Where Are You From?

If you’re Asian American, the chances are, you’ve heard this question more than once. You probably smiled, more to cover up your horror at the questioner’s ignorance than to put them at ease.  Or, if you’re like me, your eyes almost roll out of your head, because you know the questioner is expecting an answer different from, say, “Texas.”  Maybe the questioner is actually being sincere, and this does happen, albeit rarely.  I raised my guard once, only to have the questioner tell me he asked because I don’t sound like a New Yorker.  Thank you, I guess?

In the wake of last week’s all-too-believable report about the President, a ton of old suppressed slights resurfaced as if they just happened yesterday.  My Twitter rant about it begins here.  This expectation for Asian Americans to be white people’s model minority, to docilely accept what I have without seeming so uppity as to demand a meritocratic parity with my colleagues, has and will continue to gall me until my dying day.

There very likely isn’t a single AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) who hasn’t had this asked of them, hasn’t gritted their teeth upon hearing this, hasn’t thought, “my God, what else do I have to prove that I’m just as American as a white person who was born here?”

As a child in New York City, a town where your ethnicity often dictates your very identity, you grow up with this question.  You get so damn tired of the question because of the frequency with which it’s asked.  In elementary school, before we moved to Texas, my standard answer was always, “Manhattan,” because The City always had sway over racist bullies in Staten Island.  No, where are you really from?  New York Hospital, I’d say, knowing full well that the answer would earn me a punch that I might or might not be able to dodge.  These bullies would grow into men with the tricolors of Ireland and Italy on their car bumpers without ever having visited their ancestral country, while I never made a big deal about my three trips to Korea during my childhood.

“Where are you from, Private Kim?”  This, from a staff sergeant in charge of a live fire range at Fort Drum, in the frozen tundra of the North Country.  “New York City, Sergeant.”  Not good enough for this guy, who interrupted the safety brief – you know, the kind of boring but important “don’t do this or you’ll get blown up” warning everyone receives before being cleared onto the range with live ammunition.  “Naw, Kim, I bet you got some friends or relatives in the ROK (Republic of Korea) Army, dontcha?”  What the actual F?  We were freezing our asses off, waiting for this guy to do the one thing the Army probably trusted him to do without screwing up too badly, while he reminisced about ROK soldiers he’d known with my surname.  Great, that’s only about a third of the ROK Army.  “You’re not a KATUSA on some kind of exchange tour, are you?”  By this point, I just wanted to puke the MRE I’d just eaten.  Korean Augmentations to the US Army are Korean soldiers assigned to American units; their role is a mix of translator and cultural guide at almost every echelon.  My platoon sergeant, a crusty veteran of Grenada and Panama, finally told him to shut up and do his job, or he’d plant a size 13 boot sideways up his fourth point of contact.

I want to avoid blaming that staff sergeant, because he was only one of many noncommissioned officers who straight up asked me: why was I an infantryman, not working with computers or intelligence; why did I enlist as a private, not join the Army as an officer after receiving a degree from an expensive university, like so many other Asian Americans; when did I come to the United States; why didn’t you request assignment to Korea so that “you could be closer to your own people;” I could probably kick ass in a bar fight because I know kung fu.  And that’s just a sampling of the tamer things I was told, signaling that I could never be accepted in their eyes as a fellow American.  Forget American soldier – they could not bring themselves to see me as a fellow American.  The same went for the good ol’ boys at Fort Polk who wondered why the visiting unit (to which I was assigned) had so many gooks; let’s just say we had words, and I have a scar on the third knuckle of my right hand as a permanent reminder.

“You can’t be from here, Orientals don’t work in wine.”  Thanks for showing your true colors, Prominent TV Chef I Once Worked With.  Yes, Chef, I’m here, in a restaurant that serves dry-aged steaks and updated American classics – not sides of fried rice – and improving a list that just received Wine Spectator‘s Award of Excellence.  Even now, over 15 years later, I continue to see that my two decades of experience working with wine can never quite trump some self professed wine professionals who happen to not be Asian American.  Guess what those folks look like?  Not like me.

“Your English is so good!”  Thanks, it happens to be my first language, and my Spanish is better than my Korean.  “Let me guess: Chinese/Japanese/Chinese/Filipino?”  Try New Yorker, but thanks for playing.  And please, for the love of every god in the known world, don’t try to impress me by greeting me in what you think might be my native tongue.  Where would you like me to be from, in order to satisfy your preconceived notions of me upon meeting me for the first time?  Where should I be from, if not New York and Texas?  Do I ask you when your European forebears landed at Ellis Island?  Demand to see the passenger manifest from the steamer that brought them from Limerick or Bremen?

Where am I from?  I’m from about ten miles from here.  If we can start with that baseline, I’d be thrilled, but I ain’t holding my breath.

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The Taxman

“Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes”

Among a thousand wonderful lines in the Revolver album, this one always stood out, even as a teenager listening to his mother’s vinyl record.  Then, because miracles abound, Stevie Ray Vaughn recorded a cover that blew the original out of the water.

