View RSS Feed

I create a world of finite somethings

Sea of Black Heads

Rate this Entry
I feel like posting something. I don't have any new fanfiction written. So I'm going to subject you to a tale of what it's like to be Asian.

When I was nine, my mother discovered a summer camp run by Holt International, an adoption agency that started the trend for Korean adoptees being brought to America. With over a hundred kids that would attend and the vast majority of them Korean like me, my mother thought it would be a good experience for me. We carted down to Eugene, Oregon early in the summer of ’95, broke a windshield wiper in the middle of a torrential storm, and eventually found the campgrounds where I would be staying for a week.

Everything I knew about the camp had come from a simple packet. Back then, there was no easy-access internet site. My mom learned about the place the old fashioned way via snail mail and so pictures came in the form of black-and-white images printed on blue paper. The packet talked of fairly regular camp activities—swimming, rock-wall climbing, archery—mixed in with Holt-specific activities like Korean cooking and adoption stories. While I was looking forward to the whole experience, there was a fair amount of uncertainty to it all, as the promise of all the attendees and counselors being foreign adoptees like me had me in an odd mood. Were we supposed to be like long-lost siblings, all gathering together like it was meant to be? Was this going to feel completely natural?

When you grow up in a town of six thousand people, the majority of which are of Caucasian descent, you picture yourself like them. You become comfortable with imagining yourself like those around you and can almost picture yourself in the mirror with blond hair and blue eyes. Only when the kids at school start teasing, when they compare you to Bruce Lee or start talking like garbled chipmunks in mockery of some “Asian-sounding” language, do you then start realizing that what you imagine and what is in reality do not line up. Comedian Dat Phan succinctly puts it: “I don’t go around you guys saying, ‘airplanes, cars, trucks, houses, trees, bushes, fire hydrants.’”

Like those kids that mocked Asian languages, it seems to be this presumption on the part of society that if you put us with others of “our kind” it would be like we were genetically programmed to understand and be comfortable with each other. Such a thought was even engrained on me as a child since I fit the stereotypes of enjoying the Martial Arts and being something of a smarty-pants in class. There were two other Korean adoptee kids in my grade, anomalies to the Caucasian and occasional Hispanic makeup at school. Dane was a sporty kid with a bad temper, and Naomi was a girly-girl that loved makeup. I made up the geekier part of that trio as I loved fantasy movies and reading books. It was easy for everyone to remember us because we stood out. Not like we were shining beacons of contrast, but we certainly could not be confused with others in the grade. And we got used to that.

Unlike the presumption, though, the three of us did not get along in any particularly meaningful manner. While I was close to Dane when we were pre-adolescents, we steadily grew apart as he was something of a troublemaker and I was a scared-straight rule-follower. Naomi was in all of my intermediate and junior high classes because we were both eggheads, but she ran with a fashionable clique that watched movies like Titanic and I was always hanging out with jokesters who prefer the Star Wars summer blockbusters. We were not the close-knit group many expected of us when they saw us.

The only real source of comparison for what to expect I had had been when my family had hosted Japanese exchange students for a week. Watching those kids disembark from a bus was oddly reminiscent of watching clowns come out of a clown-car in its execution, since you could not help but wonder if there was a completely different world inside the bus now spilling out into the street. Everyone had dark hair and slanted eyes like me or like the few Asians you saw in television. I was instantly convinced that the two girls that were staying with us, Yukiko and Aya, were the same as every stereotype I had seen in film and would later attempt to convince them to teach me Karate. Of course, they did not know any, like the vast majority of the Japanese.

Getting out of the car in that camp was like disembarking an airplane in a foreign country. You venture into France without any knowledge of the language, purely to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and are surrounded by people who are all obviously talking about you. It was the full-on inverse of the Japanese students disembarking from the bus: I was disembarking and here was the new world. This camp was full of kids with black hair and slanted eyes, not the variety of hair colors and skin tones in the middle of small-town USA. Growing up surrounded by the latter, you feel like the latter, so stepping into the facilities where all the kids, all the adults, everyone looks ethnically the same makes you feel like you stand out because you are the only one with blond hair and blue eyes. So everyone was staring at you.

