During a recent visit to my mother’s apartment, I mined her closet filled with memorabilia, hoping for some writing inspiration. I chanced upon a yellow folder (photographed above) from my middle school days that I’d decorated with names of mostly middling bands I liked and, comically, the word anarchy in script. I also found missives I wrote to my mom when I was at Carleton College—the act of writing them was a source of amusement for my college friends. Even in a time before Gmail, texting and smartphones, I made a minor spectacle in the student center as I ate Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and drafted these documents. My letters are often unintentionally hilarious in their angst, oversharing of mundane details and on occasion, clear embellishments of the truth in order to appease mom.
Letter writing seems positively subversive these days. I revere these tangible documents one can palm-the paper with hints of fragrance, fingerprints and/or doodles. Letters have indeed, been on my mind. Recently, my son picked out the above photographed compilation of letters written by various Asian-American creatives during a visit to the Whitney museum, a book I viewed skeptically due to its academic cover; but lo and behold, it’s a captivating collection. These letters are anarchic– simmering with rage, insights, humor and revelations. The editors of this collection gave the following prompt to the group of established creatives:
- Write a letter to anybody, somebody, or something.
- Respond directly, indirectly, tangentially, tacitly, and/or tactically, to any, all or none of the following:
- Who do you want to speak to most?
- When have you used your voice loudly or softly?
- What does it mean to be Asian in the art world?
- Tell us a secret
- Fill in the blanks. When I think about my race, ethnicity, class, and/or sexuality, I___. This happens__times a day.
- How does it feel to be in your body?
- Which do you prefer, Almond Roca or Ferrero Rocher?
The highlights for me are the letter by Pamela M. Lee, an art historian at Yale who wrote her letter to an artist named Karin. Ms. Lee recounts a story her Asian-American friend Karin once told her as an example of misrecognition in the mainstream art world and academia–that is, the common occurrence of being mistaken for other Asians by white colleagues or strangers. Apparently Karin was at an art opening and artist X, called out “Maya!” (for architect Maya Lin). Karin told him she was most definitely not Maya Lin. Artist X began tripping over his apologies, to which Karin responded “That’s OK…I know you are a racist.” Wow. I.Love.This.
Ms. Lee spends the bulk of her letter debunking the idea that misrecognition is no big deal/ simply a product of people being busy and needing to memorize too many names and faces. Every Asian person has experienced this moment and most of us seethe but remain quiet. I may now look at these so-called minor gaffes more seriously.
As Ms. Lee explains, an academic named Pierre Bourdieu who studied systems of domination in education and culture, elaborated a concept of misrecognition. Misrecognition is not just a harmless microaggression, it is one asserting one’s social dominance through “banal and allegedly harmless exchanges.” (So be warned, next time you mistake me for another Asian, I’ll know it’s you pounding your chest for dominance–Gorilla-style and letting me know my inferior status).
In my own workplace, I have been repeatedly mistaken for another Korean-American attorney who is a good friend by white colleagues who have known both of us for more than ten years, and my friend does NOT look like me. No apology is given when the mistake is made and I politely correct them. Instead, these colleagues usually smile and slink away. After reading Ms. Lee’s letter, I may feel emboldened to say “It’s okay…I know you are a racist.” I’ll let you know how that goes ever if I ever get the nerve. (It delights me to even think of uttering those words. So anarchistic!)
Another stand-out letter is by Indian-Canadian editor, writer and curator Aruna D’Souza to “To Whom It May Concern.” She writes about the model minority myth and how she has been used to show diversity by academia, museums and panel organizers– often at the expense at Black scholars and experts. When she had her light bulb moment of her own complicity, she left academia and resolved to be “the inverse of the model minority–to become the pain-in-the-ass minority…” Her words reminded me of my own complicity as an Asian-American and made me review my own experience as an Asian that gets hired to be quiet and uncontroversial.
Unfortunately, her words also reminded me of one of my first jobs out of law school, a position I regret taking on many levels. After starting work as an associate in a civil rights law firm in New York City, one night at a bar, the other young associates I considered my friends, told me that before my interview a bulky, unfeminine Black woman had interviewed for the same job. As my colleagues explained, after my interview, they knew I was a shoe-in because I looked nice and easy-going. A horrid example of being hired over a Black employee because I was a “model minority.” How I’ve revisited my own complicity in that situation and I’m sure other times and wished I had been the fuck-things-up, pain-in-the-ass minority. What if I’d confronted my boss, quit and said “That’s okay…I know you are a racist.”
My highlights can’t do this book justice. It felt like each letter offered me something eye-opening. Why not try writing a letter? I like the idea of honoring my middle school self (apparently an aspiring anarchist) by writing letters to people/ideas/places that are honest and hopefully fun for this blog. So look out for these letters interspersed with other posts.
Off the top of my head, it’d be fun to write these: letter to capitalism, letter to my birth parents, letter to private school parents, letter to my therapist, letter to my neighbor (the modern day Nazi), letter to a disgraced nonprofit executive director, letter to my arthritic toe, letter to Florida, letter to Ohio, and so on.
Let’s start with the following letter:
Aoril 29, 2022
To My Middle School Self,
Thank you for composing the yellow folder photographed above; it’s a funny, poignant time capsule that made my guffaw out loud. Unbeknownst to you, mom will preserve this for decades in a mysterious archival selection process. (Why did my childhood creative writing get tossed but this curious folder get plucked from the fray?) It’s a goldmine for me–a weary, self-published writer who is no ingenue –for it reminds me I’ve always had a rich internal life and that’s strangely encouraging.
