Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster 2.0

The first time I realized “you can’t go home again”* – reflections of an Asian American woman

Photo by  Oleg Laptev  on  Unsplash

Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

I have, for too long a period of time accepted the opinion of others (even though they were directly affecting my life) as if they were objective events totally out of my control. Because I separated such opinions from the persons who were making them, I accepted them the way I accepted natural disasters; and I endured them as inevitable.

-Mitsuye Yamada in “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman” **

Mitsuye Yamada was of the World War II generation and had grown up in a considerably different time and context in the U.S. when she wrote those words. Yet as I read them for the first time, I felt as if I had thought/written them. Her awakening into an understanding of how she was racialized and gendered as an Asian American woman, both in her own family and in the outside world, mirrored and validated my experience as well.

It took me 28 years to truly acknowledge that the act of debating was not a bad thing. Walking outside on a cloudy, wintry day in Ithaca, New York, where I was attending graduate school at Cornell University, I had just finished a heated debate with two colleagues at dinner about the use of a specific academic term in our studies; my friend and myself were against it and the other person was for it. I could finally see that debate was good for developing intellectual capacity, to truly refine why you believe or think a certain way, after hearing opposing arguments.

I had always equated debates, especially heated debates, with arguments, with conflict and fighting. Growing up as the youngest child in a mostly traditional, patriarchal Korean household had trained me by default to not question my elders. Anytime I spoke, it seemed to cause more discord within my family, because people started to fight! I started to think, wrongly, that I was the cause of this conflict, because I had spoken. So I learned to stay silent, to disassociate to a different place in my mind whenever fights happened. I went through school for a long time fearing interactions with teachers and other authority figures, and fearing the repercussions of using my voice. My learned silence and passive acceptance were good for avoiding and preventing familial conflict, even as those behaviors were reinforced by the outside world’s expectations.

Thus, it should not have been a surprise when I finally started to use my voice at home and I encountered resistance to it.

“Why are you acting like this? Why are you so argumentative, like you’re a teenager? You were so quiet and good when you were an actual teenager; you used to accept our word. And now that you’ve lived away from home, you’ve changed!” – my mother exclaimed in frustration to me this summer, when I heatedly contested something my parents had said. Essentially, she wanted me to stay quiet, even when they were wrong.

When my mother uttered those words, I had lived away from home for nearly ten years since starting college when I was 18 years old, with transitional stints staying with my parents during school breaks and unemployment periods. I had lived in El Salvador for nearly two years serving in the Peace Corps in my mid-twenties; then in rural, upstate New York to attend graduate school at Cornell, where I stayed for another two years; and I had lived and worked in India during the most recent summer. In between, I had traveled extensively. To say I had changed was accurate, if not an understatement. I had been in diverse environments with different histories and cultures; I had learned to find comfort in discomfort; and I had been immersed in places that were marred by global inequality, poverty, and violence. My worldview had broadened; my understanding of injustice and inequality had deepened; and my intellectual capacity for critical thinking had been heightened. But my parents, living in suburban California, worn down by years of hard immigrant life, and from a rigidly socially conservative era, had not kept up with my metamorphosis. They continued to treat me as their youngest daughter, a girl whose opinion was inconsequential, one who didn’t own her voice.

Going to college and taking ethnic studies courses at UC San Diego was where I first started to find that voice, one that was able to articulate a growing critical consciousness. This (re)education made me feel truly validated and gave expression to how I had felt but had not had the vocabulary or knowledge to express. My parents were reticent about their past in post-war Korea and about their experiences as immigrants in the U.S. Silence permeated and filled the crevices of our small apartment with all the unspoken han*** of our family’s and people’s history and experiences.

The “squeaky wheel gets the grease” was a saying that I heard much later in life, because it was never part of my childhood. The opposite was more commonly repeated in my house: Keep your head down, don’t cause trouble, don’t complain, just deal with it, and keep moving forward. This mantra of survival suited my parents’ upbringing in post-war Korea, raised by my grandparents who had endured decades of brutal, oppressive Japanese colonization, a world war, American and Soviet occupation, and a civil war partitioning their country for the foreseeable future. They had grown up in a strictly hierarchical, patriarchal family environment. When my parents were children, they were not allowed to sit at the same dining table as their parents, and could only speak when spoken to. While they were considerably more relaxed with me, there were still inevitable traces of their traditional upbringing. Debate and discussion were not encouraged. Silence at the dinner table was valued. The youngest was there to listen to others, not to be heard. It’s really only now, in my late-twenties, that I’m realizing the extent to which my silence “ultimately rendered me invisible” to others who were stereotyping me as a quiet, submissive Asian American woman.

