Human

When I was 17 years old I shaved my head (2007) and made a documentary about it for my high school’s film festival. Now after nearly a decade of reflection, I can reflect on what that means to me today.

Just last Sunday I went in for a very short haircut again, and I think for some of the same reasons that I went the distance the first time.

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Even in high school, before I had the vocabulary to speak about what I was breaking free from, I didn’t like the box that I was placed in. As a Chinese American teenager I felt defined by people’s expectations of me. I was automatically assumed to be a pre-packaged Asian girl. That meant I was a cute, delicate, sweet girl. These weren’t things that were inherently bad, but there was no room for me to be myself, or anything outside of that image. There was no room for someone to meet me as I was. It was forcing others to recognize that they didn’t know who I was and that they shouldn’t assume. I felt my humanity was at stake. I was being reduced down to something small. I wanted to tear down the cardboard cutout of who I was supposed to be from people’s eyes so they could see me as fully human – complex and unique.

Cutting my hair was a space where the world looked at me with scorn for not fitting into one of two boxes. During that time I experienced perhaps the most discomfort that I have in my entire life. A woman at Michael’s (the craft store) looked at me horrified exclaiming, “You know this is the women‘s restroom.” and I had to reply, “Yes, and I am a woman.” A table full of men at school openly pointed and laughed at me. Nearly daily I was mistaken for a boy. Instances like these became common place as well as fielding questions every day for why I did what I did to my hair.

But it allowed me space to figure out how I felt about myself as well. I was able to distance myself from the constructed femininity that was handed to me by virtue of my birth. I could explore that in a gender-neutral space where I found I was very comfortable. It was like breaking free from my own skin and being able to breathe. It was exploring the world of endless possibilities where I could be anything I wanted to be. I wasn’t constrained to be that pre-packaged person because people would look at me and not know what to make of me. I could be a bold adventurer; a world-changer. I could be a better man than you, or a better woman. I could be that girl, and I could be so much more at the same time. At a time when I was trying to figure out who I was, this was exactly what I needed to dream big for what my life could look like.

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My aunt and I when I was 17

Now, nearly ten years later, I find myself constrained by a much more sinister box. One that I think my high school self didn’t have the words for. Given a certain presidential nominee’s “locker room talk” on women, a twitter hashtag #notokay was born where women shared their first experiences with sexual assault. Most experiences women posted were when they were fairly young, frequently pre-pubescent, and it is something that follows us our entire lives. With an increasingly vocal minority of racist people in the US as well (perhaps also a symptom of a certain presidential nominee) the hashtag #thisis2016 has also appeared when a New York Times editor was told to “Go back to China” despite being, like me, an American. People shared their experiences as Asian Americans feeling unwelcome in their own country. For me, these things are a daily reality on top of the intersectional experience of being both a woman and an Asian American. Asian women are highly sexualized and fetishized as exotic and subservient, making me feel like I walk around with a target on my back at times. While I was not immune to sexism or societal expectations of how I should look or dress by any means in Korea, coming back to the US has been a shock to me with the reintroduction of being the “other,” and a different set of ignorant expectations of who I am, unique to America.

So I try to find myself in there. Whether I do or don’t fit the stereotypes of women, Asian Americans, or Asian American women, I don’t care. The desire to be seen as fully human as my own being is still there. I’m still alive and kicking, and want people to see me. And in my own little protesting way, I reaffirm my humanity by cutting away my hair perhaps this time less to find myself, and more to show myself. I do it by writing and talking. I do it by making you look at me as a personality rather than a caricature. I do it even though I am exhausted by the effort because the alternative is suffocating.

It is damaging to be treated like an object, an outsider, and a one-dimensional being. It makes it easy to use a person for what they can do for you. For women very frequently it’s for sexual gratification. It makes it easy to exclude people you don’t see as human – from the work place, from housing, education, or even the country. It makes it easy for people like me to be dismissed for being just your pre-packaged expectations and nothing more. Not only does it make this world more dangerous in very tangible ways in terms of harassment or mistreatment, but it keeps people like me reduced to much less than what we are, and what we can be.