And I stared back. A lot.

I have regularly heard people state that “all Asians look alike” and heartily disagreed every time. But for a split second after getting out of the car at that camp, I thought those people might be onto something. Though most were taller than I was—at nine I was part of the youngest age group present—the vast majority of them had skin tones nearly identical to mine. The cursed stereotypical Asian-bowl-haircut was fairly common. Faces were generally rounder than I was used to. Though we all wore different clothing ranging from slacker summer wear from K-Mart to the height of fashionable Nordstrom, everyone from the shoulders up had a certain similar aesthetic going. Even the one guy who had dyed his hair bleach blonde could not escape the fact that he was a black-haired kid with bleached hair.

The grounds were standard fare compared to the soccer and church youth group camps I had been to in the past: cabins dotted green lawns bisected by bark-laid paths to and from various buildings. The only difference here was that each cabin did not have some country-living nickname; instead, in the places where we put our names up on the doors, each cabin was named after some terribly annoying cliché regarding Asians: Tae Kwon Bros, Brown-Eyed Beauties, Non-Blond Guys, Hairpin Queens.

Asians in media are often depicted with certain clichés in mind: the young math genius, the martial arts master that speaks in fortune cookies, the exotic woman in contrast with the classic blond beauty, triad gangsters wearing suits and sunglasses to emphasize their squint eyes. Even though I was too young at the time to really understand why these clichés existed, we took our cabin titles with a sort of pride. It was comparable to African-Americans that call themselves “niggers” or a feminist performing “Reclaiming Cunt” from The Vagina Monlogues: to use it was to own it and control it. Maybe. I can only assume.

Settling in was the next point where I felt different, although this kind of difference I was used to. While small, stocky Ben bounded from bed to bed as if his feet were pogo sticks and chatted in a voice more suitable to a girl’s hennery, Christian tried telling your-mom jokes from his perch atop one of the bunks while rocking an AC/DC t-shirt. Tiny Edward chatted to nobody in particular about the rock wall and how he would be the first of us to take the difficult side. Our counselor, Kennen, seventeen and in charge of the youngest cabin, tried to hold everyone’s attention and explained what dinner would be like. I sat and listened.

The assembly before dinner was the real Twilight Zone moment. The entire camp gathered in a gymnasium outside the mess hall, lined up like some Korean military academy gone terribly American-fashionable. As Holt International started as a Catholic outreach program, we said a prayer before dinner, but instead of some rosary in English, we sang a song, guided by poster boards with phonetic transcriptions of the Korean language. Here is where the presumption was shanked in the gut and twisted into oblivion as dozens of oriental faces spewed a mockery of their native language. It was the first time I had even heard the language besides my birth name, of which even now I cannot pronounce correctly. An easy comparison could be made by watching the television channels Cartoon Network or Disney XD: anytime a Japanese show such as Pokémon or Naruto Shippūden airs and someone in it says a Japanese word or name that you think sounds funny, to a native speaker, it does. This was just as bad.

We were given nametags as if to further demonstrate our very Americanized personas. Few retained their original names of Hyun or Yoon or Seok and most were what you would expect of any other European-descent American like Tracy, Jennifer, or David. After sitting down to eat, it became apparent we were just as American for that, as between bites of fried chicken and corn on the cob, some of us professed our inability to use chopsticks. It was a good thing this camp of cultural inheritance did not try to serve us Korean cuisine right up front.

Although the trial-by-cultural-fire would occur eventually, in the first-years’ exposure to Kimchi.

Every day was divided into classes that the various cabins—divided by age groups—rotated through at regular intervals. Day one for us had cooking to start; probably a nefarious plot by the slant-eyed camp directors.

“Yes, we’ll be making food here,” the counselor in charge said, “Here are some samples of what you will be trying out today.” She held out a plate of what looked like salad and gave me and my cabin mates a piece. Repeat ad nauseam for other groups just coming in. Shrugging, we all plopped the cabbage into our mouths, expecting something like the olive oil or ranch salads we were all used to. Instead, we got immediate trips to the bathroom to run our tongues under cold water, except Ed, who was smart enough to not eat something unknown given to him by a stranger.

