The poet Monica Youn, in the final poem of “From From,” notes that one meaning of the word “chink” is a split or crack. “Chinks allow the gaze to penetrate what would otherwise be impenetrable, to penetrate the inscrutable.”
“Chink,” of course, is also a slur that has been used to denigrate Chinese people and East Asians more broadly. The poem ends: “You are a member of the English-speaking audience./ I let you see into the box, into what is private, into what is foreign, into what is inscrutable, into what has been buried./ I am the chink in the box.” The poem’s speaker is Korean American, but she captures something endemic to the experience of assimilation: feeling the need to constantly mediate between two different worlds and belonging completely to neither.
Julia Lee’s new memoir, “Biting the Hand,” is also written from that liminal space — a space that can easily make one feel like a “traitor” to one’s race. Like Youn’s book, it is brimful with stories about being mocked for one’s heritage: the moments in Lee’s childhood when fellow students pulled the corners of their eyes up and down to caricature Chinese and Japanese people (Lee and Youn are both of Korean descent, but as they wryly point out, to many Caucasians, all Asians look alike); the time in graduate school when an English professor made a “joke” about Koreans eating dogs.
Confronted with such racist stereotypes, there are usually three answering moods: rage, despair, or humor. Lee channels all three: Her prose is, by turns, incendiary, scabrously funny, and melancholic, without ever stooping to self-pity, as she recounts her parents’ parlous journey from South Korea to California in the 1970s and her own coming into wisdom as an “insider and an outsider, a spy and an ally.”
Growing up, Lee was an “Angry Little Asian Girl”: She would have “screaming fights” with her mother, who was “stuck in an unhappy marriage” and worked thankless jobs — as a nurse, then an employee at a fast-food restaurant, where “customers threw corn on the cob in her face.” Her mother swallowed all these slights, but would vent her rage in private. As the breadwinner of the household, she constantly admonished her daughters to be twice as good as white children to get half as far.
Largely to ameliorate her mother’s anger, Lee became a pencil-sharpening A-student. She pretzeled herself to fit into predominantly “white” venues: an elite all-girls private school, Princeton for college, Harvard for graduate school, a short stint in a consulting firm. Yet years of running on the academic treadmill take their toll and leave her wondering what community she truly belongs to. “It’s not white supremacist America, who provisionally accepts me only when I am useful to them and expels me when I am not. It is not necessarily the Korean community, who may see me as deracinated and Americanized, though we may share ‘blood,’” she writes.
That sense of estrangement is whetted by the fact that, in writing about her family’s internecine fights — in becoming the “chink” in the family armor — Lee has broken the unwritten contract of saving face, or what Koreans call chae-myun, a way of “cosplay[ing] prosperity and success. For some Koreans, that meant driving luxury cars (even if you couldn’t afford the payments), or mimicking a happy marriage (even if your husband was beating you).” Lee’s mother upheld this code of conduct throughout her life, but Lee sees it as a trap and refuses it like a poisoned chalice.
What’s less easy to disavow, however, is rage. There’s almost a placental quality to the anger that Lee admits to feeling for much of her life; she even speculates that she was bathed in her mother’s stress hormones as she immigrated to America. On the cusp of starting her own family, she worries that, in bringing a daughter into the world, she will pass along her mother’s “generalized anxiety disorder” and “the collective trauma of my ancestors.” This is tied to one of her most provocative claims, made halfway through the book: “To be an Asian person in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of shame almost all of the time.” For her, this shame is inextricably linked to a condition that Koreans call han, an admixture of “sorrow, bitterness, resentment, vengeance, and rage.” The feeling is so acute that Lee devotes two of her book’s three sections to rage and shame, part of an unhappy family of “racialized emotions” that Cathy Park Hong has called “minor feelings.” It’s been said that we live in a time of pessimisms — heteropessimism, Afro-pessimism. At times, Lee’s book seems to gesture at a kind of Asian-pessimism.
Yet for all the dysphoric emotions on display, Lee cultivates seeds of hope by forming alliances with Black mentors and others who teach her to dismantle the “racial binary” that she has spent much of her life negotiating. While at Harvard, she found the English department suffocatingly white and “marked by a culture of scarcity,” but discovered that the African American Studies department in the opposite wing fostered “a culture of greater inclusion and warmth.” The literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and writer Jamaica Kincaid, in particular, were sources of solace; the former recommended her for a position teaching African American literature and the latter gave Lee the titular advice. “Kincaid refused to apologize for her presence; she refused to bite her tongue.” Through her own refusals — of false dichotomies, cruelly optimistic fantasies, and the logics of white supremacy — Lee finds redemption.
BITING THE HAND: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America
By Julia Lee
Henry Holt, 256 pages, $26.99
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, frieze, The New Republic, Vogue, and more.