the racism of 30 years ago, and it is a fact that social injustice will always evolve as society evolves.  But I believe we have made strides, immense and crucial.  In fact, I believe that America is the one of the most evolved nations on the racial front.  We are at the leading edge of an integrative society.  No where else is there such a history of immigration.  Also, no where else is innovation so supported, and the stroke of inventive genius does not discriminate by color.  I may not have always been recognized as being American by some Americans, but I have been backed my by millions of other Americans who support my identity as an American.  I have a right to live here and thrive here.  This country, even with all its racial injustices and social conflicts, is the only place on earth that will welcome me as its daughter.  And despite its turmoils of diversification, it is the only place that I could ever feel a sense of belonging.  Truly, from sea to shining sea, this is my beautiful home.

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