Latin lesson of the day: ad nauseam means “to the point of nausea.” So far, my lessons in Korean have taught me it would be said ad kimchi in my land of birth.

Making kimchi and learning how it was fermented was our lesson of the day, and all of us jumped at the chance to make some. As the secret to its spice was how long it pickled, kimchi was always the first thing the camp made so it could be ready for the weekend when our parents came to pick us back up and we would have a feast to celebrate. Of course, the lesson was less about the skills in making the food and more about our plans to nail our families with the same tongue-ambush we had received.

At nine, we regularly forgot that our parents were smarter than us. I would not forget, however, finally understanding why people thought slant-eyed people could look especially malicious.

People often ask me about my adoption. How it makes me feel, what it was like to find out, if I was interested in my original culture or finding my biological family. They put on the same faces of generalized sympathy, as if they can already see the end result of my feelings, like I am going to get serious over the topic. Those people often react from stupefied to astonishment that my reply to all of the above generally consists of a single syllable: eh.

One of the classes at the camp was meeting together to talk about our adoption stories. The adults and counselors all put on similar faces as those sympathetic people, though in this case it was people that looked vaguely like me. There was a different air to this class as opposed to the cooking class: heavier, like stepping into a house where the family pet just died. We sat around in a circle on the floor—as if they wanted to Easternize us by denying us Western furniture—and some of the older counselors told stories about their adoptive lives. All I wanted to do was take some of the bows from the archery range and shoot Christian, who kept chatting in a whisper-that-wasn’t-that-quiet.

“Does anybody want to share something about the adopted life? Like what they felt after finding out they were slightly different?” the lead counselor in the discussion asked. He tried to single out one or two kids per cabin, and I was one of them. “How about you just talk about what life’s like for you?”

Even now, when people ask me that kind of question, I cannot think of a proper response. My mom calls the expression I get my “are you stupid?” look because I stare blankly at people, and the neutral expression on my face is apparently inclined to a frown. As a nine year old kid, it probably looked a little more like a corpse with a death stare since my mind would feel fried just trying to come up with what the hell they wanted from me. I stuttered and stopped halfway through explanations and the counselors had pity on me, all the while saying, “It’s alright to be embarrassed, talking in front of people,” when it had nothing to do with that.

Ben hopped to his feet and proclaimed, “I’ll tell!” allowing me to slink off behind his very nasal voice and rearrange my head.

There really was not much to tell. I went to church and was a very out-of-place East Asian shepherd in the Christmas plays. Were those the things they wanted to know when talking about “adopted life” and all? Sure, I was intellectually aware of my difference in appearance and background from some of the other kids, but, why was it this was such a big deal? My father had died just before my fifth birthday, so I was raised by a single parent, which was different from the nuclear families or divorced families my peers all had. Why was that any less important than my adoption? I often had people ask whether I wanted to know my biological parents. I always had people pausing when my “eh” response does not live up to their expectations. I always have to pause when said people are aware that my adoptive father died when I was young, because I get confused: why would I think anymore about my biological parents than the father I actually knew?

“He kicked me in the nuts for that,” Ben finished the story I had paid no attention to.

“Who?” I asked, when Ben settled back down next to me.

“My brother,” he shrugged. “When I made a blond joke.”

I pieced together what I had heard, knowledge that Ben had an older, non-adopted brother, and how he ran off at the mouth. It did explain why he sounded like a girl.

Campfire was after dinner, though it did not involve a fire of any kind, held indoors in the mess hall after tables had been cleared out. It was dedicated to general announcements, award-giving for clean cabins and challenges made in the cooking and crafts classes. Sections of the assembly, all sitting on the floor below a slightly-elevated stage would cheer when they were awarded a bulgogi—Korean barbeque—and the nickname for the high honor, while jeers from everyone cropped up when someone was awarded a kimchi status for being particularly horrendous. We then had skits to perform.

