When I arrived in the United States, some seven years ago, it was an introduction not only to a new Western culture, but to a new Asian identity. In particular, that of contemporary Korean Americans. Having grown up Chinese in a small town on the Southwestern coast of Australia, I was largely sheltered from the Asian youth pop culture imports that have and continue to thrive in metropoles such as Perth or Melbourne.
So I am now left with a slight twinge of acknowledgment whilst watching music videos on YouTube or reading articles on Salon or the Atlantic, that it is ‘white’, or more accurately, ‘non-Asian’ media that I decide to view. In Australia, I did not know of any alternatives; in a hyphen-America of Mi Gentes, Black Planets, and Xanga, the bonds of ethnicity and nationality are much more elastic. And, for the most part, I’ve chosen a cultural diet, that, whilst gleefully transnational, follows a path paved predominantly by a demographic that is college-educated, liberal and white. Such artistic leanings embrace that which is considered unusual, foreign, and sometimes subversive, but only to the point at which it remains tastefully en vogue. Thus: a championing of Spank Rock over the Ying Yang twins; Murakami and Wong Kar Wai over manga or South Korean soaps; Iron Chef over Rachel Ray.
I found this to be the case even more so upon leaving college and entering the workforce. International development, the arena through which foreign assistance such as disaster relief or refugee food distribution is enacted, felt–from the office perspective, at least–far more white, intellectual, and morally elitist than the university campus. I was the sole east Asian within the technical department of my employer, amidst a number of brilliant, highly motivated, politely worldly Caucasian women. We would craft proposals that outlined grand “pro poor” programs for some troubled spot in the world, recovering from civil war, earthquake or HIV/AIDS, our work interspersed with chatter pertaining to Whole Foods, yoga and ivy league programs. Meanwhile, the unemployed and bitter or illegally employed and dirty laid beneath our towering downtown office. The worldview gap between our do-gooder rhetoric and the folks (literally) outside the door never ceased to strike me as ironic and absurd. And not the sort of irony that is coy, witty and post-modern; just the type that feels hollow.
So, as of tomorrow morning, I depart for China, the birthplace of my father’s father, in a journey self-billed as meaningful and perspective-broadening. In this case, I conscientiously step away from the culture and society that Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has imparted upon me, and endeavor to understand that which is Chinese and authentic. I imagine that the line between them, as my own generation of “hua ch’iao” (overseas Chinese) will attest, is significantly blurred. I make no illusions: I am predicting piercing loneliness amidst moments of solitude-inspired clarity, numerous responses of indifference and incomprehension for each that is didactic and joyous. There will likely be nemeses, some more openly apparent than others, on the path that lies ahead of me. There will certainly be bureaucratic layers and difficult admissions. Above all, I pray for the patience I presume necessary for dealing with the frustrations and confusion inherent in such a change of lifestyle.
So I bid farewell, planned to encompass at minimum the next two years, to a nation that millions of young Chinese dream of entering. I hope my services, as an English instructor, might bring a few of them closer to realizing it. As I depart the comfort and middle-class milieu of Washington D.C. and Columbia, Maryland, bidding good riddance to all the hyper-consumerism, hungry individualism and spiritual emptiness America proffers, I also shed a tear for that which I have learned to love. So good bye for now Black expression, slam poetry, thick milkshakes from Tastee Diner, and crunchy granola rockclimber babes.
Farewell to complimentary water, to bottomless fries at Red Robin outlets, to late night shopping convenience, to the freedom to excel and chase passions as you please. Arrivederci to indulgent huevos racheros brunches in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, ipod roadtrips through Arizona and especially you, NGO hottie in your cream suit and pumps, will-to-powering a more just world and looking fine doing it. You will be dearly missed and remembered. In your place, I am looking for new experiences, community, maybe even a bit of love.
First stop: Beijing.