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The Three Best Korean-Americans Ever

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October 15, 2013 54 comments

In 1994, Margaret Cho was the first Asian-American person I’d ever seen on TV.  

Scratch that.

She was amongst the first 10 Korean people I’d seen in my entire life.  The sum of which included my immediate family members, two cousins, and a few family friends.*  

The first time I saw her was on a New Year’s Eve show.  She told a joke about a white lady on the plane asking her, “What do you Asians like to do on NYE?”  It was a joke about representation — about being asked to speak for millions of people around the world who were actually from dozens of distinct cultures — when in fact she was just as much a US native as the woman asking the question.  At the time, I didn’t have this analysis.  I only knew that she gave my injustice a voice.

Margaret Cho’s mere public existence helped me accept that I wasn’t white.  Margaret Cho’s comedy taught me I was not alone: We both were ostracized for our racial differences.  We both got asked, “What ARE you?” and “Where are you from?” when the answer was really, “San Francisco.”

On Saturday, I saw Margaret perform for the third time live, this time in San Francisco.  Thirteen years after I first saw her Grand Marshal at San Francisco Gay Pride, she told a few of the same treasured stories about her mother she had shared back then.  Stories of her mother and father’s leap from immigration to owning a gay bookstore; her mother introducing her to the concept of “gay” (“when two men love each other so much they treat each other like women”); her mother’s view on gay sex (“you must have ass in moderation, otherwise it’s not special”); her mother’s approval of her stand-up career.

Margaret’s impression of her mom is accented and spot-on.  I think her impression is hilarious because it validates my own mother’s accent.  Margaret portrays her mom as wise, quirky, and ultimately accepting of everyone.

I like to think that my mother is, too.

My mom once wrote me an email after I went to college.  She had taken a day trip to Berkeley — coincidentally, on the same day as the Berkeley Gay Pride Parade.

“Dear Elisa,” she wrote.

“We went to Berkeley and there was some type of a parade.  There were many people wearing interesting clothes.  There was even a man who was only wearing his socks.”

More recently, my mother told me a story of a person who’d worked in her office.  One day, the man had come to work wearing dresses.  After passing some weeks in women’s clothes, he’d suddenly quit without a word.  He just stopped coming to work.

I am sure the word “transgender” is nowhere in my mother’s vocabulary.

“Isn’t that sad?” she asked me.  “He must have felt like he didn’t belong anywhere.”

Maybe my Mom would have been comfortable the other night at the Masonic.  The audience was a loyal one.  Fans had been sitting in those seats for 10 years now, some even for 20.  Behind me, people gasped between laughs, “She’s amazing.”

There were also lots of people there alone.  One Asian-American guy holding a batch of comics.  An old black woman with a cane.  A lot of middle-aged queers in the lobby.

For a moment, it’s sad to think people might have no friends who relate to the raunchy and political side to them.  Then, it’s awesome to think that one person can bring together all the loners or misfits, even in a city like San Francisco.  It’s awesome to think Margaret has the power to make the space safe for us.

“I was jealous of Asians who lived in Asia, because all they see is other Asians,” Margaret said on Saturday.

“Here in America, we’re seen as foreigners because we’re not white, even though we belong here.  And in Asia, we’re seen as foreigners.  So where do we go?”

The Masonic was where we went.

Thank you, Margaret Cho.

*(In the mid-90’s, there were no Asian American people anywhere in popular media.  I later learned in college that Asian Americans had auditioned for movies for 70 years, only to be denied roles or cast as “Asian prostitute #3.”)

PS: Get your Mother tickets and tour schedule here.

PPS: Photo credit by Rodney Ho from here.

PPS:  Yes, the post discusses only 2 people.  If you, the reader, happens to be Kore-Am, insert yourself into the list as the “3rd best” Korean American.

54 Comments
  1. Kiki says:

    I loved this! And I loved your PPS. I am white, but my kids are half Chinese. My husband is always asked ‘Where are you from’, answer: San Jose. And the next question he gets is, “So, is Cliff your AMERICAN name?” his response…”I *AM* American.”