I have a decade more of living life in this body since my little experiment, and a decade more of tearing down a wall that is constantly being rebuilt. I have a decade more of things that are #notokay and in 2016 this is still reality for many people including myself. These things make it so much more important for me to express myself. It makes it so much more important for me to defy expectations, and tell the world it can’t consume me like its morning coffee – convenient and disposable. I am anything but convenient or disposable, and I sure as hell am not just your pre-packaged expectations. So on this 9th anniversary of my hair cut, more so than most years, I am defiantly celebrating my God-given humanity in all of its glory.

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Caught in the inbetween

After some months of deliberation I finally decided to make a post on the local foreigner’s Facebook group to try to find other Asian Americans in Daejeon.

It went a little like this:

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A few white men decided that my desire to meet people like myself was distasteful. Which was really unfortunate, and a bit difficult for me to get past. I did, however, get good feedback following the trolls that commented first and was able to make some friends from the experience (Note: I have not been exclusively meeting with Asian Americans.) It’s been overall wonderful to meet people like me in Korea.

A young mother I met from this (Asian Australian) asked me today why I wanted to meet Asian Americans. What was my motivation? I had to think for a little while, aside from having been called a, “pathological extrovert” I realize I did have a deep longing to connect with people who related to the experiences I’ve had in Korea as an Asian American. While I’m certainly not lonely, there was something to hanging around with Koreans and white Americans every day for the past 8 months and almost no one who lived in that in between space with me. There is a need for a lot of explanation of my experience for those who don’t live it. I am the invisible foreigner – being able to pass as Korean until I open my mouth. Korean people look and speak to me in Korean before my white counter-parts which is a double-edged sword. I’m told that it’s easier to talk to me because I seem more familiar, and I’m not singled out for my foreignness. That means it’s nearly impossible to find people like me, or have them find me. It is its own experience to be visibly foreign in a country (one I’m familiar with at home) but it is certainly not the same as being foreign and white. And one that I am reminded of so eagerly by the people who troll my posts when I ask to meet people like me.

It’s been nice to have people who related to my day to day experiences, but my friend’s inquiry into my motivations made me realize that it was much more than that. With this year grappling with colonialization and privilege my experience is a lot less straight forward than people coming from the dominant culture. I carry with me American privilege and native English speaking privilege, but not white privilege. I carry with me Christianity and English, both of which have been used as tools of oppression on people who look like me.

In the context of Korea, English in particular has a special position as a language of success. It’s nothing like learning any other language when you are in the US. Speaking English is your ticket to success in life – your key to a good job and a good life. Christianity is widespread and very common. There are churches everywhere, and while not everyone in Korea is Christian it is mainstream and normal to identify as Christian. In Korea, depictions of Jesus are also almost always white men, even though the historical Jesus would not have been white at all. The US has been a huge part of both of those trends in Korea. It is pervasive, and has set up unequal relationships between Americans and Koreans.

Coming from the US gives me privilege, but having lived in the US as an Asian American comes with its own kind of experience. Being Asian and female also brings its own “special experiences.” Asian women are very often objectified and seen as exotic and submissive. Take for example okcupid data on race: While it may seem like a good thing that Asian women get more messages and more messages back to their messages and are generally very popular in the dating scene, it mostly means (in my experience) that Asian women are seen as sex objects more than anything else. Google “Exotification of Asians” and you’ll find plenty of people writing about the same sort of experience. While at the same time I’m told that my stories aren’t relatable. Someone with my face can’t act in a movie about people who look like me. Scarlett Johansson is playing a character in a live action adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell,” a Japanese story, that’s named Motoko Kusanagi. Asian Americans are one of the most underrepresented minorities in American media. It’s hardly a new thing to happen as well.

