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.


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.

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.

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:


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.

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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A Chapter Ends, A New One Begins

13 days until I’m in New York at the YAV Orientation. 21 days until I set foot in Korea for the first time. For me, this is a huge transition. I’ve never been away from home for an entire year. I still need to pack up my room at home, and cancel my phone plan. I’m excited, but also sad. I hold in my mind two halves to the same story. To take a brave step into a adventure requires for me to say goodbye to the one I was on.

My departure from here actually ends a different chapter of my life that started in 2012, but this is a good end to a long difficult story. My thoughts now are on my family and on my friends I’m leaving behind. They have taught me a lot about how to love others whether they know it or not. I can’t help but feel a sad longing of how much I will miss them when I’m gone. My life is good because of them. I see the genuine care and love I’ve been blessed with and it makes me smile. I always feel it is only good to leave home when all your relationships are in order and there aren’t any loose ends to attend to. It feels good to have gotten to this point. I think my melancholy also means that I am ready to go.

It’s taken me some time to stop thinking of what I am leaving behind, and start looking forward to what I am going to. I am going to a new country with a new language and culture! In the past month I’ve been doing Korean lessons – learning Hangeul (Korean alphabet), and doing online lessons with Mango Languages. (It’s free through my public library, and a very good resource!). I’ve realized that even letters are ingrained in my mind. Korean letters don’t match English ones and vice versa. It’s like Korean letters have spliced some English letters, and combined a few others. It makes it very difficult to distinguish in my English-raised mind. To supplement that I watched my first Korean drama (My Love From Another Star). It was a fun peek into a small portion of Korean culture. I am now able to pick up simple phrases like “Excuse me,” and “Okay,” from the drama. And if I take my time I can say things as complex as “I am not a doctor, but I am a nurse.” It’s exciting to think that after 25 years of my life I might actually learn a new language. It’s fun to see my understanding of this language change from nothing to something over a relatively short amount of time.

It’s impossible to picture what life will actually be like when I get to Korea. I know logically that I’m staying in a house with other volunteers, but I don’t know what that will be like. I don’t know what my site placement will be like, and I don’t know what I will be doing. One of my close friends asked me two questions – what am I most afraid of, and what am I looking forward to the most? I want to take the time to write out my answer.

I think that I’m most afraid of not belonging anywhere. In a new culture and a new place, I’m worried about not fitting in with the other volunteers and not fitting in with the Korean people either. As an Asian American I worry that my problems and feelings will be invisible, neither fitting in with the typical white American experience of moving abroad nor the native experience. I also worry that I will be too prideful of how unique my experience will be that it will blind me to the ways that it is the same as those around me as well. I guess I worry most about connecting with people because that is the most important thing to me. Whatever way it turns out though, I’m sure I will learn a lot.

As far as what I am looking forward to, that is trekking into the unknown. This trip holds endless possibilities. I guess part of the glory of it is not knowing what is coming. It’s like Schrodinger’s box. Before I depart this trip can be anything and everything and I’m ready to be there to soak it in. I’m looking forward to the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is not a specific answer, but that’s exactly the point. There is a little ball of tangled energy in my gut that grows bigger by the day. I can’t wait to step into the next chapter of my life and see what is in store.


I am still in need of funds for my trip. Will you help me?