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Haha… thank you so much for sharing. I was a senior in high school when I first learned that this experience didn’t happen to EVERYone! I remember my white classmates staring at me in shock, and saying things like “This can’t be common.”

  2. Nicely written and good points. I have a question, though. I have always been intensely fascinated with world cultures. Different accents are music to my ears and I can stare for embarrassingly long periods of time at lovely shades of skin. I’m always dying to know what parts of the world have contributed to the gorgeous recipe in a person. Is there any loving way to inquire?

    In the past, I’ve always started out with a compliment, felt them out conversationally, and then asked gradual questions. For instance, last night I learned a gentleman’s accent hailed from the Ukraine and we chatted and joked for almost fifteen minutes in the frozen foods section of a grocery store. He told me Russian jokes. It was awesome.

    1. Kiki says:

      This is still me, too. I am genuinely interested in where people come from (not necessarily geographically, but just wanting to know WHO they are and what they are about).

      Is it insulting to ask someone what their heritage is? Is it appropriate to ask where their family is from, versus where are ‘you’ from? Is that not how the question ought to be phrased at all? Should the discussion be started with your own personal interest in world cultures? If the person you are inquiring about very clearly has an accent from another part of the world, is it then okay to ask where are they from, etc.? Even if the approach is completely harmless, I still feel that some people might feel a bit intruded upon. Like, you have the right to ask them questions simply because they are have a different appearance from you. But then again, we are all human and it’s good to learn from one another. What an interesting topic of discussion here.

      Or, is the answer to all of those — Don’t ask.

      1. Yeah, I’m guessing people fear bigotry or disapproval of some sort when you inquire about their ethnicity. That’s why I always preface it with clear appreciation and references to my genuine cultures addiction. Usually, they get it, are pleased to be recognized, and are eager to talk about their part of the world. But, hell, I don’t blame them for being on guard–my fellow Americans seem to have chalked up quite a nasty reputation for being boorish and inappropriate, not to mention just downright stupid about the rest of the world.

        I’m not stupid, just ignorant. There’s a difference. That’s why I love to talk to people, that’s how I learn. There are only so many documentaries you can watch on You Tube. Still, there are some people out there who are just plain Do Not Enter. It’s all good.

        1. Elisa Ramona says:

          AllthoughtsWork: Yes, the unfortunate byproduct of racism ….. When you’ve been singled out 100x for your race, and 1 person approaches to ask you a genuine question, it is difficult to see the difference in intent.

          Also, I think many people would not approach a white person to ask “Where are you from?” because they assume white people = American. This is a hurtful assumption to all non-white Americans — of which there are millions.

          1. Actually, people come up to my white self all the time and ask me all sorts of things. If I detect genuine appreciation and interest, I enjoy a nice conversation and, often, a new friend. In fact, the majority of my clients find me that way.

          2. Elisa Ramona says:

            I suppose that is the difference between you and me. I hear people use “white” and “American” interchangeably all the time and that is the context I operate in when I am asked these questions. I cannot remove a question from the social context. I’m glad you are able to hear the question without the context of, “You are not American.”

          3. Hunh. Never knew people thought of America as “white.” More than half my friends here certainly aren’t white and many of their families have been here for generations. The only real Americans are Native Americans, anyway, and they definitely aren’t white, so the prejudice of a colorless America is actually kind of funny.

            Frankly, I get bored anywhere that is mostly one color, any color. I like the mix. The variety of the world is interesting, that’s why I love hearing about it from happy, loving people who think so, too. Try Portland, Oregon, sometime–we have are a delicious tossed salad of awesomeness!

  3. CB says:

    I love Margaret Cho. This is very well written, I am glad it was Freshly Pressed. 🙂

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Thank you for your kind words! 🙂

  4. Uh… out of all the Korean Americans you pick Margaret Cho?… ok…. =

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Yep! When I was just 13 years old, I “picked” Margaret Cho to watch on TV as the first Korean-American I’d see in pop culture!

  5. awax1217 says:

    I think I understand. I am a Jew and sometimes that is hard to be. Some people wish me to be invisible and some expect certain things of me. I must be a liberal, all Jews are liberal, I must be educated, mother would have it no other way and I must be open to allow all people to be themselves. Well some of that is true. But to connect with the roots is difficult. Good for you to stand up and be proud.