When in our bunks, this is what everyone talked about. What the Beauties had done that night involving arguments over arachnophobia, what the Non-Blonds were doing the next, rumored to have someone dressing up like a woman. We would plan our own in the attempt to outdo everyone else, though as one of the youngest cabins we were at the disadvantage in experience and lack of foresight. However, this is what we were generally most excited over day to day.

Unfortunately for us, the Mandu Men stole the show.

It was a skit I have since seen variations of; though these guys were well-prepared and almost professional in their execution. A simple setup that required some props and imagination: one guy in sunglasses and a blue blazer that might fit in at a tacky wedding used a mic to perform a play-by-play of a pick-pocketing competition. Set up like a tournament-tree, two guys of disproportionate characterization—say, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Snarf from the Thundercats—would walk across the stage at each other, bump shoulders, then cross to the other side. They would then present the item they had snagged from their opponent, and the more important and/or valuable, the better. The winner would then ascend to the next level and compete against the winner of other matches.

Arnold did not win, though he did promise he would “Pump…you up.”

Over the week, camp became playing and preparing for our skits, interspersed with Korean culture infusion. While learning how to make Korean-style potstickers and practicing Tae Kwon Do routines were interesting, each day was really centered around how many times a day Christian wanted to climb the rock wall, what Ed could play-by-ear on the piano, and how impressed Ben was with how I could outplay the seventh graders at pool. Since the rock wall was side-by-side with the game room, Christian got his time and I got theoretically rich sharking guys five years older than me. And when we were done, we would hound Ed to play the James Bond theme on the piano in the mess.

I got along well with some of the older kids, with whom I shared a few more interests than my cabin-mates: one of the older guys I regularly beat at pool, James, brought up his love of Japanese anime and we joked about being horrifically scarred by watching Akira. Another, Erik, was from Houston and a hardcore Dallas Cowboys fan—always in an Aikman jersey—and we argued the merits of Emmitt Smith’s MVP status from the Super Bowl while playing against each other on one of the foosball tables since the guys all eventually stopped playing pool against me. I was decidedly crappier at foosball.

Both James and Erik were returning campers that had two years of experience; when I asked them why they were back, it had nothing to do with “fitting in.”

“The girls,” Erik said. “Y’know, last year, two of the counselors were caught makin’ out on the last day.”

“Yeah, but that’s not really the fun part,” James said. “We went and snuck into the girls’ cabin while their counselor was out.”

“What’d you do?” I asked.

James shrugged. “Nothing really. Watched the windows for the patrols and hoped to god nobody checked in on us personally.” I had to wonder if his hair had been dyed the same unnatural orangish-yellow that year and if it glowed in the dark to give away his presence.

And so it was for us, on the Friday night before our parents came to pick us up, everyone in our cabin felt the urge to go do something stupid. Most of the evening was spent arguing over what to do that would be both awesome and not get us into trouble. We eventually decided on the game equipment anyway, since there were plenty of spaces to hide and our cabin was fairly close by. The problem arose that once lights-out went and Kennen was asleep, we kept seeing flashlights streak by the windows every five minutes or so.

“Like they’re waiting for us,” Ben whispered from his bunk.

While I may disagree that “all Asians look alike,” there is something to be said that in a Western society, we will always stand out amidst our Anglo peers. Considering how much we made fun of our own stereotypes with the cabin names, we obviously geared up to ham up our appearance as much as possible when our parents came to pick us up.

Camp t-shirts were blue with a “Holt International Herritage Camp” emblazoned on the front, and we were required to wear them on our last day. In hindsight, I have to wonder if the people who started that tradition were aware—or even felt like making fun of—the organizational chaos that came with such a declaration.

When we put the shirts on, it became readily apparent that Christian and I looked extremely alike without clothing to mark us as different; we had identical haircuts and were similarly sized, though I took to tanning more than he did. When we all gathered for breakfast that morning it was readily apparent that to the untrained eye, we all looked like a sea of cloned Asian supersoldiers or something else fittingly clandestine. Ben looked likewise very similar to one of the boys around our age in another cabin; James had even re-dyed his hair back to its natural shiny black color to match the general appearance of everyone else.

