DiversifYA: Lyla Lee

LylaI’m so excited to have fellow Misfit and wonderful friend Lyla Lee here today! Lyla is an amazing YA writer, and I was lucky enough to read not one but two of her manuscripts recently. And trust me, you want to keep an eye on her! (Which, coincidentally, you can do on Twitter, via her blog, or with us Misfits!)

Lyla will be talking to us about her experiences growing up as Korean-American, and she has many insightful things to say! 😀

1. How do you identify yourself?

Well, first and foremost, I identify myself as a college student. That’s because so much in my life revolves around being a college student: my daily schedule, my plans for the future, my friends, and my current worries/anxieties. But besides that, I also identify myself as a storyteller and then, in terms of nationality, Korean American.

2. What did it feel like growing up Asian American?

I moved around so much growing up that I actually had the opportunity (or, I guess, challenge? But it worked out in the end so I like to see it in a more positive light) of experiencing many broad things about being Asian American. For example, I am not only a first-generation immigrant that still remembers having to learn English right when I’d just barely grasped the Korean language (I came to the States when I was in kindergarten), but I’m also in a way an American-raised-Asian despite my immigrant status in that I’ve spent all of my life (excluding a few summers) in the States, which have made me a completely different person than the one I would have been had I spent the rest of my formative years back in Korea (for example: I’m much more comfortable with English than Korean, although I’m still fluent in both. I also have bit of a rebellious streak, which I’m told is very American of me).

I also had the experience of living in a highly diverse community but on the other side of the spectrum, also had a period of my life where I lived in a mostly-all-white community where I was one of the only two Asian children in my entire school. Surprisingly, both had its challenges in terms of societal pressure.

In the diverse community, I was being judged by other Asians and was influenced by concerns that other American people wouldn’t have. A few examples of this are: the highly strict societal conventions of Korean (such as, having to bow to all Korean adults that I met, even at the neighborhood Walmart) and being compared by other Asian parents to my other Asian friends in terms of academic success (the Asian parent stereotype is actually pretty accurate, even though my parents themselves were thankfully pretty chill about my grades and were okay with me not wanting to be an engineer/lawyer/doctor/business woman).

In the not-so-diverse community, the societal pressure was more obvious because it was mostly racial: people would often stare at us if my family and I came in certain stores/restaurants, I still vividly remember being called “Chinese-eyed” in the playground when I was in third grade by the other children, who would stretch the corners of their eyes into slits and press their faces against mine (I would call this being bullied if it had that big of a traumatic effect on me, but in actuality, by the end of that school year, I was friends with all the children that did that to me and we cared about each other dearly), and just knowing that I was the only Asian kid walking in the playground (the other kid was in another grade and thus had a different schedule) made me a bit more conscious of myself than the other kids.

So, all in all, growing up Asian American was quite an adventure. I really can’t say whether it was a bad one or not, since all the experiences have been part of my life and made me into who I am today.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

I touched on this somewhat above, but one of the biggest challenges has been racism. Even now, at my school, which is known to be the college with the most international students in the United States, I still hear the occasional racist comment in terms of casual phrases that my friends say in conversations because, I guess, they don’t know any better. These include: “Asians are the worst drivers”, “Asians only hang around with other Asians”, “jokes” about North Koreans, and people telling me I’m cool/good at certain things because I’m Asian (I mean, WHAT? How are those things even related to each other…).

The other biggest challenge has been the conflict between the way I see myself and how I’m perceived by others. For the most part, I don’t wake up in the morning concerning myself about being Asian. Like I said above, I think more about being a college student and doing other things that your typical nineteen-year-old would do without really being conscious about how I’m “different” from my non-Asian peers. But occasionally, whenever people can’t understand my unfortunately still-pretty-Asian accent (I never grew out of it despite living in the States for so long…probably because I still speak only Korean at home), whenever people can’t pronounce my name or butcher it completely, or make snide comments about Asians like I mentioned above, I’m always snapped back into a heightened awareness of being different, “foreign”, what-have-you.

There ARE perks, such as the really good Korean food that I get to eat every day at home, being fluent in more than one language, and being able to frequently visit another country (Korea) after leaving all the problems and worries I had in America behind. Being Asian American has also given me a lot of different experiences in life, ones that I wouldn’t necessary have gotten if I was straight-up American or straight-up Korean (ie: born and raised in Korea). You could say I have the best of both worlds.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Asian American?

The movies almost always get us wrong. Leslie Chow, Jackie Chan, Mr. Miyagi, Fu Manchu, Wendy Wu…all of these representations of Asians in popular media are more caricatures that don’t really correspond with real people as much as John Wayne or Bruce Willis don’t represent your average American. Although there HAVE been pretty good representations recently (Eric in the Twilight movies was a surprising turn-out—his character is one of my favorite things about the movies!) that portray Asians as normal people, for the most part, Hollywood isn’t your best go-to in order to get a perception on what it’s like to be Asian. If you really DO want to know what it’s like, try finding Korean dramas or other Asian-source media. (But not “Gangnam Style,” please? I mean, Psy is a pretty cool dude and all, but he’s not the best representation of your average Asian person. How do you even do the dance, again?)

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

The big three are:

-All Asians are good at math/art/science/studying/being frugal (I am horrible at all those things.)

-All Asians are alike (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, etc). Asian cultures are ALL different from each other, as much as English, Spanish, French, Italian, etc. cultures aren’t the same as each other. And like a French person will get mad at you if you call him or her Spanish, a Korean person will get mad if you call them Chinese (or heaven forbid, a Taiwanese person, Chinese). There is/was just as much rivalry/in-fighting in Asia as there is/was in the Western countries so people WILL get seriously offended if you just lump all the different Asian cultures in one group and call it a day.

-Asian parents/ “Tiger-Mom” (I have to admit this is one of the better stereotypes because it is true that many Asian parents concern themselves with the education/grades of their kids a lot more than non-Asian parents. HOWEVER, there ARE still Asian parents out there who don’t care, like my parents.)

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

Unless your novel specifically deals with your character being forced to come in terms of his/her own identity as a diverse person (ie: the character immigrates to a new country or is forced to live in a not-so diverse community), being diverse shouldn’t be that big of a concern for the character. Your character should be more concerned with other things like what goes on in your story, the relationships in his/her life, and etc, just like any other character would be. Diverse characters are also as much individuals as are other characters. They all have their own different backgrounds, hopes, dreams, and worries—just like any well-written character. Also, I can’t address this question without referencing a great post by my friend Dahlia
(http://likeavirgin.kristinaperez.com/guest-stars/dadler/), since she addresses this exact issue in a way that I can’t that might be more helpful. Read it. Because she’s awesome.

One Response to DiversifYA: Lyla Lee

  1. I totally agree with your annoyance at people who think all Asians are monolithic, though I’m not Asian myself. I recently read a story (published online, not professionally) with a supposedly Japanese character with the surname Wang. As one of the commentators asked, is he supposed to be the adoptive child of Chinese parents? I’ve also noticed a lot of people who think African culture is monolithic as well, and as someone who’s part Slovakian, I get annoyed when people think I’m Czech. Czechs and Slovaks get along well, unlike some other people who used to share a country, and I love the Czechs, but that doesn’t mean we’re one and the same!