  6. Can’t agree with you more, I LOVVVVVE Margaret Cho! Great post!

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Yay, me too! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  7. besidealife says:

    Margaret Cho is my role model for life, and this is a very good article. Thank you for posting this.

    Recently, someone approached me asked me point-blank if I was aboriginal because I looked “very tan”. I’d like to think that on his deathbed, he’ll be secure in the knowledge that he, at least, got that sorted out.

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Hahaha… I love your love for Margaret Cho, and also your sense of humor about the guy. I always wonder what possesses strangers to approach each other and ask questions like that!

  8. Fantastic! Cho is awesome. I enjoyed your post.

  9. rarasaur says:

    I found this to be… well, beautiful. 🙂 Your mother sounds awesome, and Margaret Cho is all kinds of hilarious. 😀

  10. Steven Brown says:

    Love love love Margaret Cho!

  11. I loved this post. Thanks for your perspective. It’s always interesting to see things from a different point of view.
    BB

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Thank you for reading with an open mind!

  12. gymiya says:

    I had the honor of meeting Margaret Cho when I was an intern at NPR affiliate-KPCC radio in Pasadena. She entered the building so demurely no one even noticed her. But when she entered the sound booth and began her interview, it was like letting a genie out of a bottle. Her voice, her power, and our laughter swarmed the studio. Thank you for reminding me of her commanding presence.

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  13. roybou says:

    Don’t we as Americans have bigger problems now a days then
    talking about who’s asking were you come from, It’s a woman being
    funny on stage, Let’s put that aside and talk about this country that
    is being taken over!!!!

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Issues like racism and privilege start within our country and play out in the way we treat others overseas. It doesn’t hurt to try and listen to someone else’s experience AND value national/international issues AT THE SAME TIME. If we can’t listen to each other respectfully, how will we listen to other non-Americans? Why would you feel such an aversion to listening to someone else’s different experience? Those are the questions I would hope you will answer to yourself.

  14. I really loved this post! I think all women of color can relate to this experience. Thank you for being so honest and frank.

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Thank you for stopping by and thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad my post resonated with you. 🙂

  15. Irwan Juanda says:

    I’m sorry if this is out of topic. But I love your mom, she must be such a sweetheart!

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Not off topic at all! Thank you for your comment. I also love and appreciate my mom a lot. 🙂

      1. Irwan Juanda says:

        I don’t know if I’m wrong, but I imagine the way she said those ““Isn’t that sad?” & ”He must have felt like he didn’t belong anywhere.” to be very kind & sincere. Yeah, appreciation to the max! 😀

  16. Sue Thyms says:

    My daughter is Korean-American, and I will share this post with her. She is struggling with her Asian identity at the moment. Maybe things will change when she is older. Thank you for this post.

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      I am so glad you will share this post with her. It’s hard to feel like you are “the only one” going through identity issues. Also, it’s tough to grow up in a world where “white = normal = American” if you are not white but American. If she keeps her eyes open, I am sure she will find “her people,” and that will help her grow into herself as time passes. How lucky she is to have an understanding mom!

  17. pdhaliwal1 says:

    I fear not enough people have the desire to know someone (their experiences, values, etc.) but feel that by knowing where their ancestors reign from, they can get a better sense of who they are dealing with. There is a reason we have adapted to the “American” culture but still never feel like we truly belong. I was born in India, but came to Canada at age 3. I grew up in Canada and don’t remember much about my life in India, but I don’t know what to identify with. Do I tell people I am Canadian or Indian?

    1. smallsalot says:

      Tell them whatever you want! You shouldn’t have to define yourself with nationalities just to appease other people. The whole concept of nationality in becoming irrelevant in our global world anyway; every one of us has access to elements of tons of cultures and you can pick and choose which of those elements you want to apply in your own life. I’m a freckled red-head and it seems everywhere I go (older) people ask “So are you Irish?” My family has lived in America for seven generations or longer, is it really relevant where they emigrated from 200 years ago? Is it relevant where they emigrated from 50, 10, or 5 years ago? You’re living where you’re living, and you are who you are, you shouldn’t have to be Korean or Indian or Pacific North Islander or anything else unless you WANT to be.
      Thank you, by the way, Elisa for posting about your story. Hopefully when our generation is in charge of the world this kind of racial/national identity confusion b.s. won’t exist anymore.