“You gotta play it up, you know,” James had said.

So the excitement in the air was divided threefold: You got to meet back up with your parents. You had the opportunity to introduce them to the things we had learned at the camp, from trying the Korean food we had made to demonstrations of fan dances and Tae Kwon Do. And you wanted to see whether your parents could actually distinguish you from everyone else. While you might not want to leave, while you may not be able to pull a fast one on your parents and make them eat something super-spicy, you might be able to obfuscate your presence right beneath their noses for a short while.

So when the first cars started pulling up, many of us would camp out on the playground equipment nearby—atop jungle gyms and standing on swings—to both keep a lookout for our own vehicles and watch the reactions of those that pulled up. The funnier situations occurred when multiple vehicles would pull up at once, and as kids would run to their families at the same time, you would see the occasional hilarious fumble in recognition as parents would extend arms to someone matching the general appearance of their child, pause, then have to turn to one of the other kids heading their way instead.

It may be politically correct to say “all Asians do not look alike,” but for a short while, we might have been content with “all Asians do not look alike…except when we do.”

My mom, unfortunately, did not do such a double-take. She made a b-line for me when she got out of her car even with Christian and a handful of others nearby. “I wanted you to be confused,” I whined at her.

“I know what you look like, Greg…er, Jeremy.” Instead, she did the one fumble she still does to this day, mixing my name up with my older brother’s. Thankfully, she refrained from trying my sisters’ names as well. Or the dog’s.


  1. Five_X's Avatar
    At first I thought this was going to be a post about annoying pimples. Interesting story, though, I liked reading it. As a white Anglophone of completely European descent, I unfortunately have no interesting ethnic or cultural stories to share, really.
  2. LJ3's Avatar
    I'm Korean and um, yeah, this was something interesting to me.

    So dealing with expectations...
  3. Gaia's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Five_X
    At first I thought this was going to be a post about annoying pimples.
  4. aldeayeah's Avatar
    The "all look alike" works with other races too. A few years ago, a classmate was skyping with a Russian girl and I joined the conversation for a while. She was like, 'wow, you two really look the same'. Sure, we have similar hair/skin tone, but in Spain nobody had ever thought we looked anything alike.
  5. Heroslayer's Avatar
    “I know what you look like, Greg…er, Jeremy.” Instead, she did the one fumble she still does to this day, mixing my name up with my older brother’s. Thankfully, she refrained from trying my sisters’ names as well. Or the dog’s.
    Lucky you. My parents still call me by my older brother's and sister's name. Sadly, once we got a dog, that name started to be mixed up with my own as well.

    Though I have pulled off the whole, all Asians look alike thing myself. It was completely by accident. Myself and a boy a year older than me looked ridiculously alike. The only real difference was how our bangs were cut and that I tended to have a scowl as my default expression while he had a smile. Our parents both came to pick us up and grabbed the wrong child. We were both thrown into the backseat of the wrong car before our parents realized that they had the wrong child.
  6. Kirby's Avatar
    Instead, she did the one fumble she still does to this day, mixing my name up with my older brother’s. Thankfully, she refrained from trying my sisters’ names as well. Or the dog’s.
    Lucky you. My parents still call me by my older brother's and sister's name. Sadly, once we got a dog, that name started to be mixed up with my own as well.
    Heh. My parents mix up my name with my sister's all the time, except they stopped bothering to correcting themselves. Now it's more of a "Hey, you" sort of thing, like whenever they feel like addressing either of us. Though they don't seem to call my sister by my name.

    And now that we got a dog, they even mix up his name with mine, though to be fair, his name and mine are pronounced almost the same.
  7. Sinon's Avatar
    I don't know what I was expecting this to be, but this was a pretty interesting story.

    Can kinda relate with the expectations thing and the all of you look alike what with me being asian in a mostly caucasian comunity.