A short break from the focus on white conditioning to share some recent happenings in my publishing life:
1. NEW BOOK!
What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, was released in February from Charlesbridge. In it, six-year-old Korean-American Chong tells the story of his baby sister’s tol, the traditional celebration of a child’s first birthday.
I got a lot of help with visual details from my friends here in Portland, Won-Bae and Ip-bun Park of Sun Oriental Market, and their son Se-jong and his wife Ji-yun, whose daughter Chae-hee was the model for Sara Mee. Yesterday I took copies of the book to the Parks. Chae-Hee, now three years old, instantly recognized her baby self , and her six-year-old brother Tae-soo clasped the book to his chest, claiming the book as his own.
I’ll be mailing out a copy this week to my friend Noah in Michigan, who was the model for Chong. In June of 2008 I spent a week with his family in Flushing, MI, while presenting at the Korean Culture Camp of Eastern Michigan.
3. Earlier this month, Catherine Anderson,
wonderful writer, poet, mother, teacher, friend and co-explorer of the world of race, whiteness, and multiracial families, who posts at her blog, “Mama C and the Boys,” gave me a fabulous gift – a Beautiful Blogger Award!
I am belatedly completing her challenge to post this. The next part of my challenge is to find other bloggers to award it to. I’m on the lookout.
Years and years ago, I asked a dear friend what I should read to get a true picture of the history of his people, the Lakota. He recommended Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
It’s more than twenty years later and I still haven’t read that book. Why not? Fear. Fear of knowing something unbearable.
I’ve tried to live up to a standard I’ve given myself: If they can bear to live through it, the least I can do is dare to listen to the story. But sometimes I fail to meet my own standards.
That’s the place to start on this path, the place where I duck, flinch, shrink or cower. Where I feel defensive. Where I resist. Where I have a thousand explanations, justifications, arguments and rationalizations.
The process of liberation from conditioned responses to race (or any other aspect of living and relating) is a path, not a destination. The first step can be paying attention. Discovering where I am, where the patterns I’ve learned are limiting my life (lots of tools for this coming up in the next few weeks). Looking at what I don’t want to see, what I can’t bear to feel.
The next step is to make one move, into the discomfort.
Pick up a copy of the book and read it.
I write this phrase every time I autograph a copy of After Gandhi. But Gandhi’s statement, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is so often quoted that it’s hard to hear it.
What does it actually mean to be the change?
My early image of what it meant to fight racism was to work with people of color, being “helpful.” Realizing – with some reluctance – that the real work was in the white community, I tried to be a righteous warrior, raising awareness of how whites are implicated in institutional and personal racism. With people of color, I worked hard to prove that I wasn’t one of those white people.
None of this was very effective.
Finally, I was guided to turn the spotlight inward, on myself. What was my experience of being white? How has racism impacted and shaped me? I began a lifelong exploration of the veiled realm of my own unspoken thoughts, attitudes and associations.
The more I investigate, the more I discover, and the more I feel small knots loosening, little gummed-up places unsticking, muddied thoughts clarifying. The process creates a little more room to breathe, to see, and to be. As the unconscious becomes visible, I’m empowered to act based on my conscious choices, in line with my intention. Bit by bit, I am transforming myself. In subtle but significant ways, it has transformed my relationships, both same- and cross-race.
There’s another Gandhi quote that addresses this:
“The only devils in our world are those running around in our own hearts, and that’s where all our battles ought to be fought.”
I think both quotes are simple statements of reality: For things to change, we must change.
This is the fifth and final installation of my list of recommended books on Korean subjects.
Contemporary Koreans & Korean-Americans
Free Food for Millionaires by Min-jin Lee
Life in hip NYC with a modern 22-year-old Korean-American feminist struggling with jobs, money and love.
Happy Birthday or Whatever: Track Suits, Kim Chee, and Other Family Disasters by Annie Choi
Witty, poignant memoir about mother-daughter conflict in a Korean-American family in LA.
Once the Shore: Stories by Paul Yoon
Beautifully crafted short story collection of families on a fictional Korean island, from the Japanese occupation to contemporary times.
Once They Hear My Name: Korean Adoptees and Their Journeys Toward Identity by Ellen Lee, Marilyn Lammert, and Mary Anne Hess
Riveting, honest narratives from nine adoptees who grew up in white families.