If you’ve followed me on Twitter for any length of time, you may have gotten a hint that I am not the President’s biggest fan.  You’d be correct, but I won’t belabor the point since I believe my Twitter timeline speaks for itself.  What has stuck in my craw almost since the moment he announced his candidacy are his obstinate refusal to disclose his taxes despite promising to do so (among myriad other promises) after the election; the imperial attitude that we lowly serfs needn’t worry ourselves with the finances of a president who sold his business acumen as all the experience he needed to run a country of 300 million people; disregarding this historic petition (full disclosure, I signed); and simply not giving a damn about this alarming poll.  Even his erstwhile helper gnomes at WikiLeaks pushed back against this broken promise.

On 29 January, the military executed the first publicized counter-terror attack of the Trump administration.  The raid on a purported Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound in Yemen resulted in the death of Chief Special Warfare Operator William Owens, and the loss of one MV-22 Osprey aircraft.  The President, as is his wont, took to Twitter to claim a great victory over terrorists.  Interestingly, he also took the time to attack those who questioned any aspect of the raid, from its inception, planning, execution, and the disturbingly high number of civilian casualties.  Silly me, but I never equated criticism of the mission, or its planning, with denigrating the immeasurable loss of Chief Owens.  If anything, I believe that we – as a military, as a society, as a country founded on morals – can and should do better.

Chief Owens, like over a million of his comrades in the American military, swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  More telling, the oath of enlistment, but not the oath of office, includes “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over me.” (emphasis is mine)  When I was a young soldier, we had several officers and noncommissioned officers counseled about derogatory comments towards the new President, Bill Clinton, punishable under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  One of the kinder things said about him at the time, at least to me, was why on earth did I vote for “that draft dodging dope smoker who hates us (the military).”

There appears to exist a similar rift in the force today, but now I see the lines drawn more starkly, between those who question President Trump’s policies vs. those who seem willing to blindly follow him.  Neither is a bad thing, necessarily.  Soldiers love clarity, in their government, those in charge of it, and that government’s policies.

What remains chilling is the lack of anything resembling clarity in this administration.  In light of President Trump’s refusal to release his taxes, and the business interests from which he has not been proven to divest, who can authoritatively say that future military action might not benefit the President’s business ventures in the Middle East?  Will my comrades, acquaintances, and friends, die so that the Trump Organization can turn a profit?  How would we even know without substantive proof to the contrary?

How can the nation’s commander-in-chief, a man who is a living breathing antithesis of the Army Values, be trusted when he orders another mission like Al-Bayda last month?  What will he tell the widow and orphaned children when Daddy died on a mission to protect a the Trump property in the Middle East?  I’m sorry for your loss, but here’s a comp weekend stay and meal vouchers for Mar a Lago?  Since it’s been proven that anything that affects the President’s businesses also affects him personally, wouldn’t the natural extension of our foreign policy be to protect those businesses from the UAE to Kuwait?  Our new Secretary of ExxonMobil State doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could implement a foreign policy not guaranteed to protect the President’s business interests.

I’ve been telling folks that, in some respects, I feel like I’m reliving the early 1990s.  As the 90s opened, I was just another protesting college student in Lafayette Park with a sign that said “No War For Oil.”  Regardless of anything then-President Bush said about how he wouldn’t “let this stand,” or that the coming war was about containing aggression (true, as it turns out), it was also ultimately about making sure oil continued to flow freely from the Arabian Gulf.

We all want to believe in something, to know that sacrifice is worthy and serves our country.  The sacrifice could be to depose a Panamanian strongman in an extreme interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, contain an Iraqi dictator, or to secure food convoys for starving East Africans.  But now?  I don’t know.  I’ve attended a dozen funerals in the last 24 years and honor each sacrifice.  I mourn them.  I miss them.  We want the loss to stand for something, to be worthy of what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

But without a fully transparent divestiture from the Trump Organization, without releasing his taxes, we can and will never be certain that future sacrifices will not be in vain.

Go Back to (fill in the blank)

I’ve heard variations on this theme for what feels like my whole life.  The blank in the title has ranged from China, Japan, Korea, to Hong Kong – and once, incredibly, even Burma.  I still don’t know how an ignorant white boy in the Houston burbs, who at the time couldn’t even name the states bordering Texas, knew about Myanmar.

My first memory of hearing this is first grade, right around the time I realized that white boys would pick fights with me simply because of my ethnicity.  A related memory is the “a-ha” light bulb moment I had at age 7, when I discovered that if you keep punching, even if you’ve been hurt, you’ll win.  Maybe not with the teachers or administrators, but I got into progressively fewer fights each year, until we moved to Texas.

