Like many others, my Asian American story begins in war. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my father was a young man studying in Seoul, and my mother a 13-year-old girl. They both largely insist that they experienced no suffering. Yet a different truth emerges from my mother’s references to using helmets of dead soldiers that littered the ground as cooking vessels, or my father’s stories of being arrested numerous times for his leftist political activity.
It was only in my 30s, when I began interviewing my parents, that I was able to begin piecing together their stories, and reconciling them with other information. I owe an immeasurable debt to people like Grace Cho, author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, and to projects like Still Present Pasts. They have helped to illuminate the brutality of the war, and to put words to the ghostlike power of intergenerational trauma.
Most people don’t realize that the United States dropped 600,000 tons of napalm on Korea. There were 37 documented civilian massacres, with an estimated 70 percent of the war’s death toll composed of civilians. As Cho writes:
While the Vietnam War is well known for brutal tactics directed at unarmed civilians, the same tactics were used against civilians in the Korean War, and more intensely, resulting in a larger death count in a much shorter time span… One of the most salient aspects… in the accounts of both historians and survivors is the relentless bombing led by the United States… everyone and everything that moved was subjected to constant bombing and strafing….
This was only once hinted at by my mother’s memory of her father running around the room screaming, with a pillow on his head. She recalled the moment, laughing. But some of her other stories went beyond the absurdity of war, recounted slowly, soaked in the flood of our tears, my hands gripping hers in a futile attempt to absorb and erase the pain.
Perhaps this is why every MLK Day I listen to Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnamspeech. It’s my attempt to ground my critique of U.S. nationalism and white supremacy in my own life story. It’s my attempt to remain mindful of what Nikhil Singh calls “a mythic nationalist discourse that… obscures [Dr. King’s] significantly more complex, worldly, and radical politics.”
In his book, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, Singh points out the political utility of this national fable about King: “the mythic King allowed Americans not only to celebrate their progress into a more inclusive and tolerant people, but also to tell themselves that this is who they always were.” It’s a nice story that celebrates the nation’s benevolence, not the movement’s accomplishments, and that pretends that racial justice has been achieved. Period.
King was assassinated one year after giving his Beyond Vietnam speech. As I listened to the speech tonight, I heard not a specific call to a detailed agenda, but the promise of a fuller understanding of white supremacy – one that links U.S. foreign policy to domestic racism and poverty. Sadly that promise was cut short. I pondered its relevance today. Could King have envisioned the kind of police expansion that we’re experiencing in a post-9/11 world? Could he have imagined the damage of record-breaking deportations to families and communities? Could he have imagined continued rightwing attacks on anti-poverty programs, and the growing racial wealth gap, despite higher black educational achievement and household income?
I think the answer is yes. Beyond Vietnam is a painful speech. You can feel the work, the toil taken, and the immense challenge in choosing the words and phrases to carefully argue for demilitarization abroad, when racism at home demanded urgency. But when King described the “deeper malady in the American spirit” I believe he somehow knew about the yet-unimagined injuries that militarism would bring to U.S. communities of color, like today’s intensified domestic criminalization, increasingly justified by national security arguments.
As Asian Americans, I believe this is one place where our lived experiences and our politics could collide to strengthen the racial justice movement. In our research, one interviewee told me:
Right now, because of where U.S. foreign policy is at, it’s just a reality that [South Asian, Arab, and Muslim] communities are going to experience physical violence… within the United States… Having families back in the countries that the U.S. is actually at war with is a huge problem… A change in foreign policy is a key agenda item… The decriminalization of undocumented people, moving away from deportation and detention systems, those are some of the key issues.
More recently, one Southeast Asian American organizer described to me the need to grapple honestly with crime and criminalization in Asian American communities, in partnership with black and brown communities, and the urgency of this:
A world without prisons, without deportation, without other systems that remove people from our communities and break families apart – is what we want. But then what are we visioning as the alternative? How do we hold ourselves accountable for the hurt we cause each other, and create victim-centered processes for healing and growth? …We’re not equipped with the language and analysis to draw out those principles, but black and brown communities are. And we need them to help us understand ourselves in a lot of ways. So the [broader Asian American coalition] needs to create room for those of us who need to bring in others to help us fight what we’re facing.
I write here not as a call for an end to capitalism, or even an end to war. What I hope for is the set of deep and difficult conversations we need to have, before even beginning to make such demands. The Asian American population includes the very rich and the very poor. It includes the applauded and the forgotten. It includes the welcomed and the policed. It includes the righteous and the complicit. But despite these internal differences, one thing is true. In the words of Gary Okihiro:
Asians, it must be remembered, did not come to America; Americans went to Asia. Asians, it must be remembered, did not come to take the wealth of America; Americans went to take the wealth of Asia. Asians, it must be remembered, did not come to conquer and colonize America; Americans went to conquer and colonize Asia. And the matter of the ‘when and where’ of Asian American history is located therein.
Our political commitments as Asian Americans must be grounded in our experiences, our histories, and our current conditions. How do poverty and criminalization affect us, and what work does it demand? What can we learn from those who have been fighting these systems for longer? What can we contribute? These are the questions that I contemplate on Martin Luther King Day.