I grew up in the middle of the UAW midwest, on the outskirts of motor city in a little strip-mall town called Taylor. Once upon a time, before urban sprawl, it was a little train station outpost called, Hand, but during the 50’s and 60’s it exploded into block after block of post-war subdivisions, fueled by G.I. bill mortgages and big three assembly-line salaries.
It was during these times of prosperity that all across America, to seemingly every remote location, were broadcast little Korean children into the arms of mostly well-meaning, often socially conscientious families with room in their households for more.
And all across America, (actually the whole world, but we’ll concentrate on what I know) these scattered Korean seeds were deposited in similar towns that shared, if not the car culture, at least this post-war feeling of prosperity and generosity. And prejudice. Because the rescued children just happened to share the same features as the recent enemy. (and in other countries, their colonies)
And so we were ridiculed, mocked, humiliated, and sometimes assaulted. Again and again the experience was replicated in each and every remote location of deposit. With a surprisingly/alarmingly similar dialogue, as if there was a template for hate being distributed without our knowledge. It was as if it was a backlash against all the frustration that Americans felt for not being able to vent their spleen at the Japs or the Korean commies in times past. And as I was growing up, it was also a backlash for what was going on in Vietnam.
I was nothing but a stupid gook. It wasn’t until just recently that I had thought gook was in reference to Vietcong, because I’d always seen them being referred to as gooks in Vietnam war movies. I was used to being called anything Asian but Korean.
It wasn’t until coming to Korea that I learned Migook was the word for America, and that Migook really means “beautiful land.” And it wasn’t until this morning from another adoptee that I heard the likely story that Koreans saw American soldiers and said, Migook. And the soldiers thought they were saying “Me (I’m a) gook.”
How did they know it was a beautiful land, I wondered?
My other adoptee friend recalls having a ball thrown at her, while being derisively called Chinese. By an older boy. In front of his parents.
I also recall this kind of display of racism. Proud. Proud to be racist. Seeking approval from their parents, who gave it to them. I recall going to friends homes and listening to their parents swear about God damned Chinks and Japs in front of me. It was okay because they knew I wasn’t Chinese or Japanese, but to everyone else around me I MUST be Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese, because Koreans didn’t exist as an ethnic group. Everyone knows we all look the same. Everyone knows we’re all the same (yellow) and the differing countries were just a geographic technicality. I was reduced to a slit eyed moon face by people who could mimic Chinese far better than I ever could.
(chant, in sing song voice)
My mother was Chinese,
(pull slit eyes up / buck teeth out)
My father was Japanese,
(pull slit eyes down / buck teeth out)
but I’m just a crazy mixed up kid!
(pull one slit eye up / one slit eye down / contort mouth)
One time the riding was so hard I ran home crying. My brother interrogated me, went and knocked my best friend’s brother off his bike and told him he better not do it again.
But that was the first and the last time I broke publicly. Because when you live in car country, and Honda sales mean Uncle Ray got laid off, every day is bash Japs day, and who you gonna cry to? And if you do, what are they really going to be able to do for you?
Your brother’s not going to get physical again. Your meek liberal parents are going to talk about love and understanding and ignorance and patience and forgiveness and be self-satisfied and go back to enjoying their white privilege. The answers can be found in books written by experts, and there’s nothing that a rainbow family can’t overcome. So it’s a small matter, that will go away as the world gets more educated through open-minded acts of tolerance like making adoptive families. There’s a reason you’re a poster child for social justice. It’s your role to educate the planet; to provide comfort – not seek it.
And so it goes, after the Korean war you could hate the North Koreans yet call all Koreans gooks and after Vietnam you could hate the Viet Cong and call all Vietnamese people gooks and you could come home to America and call all Asians gooks. And when the Japanese produced higher quality cars you could hate the Japanese and call all the Japanese gooks. And you could bring home their lotus flower daughters and make them your wives or leave them to rot and rescue their half-breed children and call them gooks too.
Beautiful land. Where our faces mean torture and P.O.W.’s and me love you long time sex and trade quotas and job loss and missing limbs and lost minds. It’s enough to make you want to punch their face. Incite a fight. Or rape them. Or make them lick your boots. Or here’s the b r o o m c l o s e t, please put the broom back when you are finished.
Adoptive mom and co-worker with her very dark Indian child chats me up to talk about adoption. She’s wearing all the markers of a socially conscientious Pacific Northwest mom. The conversation touches on racism. “Oh I’m not worried at all. Kids these days are pretty accepting.” I guess she hasn’t read about the middle east lately, or that we’re in a war there. I’m sure her child will never tell her about being called towel head or hadji or…I mean, what’s the point? All she sees is a the good she wanted to accomplish, the sacrifices she will make, her own contribution to this child’s more comfortable life and better opportunities. She will never know what it’s like to be a gook in beautiful land. But her poor dung-cooking, garbage heap dwelling, barbarian adoptee will.
“Why don’t you go back to your own country?”
I’ve been asked this, rhetorically, of course. (or maybe not?) At the time I felt enraged as a multi-cultural American, but in retrospect I never was multi-cultural. Adoptees are never multi-cultural after assimilation. And (though scary as hell) that unmasked hostility is actually refreshing in its honesty, vs. the dishonesty of color-blindness.
So you do go back, only there’s no place for you here either. Koreans think you were sent to beautiful land. They are envious. You should be grateful.