So when it comes to big questions of responsibility and privilege I’m a mixed bag. There are privileges I have and clearly privileges I don’t have. A big question I’ve been wrestling with this year is about my responsibility as a person of color in a Christian organization abroad. Am I contributing to colonialization? What is my responsibility as a person of color in a Christian program abroad? These are big questions especially in regard to what I’ll be doing next after my program is done. While I currently don’t have clean pre-packaged answers to my questions it is comforting to feel that I’m not alone. Reaching out and finding people who live in this in between space means that I could talk with someone if I wanted to without having to explain my experience because they would be living it with me too. It doesn’t mean that they know any better than me, but at least we are living in this reality together.

Opportunity Costs

You can play this song while you read my blog. It will appropriately set the mood.

One of those big things that people struggle with while living abroad is what they’ll be missing out on while they’re not home. A big one currently is not having the holidays with family. Each person has a different experience of what that means – sadness, relief, a longing for home cooked meals. For me, I miss my family and my friends. I miss the food and the games, and catching up with cousins. My family traditions are probably different than yours. I miss the large pot of Burmese soup we have at our family gatherings – the endless food fest that is every family gathering we have. I miss the silly things my nephews and my niece will inevitably say. I’m truly thankful to say this is what home for the holidays mean to me.

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It’s ever so apparently during the holidays, but choosing to be in Korea for a year means I miss out on everything for the whole year. For me this means I’m missing the first weddings of my cousins on both sides of the family. It means I won’t be there when my friends want to talk to me about the struggles in their lives. I’ll miss out on board game gatherings and late night talks. I won’t be there for my family when both good and bad things happen. I’ll miss an entire year of my niblings’ childhoods (niblings is a real word, I swear). It may also mean that I’m not there when someone I know passes away. It is time I can’t get back.

Aside from my family and friends I’m missing there are other life milestones that I am putting off as well. Travelling abroad also makes it very difficult to have a long lasting romantic relationship when I move countries every once in a while. This means I’ll have one less year of an adult income, and depending on my future career one less year of experience. Perhaps these could be labelled “anxieties about the future.”

From what I’ve said it’s hard to see why I’d want this. But Christmas celebrations this year are ones I’ll remember forever. I had the awesome privilege of witnessing a service with the young adults in Korean first, then Chinese, then in English on Christmas Eve. Being able to look around the congregation on Christmas at Hannam Church and feel like I knew the people there. I could point out the Taekwondo instructor whose place we practice at, the Potter’s family who invited us when we arrived to make pottery, the people who help us with Sunday School, and the young adults who we played a scavenger hunt with. They’re no longer a group of strangers, but people who have extended their welcome to us and with whom we’ve shared warm memories. People we continue to make warm memories with.

I may not have my Burmese soup or my cousins to play with, but I’m not lacking here. While I wish I could split myself in two and do everything, I’m happy to be on this adventure. I wouldn’t be able to have a basic conversation in another language now, nor would I have learned how to play 3 cushion or Konggi. I’ve learned so much about the situation here in Korea as well. So much of my time in Korea has expanded my understanding of people and what shapes our histories and who we become.

For me this has been a big step in the right direction for what I want my life to look like and who I want to be. As for my anxieties about the future, I need patience and trust that things will go as they should – whatever that may mean. For now, while I’ll continue to miss those I love at home, I’m happy to be here making new memories and a new home I’ll miss when I’m away. For those who celebrate, I hope you have a Christmas to remember. Merry Christmas!

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As the year comes to end I find myself far short of my fundraising goals. Will you please help me reach my goals?

My Asian American Transition to Korea

It’s been over a month now that I’ve been in DaeJeon. Life seems to have settled into a rhythm – class, site visits, grocery store visits, and laundry rituals. The question arises: How are you adjusting to Korea?

My transition to this new home has been surprisingly smooth. Though I don’t speak the language, I grew up not understanding my family when they spoke Cantonese or Burmese. I picked up on body language and pointing. It seems a familiar thing to me here as well. Korean food is a favorite of my parents also, so the switch to eating kim chi and rice wasn’t really even a switch. I don’t miss pizza. My diet at home involved mostly Asian food. The benefit of living in America near a big city was that I could eat Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food and Korean food all the time if I wanted to (though I do miss the other Asian foods). Even without eating out eating rice everyday at home was normal.