I know I sound owly and didactic, but Level 42 is an embarrassing, mutton of a band. I’m glad to see your reverence for the Smiths and The Replacements–bands that have endured but tacking on the Damned and Fugazi for edge? They are not bands on your radar. You are a poser, though an aimable sort with a wagging tail and expectant eyes. Do you (a new student at the Hewitt School for girls) nonchalantly leave this folder on your desk for classmates to admire? Do you think your imagined music cred can erase your own intermittent hobo lifestyle-how mom and you once slept in an acquaintance’s massage studio after work hours for a month, the table with a hole for the head, your make-shift bed? Stop peacocking. It won’t move the needle for haughty classmates like P (whose mother is an iconic Venuzualean dress designer and socialite); she won’t suddenly slap you on the back like a pub mate. She’ll continue to ignore you at all costs or glare at you, vexed.
We need to discuss the word you coyly inserted amidst the band names–Anarchy! You slay me! Take a gander at your self. Glasses slipping down your low-bridged nose, a curtain of bangs across your forehead and your Asian, auto-pilot smile that knows no bounds. You, bereft of piercings, scowls, witty retorts, pad dutifully after mom, teachers and all authority.
But let’s not be so dismissive. By all means, fancy yourself an anarchist. We all know anarchy can be a state of mind, a vibe. But wearing that large army green canvas bag with the red velvet eagle that mom somehow purchased for $70 from a Madison Avenue boutique so you could fit in, is not anarchy. Unfortunately for you, I can’t be your guide. See me at the Women’s March in D.C. years ago, in my doofy pink pussy hat. All I did was look askance at the black clad real-life anarchists who sprung up unexpectedly at my side as we marched. (They made me uneasy the way street mimes do).
Though, I too like imagining I’m anarchistic. When I write a demand letter to a large, wealthy employer alleging discrimination/wage theft, that’s me turning over tables and giving the powerful the bird. When I win settlement money for clients, I sometimes feel a pleasing, Robin Hood high. (I doubt this is the anarchy you romanticize but it’s all I’ve got.)
We haven’t even discussed the inside content of your yellow folder! Goodies abound! Your mediocre drawings of horses (and less able depictions of horse butts) are funny in the context of the other documents inside. We all know about adolescent girls, the onset of puberty and the corresponding obsession with horses. If these equine drawings are a sign of your burgeoning sexual yearnings, reign them in Mae (West); you will not date for years. Though a group of your white classmates will soon ask you to join them for a group date with some boys from the stuffy single-sex schools, when they inform you your date is Asian, that will deflate you. Their reflexive pairing of seemingly the only two Asians in the private school system will feel like a smack on the head. Understood. But don’t wrinkle your nose. Don’t boycott the group date and tell yourself that you don’t like Asian boys because they could be adoptees and surprise, surprise, your brother. That will reduce you to nothing but a self-loathing, racist goon.
Asian men (not all, of course) are indeed worthy. There will be an era, the Hallyu wave, much later in your life when you are already married. Korean men/Korean celebrities will be publicly revered, but don’t wait until then to climb on board. No Asian should be fetishized! (Tell that to the reported group of white women traveling to Korea to find themselves a man like the umbrella-carrying male characters on popular Korean drama shows).
You will date Asian guys in college, drawn to them in the bleak whiteness of Minnesota. Take for example, B, a handsome Taiwanese guy who looked Hawaiian. You will appreciate his sweet habit of drawing cartoons for you, messing around with you in unconventional places on campus and his restraint in taking his car and teaching you how to drive stick shift without exploding when you crank the wrong gears and fuck up his car’s mechanics. You will appreciate his hairless runner’s body that is sometimes viewed by the general public as he streaks alongside his track teammates in places like your liberal arts college’s amateur, small movie theater. (The streakers would yelp as they did laps around the space and leapt onto the springy, velvet seats–skillfully avoiding physical contact). Though B will say some puzzling things in the course of your relationship (e.g., “I see you as my second wife, not my first,” and “you have even better legs than my mom”), he is a gem.
Your Charlie Sheen articles side by side with your horse drawings are poetic majesty. I know he’s an exotic bird to you with a great head of hair and pouty lips–total crush fodder. (But he may not be the type to age well despite his “tiger blood,” (a reference you do not yet understand but someday will)). But taking mom’s money to buy the same movie tickets on repeat is foolery. You are, face it, a G-L-U-T-T-O-N. I’ll grant you one showing of Platoon and maybe Wall Street, but there’s no girth for Three for the Road and Lucus–his lesser known oeuvre. These are nothing but soft-core porn–artless. Remember how mom used to buy non-clearance rack Ferragamo pumps before she adopted you–the see-through ones that never go out of style – and look at her shoes now. Keds with worn down bottoms. DSW’s last chance items. For shame!
But, like a good mother to her child, I must let you make mistakes. Enjoy the afternoon that you will cut class to hunt Charlie down in Manhattan with a flock of Hewitt friends; you’ll zig-zag through the streets–a pack of kilt-wearing gals determined to find the rumored filming locale for Wall Street; when you find Charlie on the UWS, you’ll sit across the street and marvel at him in the flesh as he descends a brownstone’s steps in the pinstriped, boxy suit of the time and you’ll sip cold sugared drinks out of cans and titter with delight. You’ll barely notice how the sun’s rays through the autumn leaves cast a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors on the sidewalk. That afternoon-its heady mix of rebellion, lust and comraderie–is something you will look fondly on years later.
Let me remind you that you also stan Charlie’s younger brother, actor Emilio Estevez–a sweeter face–and even have a residual crush on their father, Martin Sheen. (Is this what happens when you grow up fatherless? Apparently). This menage of Sheens is a hopeful sign; you have diverse tastes. You will not wait on steps pining forever for the Charlies of this world; you will one day marry someone more gentle and self-composed who is punctual, clever and funny to boot. (And while we are at it now, remember your crush as a younger girl on Gopher from Love Boat. Don’t forget Gopher).
God speed to you!