  18. FODMAPLife says:

    Yes, love Cho! She’s done so much to spread awareness and open people’s minds 🙂

  19. jinkim891564442 says:

    Margaret Cho is overrated, and her blog is reflective of that.

    You need to see an Asian person on television to ‘accept that you aren’t white?’ What exactly does that mean ‘accept that you aren’t white?’ You make your non-whiteness sound like some sort of deformity you had to learn to cope with.

    Are you still learning to speak English or something?

    1. Elisa Ramona says:

      Are you white or not? If not, you are very lucky that you grew up in an environment where you did not have to question your identity. Many people of color who grow up in all-white neighborhoods, surrounded by only white media (like what existed in the mid-90’s), experienced a lot of racism. So yes, we were treated like we had some sort of deformity and that is what it felt like.

      Either way, I think you are asking a good question. I hope you listen to my answer and use it to realize other people have had difficult experiences around race that you haven’t had.

      1. jinkim891564442 says:

        I’m not white, and never felt the need to be. I’m Korean American and was raised in a predominantly Hispanic area. I always knew, even as a small child, that I was a ‘fish out of water,’ but I never felt the need to be Hispanic. You should feel lucky that “white racism” in a white neighborhood is all you experienced. I would have gladly traded that for the Hispanic racism, in a low-income Hispanic neighborhood, that I experienced. I can only imagine that white suburbanites aren’t nearly as harsh on the lone Asian kid as Hispanic gang members.

        See, with the racism they themselves experienced on a day to day basis, it was a great relief for them to have a target they could unleash their anger and hate upon… that was me. I learned quickly that they (Hispanics) have a set problems all their own, and I was in no hurry to pile their issues on top of mine. **Note that I quickly learned that my brush with racism is quite laughable compared to the experiences of African Americans and Hispanics**

        Again, you should feel lucky (and I’m assuming you’re Asian) that “white racism” is all you experienced. Where Asians are concerned, their racism is a soft kind (completely different from the racism they reserve for African Americans and Hispanics)… as in, they’ll welcome you to sit at their table or swim in their pools while they admire your ‘exotic features’ and your penchant for hard work. The racism I experienced as a child was much more brutal and direct.

        I went to college in Massachusetts, mostly white liberal communities, mostly white students. And let me tell you, I welcomed their ‘racism.’ So perhaps my experience was a little different from yours.

        I don’t mean to take anything away from the difficulties you went through, but I’ll just say that everything is relative. And I certainly don’t consider Maggie Cho representative of anything but lame Kimchi jokes.

        1. Elisa Ramona says:

          Okay, great~ so you do understand what it feels like to be treated poorly. Why the confusion then over what I wrote? Or do you just like to be antagonistic?

          Margaret Cho doesn’t need to represent you. However, she showed up at a time when I didn’t know anyone else who looked like me, and that was significant to me. In addition, she made smart political commentary that I could relate to.

          Not every Korean-American has the same experience, and I’m not trying to “compete” over who had a “worse” experience. I’m not sure where you’re coming from with your negativity, but hopefully this has helped you understand my post better.

  20. VNlilMAN says:

    Its funny, in LA white people are the minority. Actually, I think that’s my perception because I live in the lower class of LA /not so funny anymore/

  21. amanda says:

    I am Korean American with a white mother and korean father and I get “what are you?” ALL THE TIME! Great post thanks for sharing

  22. I’m actually half-Korean and grew up with the question “Where are you from?” My answer was New York, then I’d get…”No, where where you born?” Me: Brooklyn. Then it went on and on till I finally got them to use the right question: What is your ethnicity?

    It was either that question or I get compliments on how well I speak English. I have resolved myself to thank the next person that asks me and tell them that I have only been in the country for 6 months and I was worried that my accent was too thick.

  23. This article is so good, I like this blog, Thank you very much for sharing

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