Language class even reminds me of taking Mandarin 1 and 2 in high school. Following along in class has been okay despite being mostly in Korean. My limited Chinese has even helped me pick up Korean and understand my Chinese classmates. Having traveled in Asia before gave me the benefit of being familiar with the large air conditioner units in each room, the heated floors, and the hot water available every where. Growing up in an Asian household means that I’m familiar with the hospitality and the fight over the check at the end of a meal. I know generally how to be polite already, even if I’m not perfect at executing it. Products are made for people like me – for example the glasses are made to fit my nose and don’t rest on my cheeks like they do in the States. So the adjustment to Korea has been completely seamless then, right?

Actually no. I am experiencing culture shock, but perhaps not from the source that was expected. The biggest challenge to the way I’ve lived has been moving in with my four other American housemates. I realize that the food we eat and the habits we have are pretty different from each other. My assumption that we are all American and therefore all have a general understanding of what is “normal” was way off base. Alexis and Emily are both from Florida, Linda is German American and from North Carolina, and Will is from Arkansas. We don’t agree on what a jacket is, or what is “common sense” for being polite. We don’t agree on what tastes good, or if it’s okay to wear shoes in the house, and I’ve noticed we all have very different communication styles. They’ve taught me about bubbly water, why and when it’s used. I’ve learned about German foods, and had a chance to talk through different cultural perspectives on politeness. My housemates have cooked some delicious meals that aren’t Asian at all. Words like “gal” get tossed around occasionally. I am constantly learning from my housemates how they see the world differently than I do.

I’ve perhaps been caught off guard, and feel a little foolish to go to Korea and learn what it means to be American while I’m here. This experience has opened my eyes to the sheer diversity of a country that could swallow Korea several times over. And for the first time in my life the way I do things is the cultural norm rather than the exception (as far as I can tell so far) even though I am not Korean at all. It has also made me examine what my identity is in all of this. I’m more hyper aware of the ways in which I differ from my friends whom I’m supposed to be like. I’m still trying to answer the question “What does it mean to be Asian American in Asia?” It seems the answer is not so simple.

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Want to help? Fund my journey!

My Site Placement!

I have happy news to share with you. My site coordinator, Kurt, has informed me of my site placement for the year. I will be working at:

복음행복한홈스쿨 지역아동센터

(Bokeum Haengbokhan Home-seukool Jiyeok Adong CenteohBokeum Happy Home School District Children’s Center)

기관 설명 (Site Description):

The purpose of this center is to protect and nurture children from low income families, multicultural families, and families with single parents by providing diverse programs and identifying problem areas in health, emotions, and social needs in order for them to grow in a healthy environment. Furthermore, the center offers love and provides for whatever needs are possible for all the children no matter what circumstance they are in. The center also provides support, advocacy, and serves to network with the local community to solve the root of the family issues until the family can restore their healthy functions.

I am ecstatic to have been placed here! This is a new site, so none of us are quite sure what to expect. I don’t even have pictures, but this is work I feel life has been preparing me for. There are so many dynamics to this site that speak to topics near and dear to my heart. Be it low-income families, multicultural families, single parent households, or simply families in tough situations, I feel ready to jump in feet first to this work.

I also come from a multicultural family. My grandparents were from China and Burma. My parents’ generation were all born and raised in Burma because of World War II as non-citizen aliens because of their Chinese heritage. Because of threat of genocide with the Cleansing they moved to the US. While I am personally a little removed from that because I was born in the US and raised in the suburbs, I grew up with Chinese, Burmese, and American culture (American culture being it’s own mixed bag as well).

As I get older, the people I know grow older too and have their own families and children. A few of those families very close to my heart are single parents households. A few have gone through divorce, sickness, and economic hardship. I have seen the struggle for people I love.