Two months ago, I was watching the news because I feel incomplete without constant heartburn.  The scene was a Donald Trump rally, and one of his supporters in the background yelled it, presumably at either a reporter or a protestor.  You only have to hear it directed at you once, at age 5, to have a heightened awareness of that hurtful sentence four decades later.  It was unmistakable, though, and I froze.  To my dismay and horror, not a single talking head noticed.  I scanned social media, switched channels, and … nothing, nichts, nada.  I don’t even know if it was a live or taped video of a Trump rally, don’t know its location, so YouTube wasn’t an option.

Then it happened again, this time at a playground.  I was off that day, and took my kids to a playground closer to my in-laws’ neighborhood than mine.  The heat and humidity weren’t nearly as oppressive as they had been, the sun was out – a perfect summer day.  He was about six feet tall, white, with dark hair and a mustache.  A red Trump hat looked like a sundae’s cherry atop his small head and pear-shaped body.  We nodded at each other, the silent solidarity of two dads watching their kids at a playground.  I noticed that he’d look in my direction occasionally, but I paid no attention.  I tend to keep to myself at the playground.  I much prefer to watch my kids play, not engaging with parents I don’t know.  Not so Mr. Trump Hat, who found a kindred political spirit in one of the mothers there.

Their conversation, audible from eight to ten feet away, was about what I expected.  Immigrants bad, homosexuality deviant, all lives matter, a word salad like a misfiring car engine – it was like when Oswald Bates conjured words from thin air simply because they were multi-syllabic.  My kids had wisely stayed away from Trump Hat’s son, who seemed to have problems with playing too rough, and cursing every time he fell.  Then Trump Hat crossed a red line.  He made some comment about “don’t know why we just don’t nuke those sand n—-rs.”  My tweet storm about it begins here.

My sudden rage at that instant clouds my memory, but I said something like, “Hey, man, watch your language.  My kids are here too and they don’t need to hear that.”

“What the fuck is it to you?”  Trump Hat started walking closer to me, apparently thinking I would shrink away from confrontation.  Sorry, but very few unarmed people physically intimidate me, let alone someone who looks like 150 pounds of chewed bubble gum.  I kept looking over at my kids, who thankfully were oblivious to the fact that their old man was about to – what, get into a fistfight at the playground?  Trump Hat replied that this is a free country, he had a right to his opinion, neither of which statement I’d ever disagree with, but then came the zinger.  “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to fuckin’ China or wherever the fuck you’re from?”

“Seriously, man?  You want everyone here to know how ignorant and stupid you are right now?”  His recent compatriot quickly gathered up her kids and left.  One other dad I knew peripherally from this park, another minority veteran, but with horrible taste in moto-themed Marine Corps hats, came up.  I couldn’t help but laugh at how ludicrous this entire scene was.  I was determined to not hit the guy.  I didn’t want to be arrested over something as ridiculous as this.  I was afraid, though not for my own safety; rather, I was afraid that if I hit Trump Hat, I might not want to stop.  I knew that if I got into my first fight in 13 years, the release would be nothing less than exhilarating; I also knew I didn’t want to disappoint my children, who would very likely see their father get arrested for aggravated battery.

“I’ll knock your chink ass from here to Brooklyn.”  I asked, with what, his belly?  I called for my kids, told them we were going to a different playground, this one was dirty.  In the few seconds it took for them to run over to me, I told Trump Hat, if he wanted to throw down, now was his chance, but I’d also beat him bloody in front of his son.  Suffice it to say, my quiet angry voice works better than yelling or other histrionics.  With that, he backed off, I gave the Marine veteran a wordless fist bump, and we left the playground unmolested.  I badly wanted a cigarette and half a bottle of Jameson right then and there.  A glass of wine when we got home would have to suffice.  At the next playground, adjacent to my son’s school, the kids found instant playmates.  They were black, Asian, white, and Hispanic – an elementary school version of a Benneton ad, and this made me inordinately happy.

Discrimination doesn’t just exist, it’s learned.  Parents’ actions and words have remarkable effects on their children, it’s not as if the son of a Klan member would suddenly decide to work for the SPLC.  I felt sorry for Trump Hat’s son, not just because one day his old man will run into someone with far less forbearance than me.  But because that boy will grow up hating minorities, inheriting his father’s racism, only to possibly and suddenly wonder why society is leaving his family’s views behind.  Or sadder yet, the son will grow up hating himself as a closeted gay man because his old man has no use for anyone not straight and cis-gender.

What truly terrifies me is not the prospect of another attack by one or two would-be jihadists who are more Laurel and Hardy than Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.  What scares the bejezus out of me is the racism that had been rightfully driven underground, its mainstream voices muted, but now has found widespread acceptance again.  It’s the attitudes of men like Trump Hat, or this wonderful human being, or these extras from a possible Deliverance remake.  As satisfying as it may be to reply in kind with vitriol, if not a fist to the throat, I keep in mind Dr. King’s words.  In particular, I’m amazed at how far short I fall from this passage: “Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.”  If you follow me on Twitter, this is not quite how I approach it, but it does make me feel better to read words to which I might aspire.