“I did not think anything assertive was necessary to make my point. People who know me, I reasoned, the ones who count, know who I am and what I think. Thus, even when what I considered a veiled racist remark was made in a casual social setting, I would ‘let it go’ because it was pointless to argue with people who didn’t even know their remark was racist. I had supposed that I was practicing passive resistance while being stereotyped, but it was so passive no one noticed I was resisting; it was so much my expected role that it ultimately rendered me invisible.”

-Mitsuye Yamada

A friend of mine pointed out once that I had an “offended silence” whenever someone said something offensive in my presence, where I raised my eyebrows and looked away as if thinking to myself, Don’t punch them in the face. I usually think, They’re so ignorant, they don’t even deserve my energy or attention to correct them. But as Yamada articulates in the above quote, I was not teaching anyone anything besides the reinforcement of my own “expected role” in a society still laced with white supremacist, heteronormative attitudes.

It wasn’t until I lived with my then-boyfriend last year at Cornell that I realized for the first time how much my silence had rendered me invisible. I was well-educated and worldly, and had gotten into an Ivy League university for graduate school. I thought I was beyond the stereotype of the submissive, silent Asian woman. But my “offended silence” reinforced my invisibility as he, a white man, made a fair share of ignorant, micro-aggressive remarks about Asians or myself as an Asian. He’s a white guy from New Jersey who hasn’t traveled abroad much and hasn’t been around Asian Americans. I just need to give him some time to emerge from his ignorance after being around me, I rationalized. Sometimes, I did call him out, and he would take it well, but I did not feel that it was my responsibility to teach him out of all his ignorance.

I had finished my classes and was taking one last semester to finish my thesis, so I had more free time than before when I had had a full course load and teaching responsibilities. In the cold, long winter of Ithaca, I stayed in our home and worked on my thesis, avoiding the long uphill walk to campus in the snow. Surprising myself, I relished in domesticity. I cleaned, I cooked, I listened to him talk about his day, his worries, and his complaints about colleagues and professors. I listened and I listened. I had endless patience for this self-centered, selfish boy in a man’s body. Until he made it clear over time that he wanted his words to hurt me. He wanted me to listen to how I was unworthy and ungrateful, how I was stupid, lazy, boring, and everything that the white patriarchy tells women of color about how they are not good enough in one way or another. I wish I could say I spoke up for myself then, but all I could do was stay silent and blame myself when he had angry outbursts, and when he made mean, condescending remarks. Sometimes, I cried. I endured his verbal abuse as “inevitable natural disasters.” They were, in fact, totally unnatural. When I eventually recovered my voice to speak up for myself and to break up with him, he sneered and refused to listen to anything I had to say.

Why had I let things get so far? Why had I let him disrespect me so much? It took this pain and the development of my own personal han to acknowledge how much I had “separated opinions from the persons who were making them” in all aspects of my life. Parents, friends, strangers, colleagues, lovers. I had not applied my knowledge to my daily experiences, and I had become aware of how much I was still stereotyped, even by those close to me. A colleague had described me as “apolitical” to my then-boyfriend, when, in fact, he was the apolitical one. I had actively discussed and cared about immigration and civil rights, while he avidly avoided any political talk. But this colleague only saw us in our stereotypes of Asian woman and white man; she did not listen to what was actually being said and by whom.

It was time to move on and build a home elsewhere, a home where I would be visible. I had tried and failed to build a home with him, both metaphorically in our relationship and literally in the apartment we shared. Upon my return to my home town, I also realized how different I had become after my various experiences, and how difficult it was to be the daughter my parents once knew. Now, I’m settling down somewhere else for a while for work. It is only a matter of time before I become restless again. But now I know, home is in myself first and foremost, and it will withstand the “man-made disasters” as I demand accountability and authenticity in those around me and in myself.

“I would like to think that my new awareness is going to make me more visible than ever, and to allow me to make some changes in the ‘man-made disaster’ I live in at the present time. Part of being visible is refusing to separate the actors from their actions, and demanding that they be responsible for them.”

-Mitsuye Yamada

*Referring to title of book by Thomas Wolfe (1940). You Can’t Go Home Again.

**Yamada, M. (1979). Invisibility is an unnatural disaster: Reflections of an asian american woman. Bridge, an Asian American Perspective, 7(1), 11

***Korean term for which there is no direct translation in English, but means a collective (people’s or nation’s) feeling of anger/hurt/grievances that have not been addressed with justice.


About Yuri Lee

Yuri Lee was born and raised in southern California. She studied Urban Planning and Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego, served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, and earned a masters degree in International Agriculture from Cornell University, where she researched coffee plant pathology and soil health in Colombia, and food and nutrition security policies in India. She is currently working as a consultant.

IdentityYuri Lee