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
A richly detailed novel about a 28-year-old man working as a private spy in NYC, with vivid accounts of immigrant struggles and Korean-American life.
Over the Shoulder, Underkill, and Fade to Clear by Leonard Chang
Three noir novels with a disaffected Korean-American protagonist named Allen Choice (from Choi), wrestling with identity issues while investigating crimes.
Somebody’s Daughter by Marie Myung-ok Lee
A 20-year-old adoptee drops out of college to undertake a difficult journey to Korea where she tries to learn Korean, look for her birth family, and find herself.
Stop Me if You’ve Heard This Before by David Yoo
Teenage angst novel about a high school student who’s gotten used to being a loser until he develops a relationship with a popular girl.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim
Just-released coming-of-age novel of a young girl born at the beginning of the Japanese occupation, beautifully crafted with memorable characters.
Everlasting Empire by Yi In-Hwa
Bestseller Korean historical novel in English translation, of late Chosun Dynasty court intrigue and mystery.
The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble
Parallel and interwoven narratives of an English scholar at a modern-day academic conference in Seoul and 18th-century Crown Princess Hyegyong, whose memoir the scholar reads.
Contemporary Koreans & Korean-Americans
Everything Asian: A Novel by Sung J. Woo
Just-released novel of a young Korean boy new to the U.S.; charming, funny and moving depiction of the immigrant experience.
Girls For Breakfast by David Yoo
Funny, edgy story of a boy who’s the only Asian in his Connecticut high school.
Good Enough by Paula Yoo (sister of David, above)
Humorous romance novel about a teenage girl who plays violin and may not be quite the academic over-achiever her parents expect.
Necessary Roughness by Marie G. Lee
High school football player struggling to fit in when his family moves from LA to Minnesota, clashing with his more traditional father, surviving loss and finding his way.
Wait for Me by An Na
Beautifully written novel of a high schooler’s difficult coming of age, caught between a bitter demanding mother and her own desires, alternating with passages in the voice of her younger, deaf sister.
Year of Impossible Goodbyes; Echoes of the White Giraffe; and Gathering of Pearls by Sook Nyul Choi
Trio of poignant novels about a North Korean girl and her family – forced to flee to the south as refugees, surviving the war, and traveling to the U.S. to study, based on the author’s own experience.
Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood by Richard Kim
Seven vivid scenes describing a childhood under the Japanese occupation, beautifully written.
The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven by Kim Dong Hwa
Three gorgeous Korean graphic novels in English translation, about a young girl coming of age in a traditional Korean village, based on the author’s mother’s story.
In April, Margy Burns Knight and I spend six days in Philadelphia-area schools, presenting on the five books she wrote and I illustrated: the two Talking Walls titles; Who Belongs Here: An American Story; Welcoming Babies; and Africa Is Not A Country. As all these books concern the diversity of human experience – in culture, language, race, religion, etc. – Margy and I use every opportunity to address the topic of difference in a positive light.
We often begin our talks with information about ourselves as children. Some students in these Philadelphia suburban schools can see themselves in Margy’s story of being raised in nearby Villanova and, by her description, “never going anywhere except school, church, the library and the grocery store.” Her extensive international experience didn’t happen until she was an adult.
Other students can identify with my story of living in the U.S. until age seven, when our family moved to South Korea and I began to learn two languages and two cultures. They or their parents may have been born in another country and moved to the U.S.
In some classes, we open with the slide I use here on my blog, of me celebrating my eighth birthday in Seoul with Korean friends. I start speaking in Korean, telling a little about my childhood experience.
Then, still speaking Korean, I say, “If you can understand what I’m saying, please come to the front of the room.” Seated students watch mystified as a few of their classmates stand and move forward to join me. Sometimes one or several of the students interpret, telling their classmates what I’d said in Korean.
We count from one to five in Korean, then ask for volunteers who can count to five in any language other than English. Proud students stand to demonstrate their skill in Farsi, Chinese, Arabic, French, Spanish, Hindi and many other languages.
Teachers often tell us what a special moment this is for their non-majority, bilingual students, many of whom started out in ESOL classes. For once, their difference puts them in the center rather than on the fringe. For a moment, their bicultural and bilingual upbringing is recognized as something special and valuable.