While I am neither a refugee nor a single parent, I hope my experience and the empathy my life has nurtured will be good guiding forces for this new challenge. I know that things will not be the same. I am entering a new culture, a different language, and a dynamic between cultures that I do not understand. I can only hope that with all my passion for the work ahead that I can be a useful tool to this center and provide something of value for the families that are there.

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Would you like to contribute? Sponsor me!

About This Journey

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A little about me

My name is Alyson! The youngest of four, I was born and raised in the Chicago land area. I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago and received my BFA in Industrial Design in 2013. During my time there I was heavily involved in the Asian American community, I was an orientation leader, and studied abroad to Melbourne, Australia.

Since graduation I’ve held a tossed salad of jobs including working at UIC’s women’s center, Uber, YMCA drop-in daycare, selling roses, pet sitting, and working as a file clerk for an insurance company. I’ve spent some of that time unemployed going through the roller coaster of life, searching for meaning, and getting my feet back underneath me.

Extremely curious, I’m always questioning how things are and why they are the way they are. I am fascinated with biotechnology and public health (cyborgs and zombies), and have insatiable wanderlust. I have a terrible sense of smell, and I probably share too much for my own good. For my life I hope to be a force of good in an ever changing world, creating inclusive spaces for people, and helping build (and be a part of) strong, loving communities.

The Young Adult Volunteer program was an answer to a prayer for me. I hope to spend my life learning about people and culture, and dedicating my life to service to others. The YAV program provides a supportive first step into this world with a framework of reflection and social justice, and very importantly respect for those we work with. I have had two years time to reflect on if this was the path I’ve been called to walk, and now here I am.

Where I’m going

I am going to Daejeon, South Korea with the Young Adult Volunteers.

As the program description on the YAV website explains, “Rapid economic development has provided both striking wealth and immense poverty. YAV site partners help us to consider the cost to human rights and dignity of unbridled neo-liberal capitalism and help develop relationships with the minjung of Korea (downtrodden, marginalized, suffering, etc.). Minjung theologians remind us that God calls us to recognize how those less privileged than ourselves can be the face of Christ for us, a source of theology, and our salvation, rather than merely recipients of the charity of the more wealthy.”

I am ready to step out of my comfort zone and go to a country where I am new to the culture and language. As the only Chinese American YAV in South Korea for the year, my experience will be shaped by my ethnicity, race, language skills, and gender that will differ from my fellow YAVs. I’m thrilled to be able to examine this in the first person and reflect upon this experience.

What I’m doing

The Young Adult Volunteer program chooses sites that are in need of reconciliation and focuses on the root causes of poverty. The site placements in South Korea all work with children around ages 7 to 13. The families we will work with cannot afford after school activities, so we will help facilitate games, arts, music, English language and more. We will also be volunteering once a week at a soup kitchen. My particular site is TBD, but as I learn so shall you.

On top of our work, there is also a Hannam University buddy system where a university student will help us with communication, translation and other things. We will be taking a semester of intensive Korean language class as well.

How you can help

There are a few ways that you can support me and be a part of my journey.

-Pray for me!

Through culture shock, homesickness and other hurdles it is immensely important for me to know that people out in the world care for me while I’ll be on the opposite side of the planet from home. Your thoughts and prayers are always appreciated.

-Follow my blog, or invite me to speak to your church about my journey

I would be happy to have more people follow my journey in the things I learn and experience. If you think your church congregation would be interested in joining my journey or helping support me, I would happily share what I am doing with them.

-Help fund me!

Your financial contribution would be a concrete way of helping me and this fantastic program cover costs. Each international YAV needs to raise $4,000 for themselves and $4,000 for our site as a whole. The first $2,000 needs to be raised by July 1st, 2015. This is only a small portion of the cost of the program per person as each person costs about $20,000 to $28,000 a year. Without help like yours I wouldn’t be able to be on this journey. Any help would be a huge blessing.

You can donate to me here, or send a check to:

Presbyterian Church (USA)
Remittance Processing
P.O. Box 643700
Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700

with the memo: “Alyson Kung E210908”