DiversifYA: Mike Jung

Mike_JungToday, we have the stupendous Mike Jung at DiversifYA! YAY! If you don’t know (and Twitter-follow) Mike, I worry about your choices, to be honest. After all, he is not only the author of GEEKS, GIRLS & SECRET IDENTITIES, a WNDB team member, and a ukelele player, he will also one day achieve galactic domination. Not to mention he’s all sorts of awesome! So you should probably rectify that asap and then come back here to read one of my favorite DiversifYA interviews to date.

1. How do you identify yourself?

The way I identify myself has grown increasingly complex over the years, partly because I’ve started thinking less about societally-defined demographic categories and more about personal experience and psychology. So currently I think of myself as something like a U.S.-born, racially Korean, ethnically and culturally American, heterosexual, cisgender, probably neuroatypical son of immigrants. There are a lot of things about my identity that I’ve always been confused or uncertain about, and as I’ve made more conscious efforts to explore my identity-based feelings I’ve become…more confused? That’s not exactly it. Maybe I should say my understanding has slowly gained both clarity and complexity. There are things about myself that I understand more deeply than I did in my youth, but there are also many more things about myself that I’m attempting to understand, if that makes sense. My daughter was recently diagnosed with ADHD, and like a lot of parents of ADHD kids, I now have very strong suspicions that the diagnosis is one that could easily be applied to me as well. It sure would explain a lot.

That said, when I think and talk about diversity, I tend to focus more strongly on racial and ethnic identity than anything else. That’s not because it’s the only aspect of diversity that merits attention, or the most important aspect; it’s because racial/ethnic identity has been such an active and complicated part of my individual life experience. I’m Korean-American.

2. What did it feel like growing up being Korean-American? 

It felt…complicated. Being the child of fairly traditional Korean parents who immigrated to the United States naturally led to powerful and long-lasting “neither here nor there” feelings, identity-wise. I was born in Los Angeles and lived in the San Fernando Valley until I was 9, and in retrospect, being Korean seemed less complicated during those years. That’s partly because I wasn’t tuned in to issues of racial and ethnic identity – I was very young – but also because being Korean didn’t make me stand out. I dislike many things about the San Fernando Valley, but it was and remains an undeniably diverse area, at least in terms of race. I was also constantly surrounded by members of my extended family during those years, which was complex and demanding in all the ways that extended families are – the intergenerational and cross-cultural issues were vast, snarling things – but was also very good for me in terms of simply not feeling as freakish or alienated as I later felt.

During the summer of my ninth birthday my father got a big promotion, we moved to northern New Jersey, and everything changed. There was a Korean population in New Jersey, but it was nothing like I was accustomed to in L.A., and our town and schools were dominated by people of white European descent. Not 100%, but not terribly far from it. We were also almost completely stripped of contact with extended family. The net result was that I ended up making tremendous, painful, and often doomed efforts to culturally assimilate at the highest possible speed. It wasn’t a happy time.

There were other factors at play as well. We had the same breadth and depth of dysfunctional family dynamics that most people have to contend with; I now believe I was contending with undiagnosed neurological issues; and when I was 11 years old I was moved up a grade in school, which was possibly the most misguided decision of my life. The complexities of being a Korean kid in an overwhelmingly white town were huge, however, and I never felt up to the task of fully contending with them.

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

In retrospect I think there were more well-meaning, well-intentioned people in my adolescent life than I realized, but there’s no doubt that there was a significant number of blatantly racist people as well. The decision to call me “Wang” instead of using my real name will never be a marker of intelligence or enlightenment in my book, you know what I mean? Overt racism wasn’t hard to find.

At the time I didn’t understand that the pressures of unconscious, institutionalized racism were equally destructive, however. One of the things that are most painful in retrospect is the knowledge that I so fully succumbed to the pressure to deny my own identity and consider myself some kind of alien being. I fell into a place of deep, multifaceted self-hatred, and as a result I sometimes parroted and practiced racist behavior of my own. I made hateful statements about my own family; I used racist epithets to describe myself; and I used racist epithets to describe other Koreans. It’s a horrible, shameful thing to contemplate. My feelings of alienation ran very, very deep. I’ve realized how much effort I put into practicing self-ignorance, even though I didn’t conceive of it or understand it on those terms, and I’ve yet to fully extricate myself from that ignorant state. I don’t know if I ever will. I’m trying harder now, but I don’t know.

I honestly have some difficulty with the idea that being Korean-American might have quirks or perks – that might be because in my youth I didn’t felt like there were any, which is probably tied up in the self-hatred phenomenon, and it might be because I don’t feel like there’s anything about being Korean-American that’s less important or valuable than any other aspect of my identity. My Korean descent is an inextricable part of who I am, but people of Korean descent have as broad a range of experiences and qualities as anyone else.

Maybe I’ll just go with this: the biggest perk of being Korean-American is the fact that I have a racial and ethnic family history, one that is both unique to me in specific, personal ways, and shared by many others in broader, cultural ways. I am Korean-American, which is one of the inviolable truths abut my existence on this world, and I have a place in my community and my society, no matter how many people might want to place psychological borders around it. And really, that’s not a perk. That’s my inalienable right as a human being.

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

I’d like to take the model minority stereotype and hit it over the head with a shovel. It’s easy to take statements about the achievements of Korean-Americans as a population as compliments, praise, and affirmation, but what they really are is reductive and manipulative. I do have family members who’ve pursued the easy-to-perceive track of high achievement – top grades, elite colleges, and professional lives as doctors and lawyers. But you know what else I have? Family members who’ve struggled to find their way, both personally and professionally; family members who’ve experienced the full gamut of educational environments, including community college, technical schools, public universities, apprenticeships, and early departure from school; and family members with white-collar careers, blue-collar careers, and lifelong troubles with unemployment.

Some of the cookie-cutter model minority stereotypes are true of me, not because I’m of Korean descent, but because I’m human, and have had some of the same kinds of experiences that many other humans have had. Some of those lazy stereotypes are not true of me, for the very same reason. The model minority stereotype is another way of telling someone that they are categorically different, separate from the norm, and not fully human. Screw that noise.

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

I’m going to pick one, not because it’s the biggest stereotype, but because I don’t think I can pick one as the most prominent, and because I think any discussion on diversity will inevitably address stereotyping in a big way. During NBA player Jeremy Lin’s emergence on the national scene, sportswriter Jason Whitlock made a miserably offensive joke on Twitter about Lin having a small penis. I’ll refrain from detailing my own personal life here, but I’ve had that kind of joke flung in my direction many, many times in the past, and it’s enraging. It’s not accurate or true to any degree; it’s a particularly intrusive way of diminishing the self-perception and external perceptions of Asian men and boys; it’s another very effective strategy for saying “you are different, separate, inadequate, sub-human.” And yet it persists.

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

Oh, isn’t this a tricky question? It touches on something that I have trouble with, which is namely the designation of individual writers and/or their individual characters as “diverse.” What I think all writers can and should be aware of is the knowledge that diversity is reality; diversity is the true nature of human life on this planet, and while we are all unique individuals who don’t encapsulate that global richness within ourselves, we each represent our own slice of the complete pie of human experience. Diversity is a collective term, not an individual one, and that overarching knowledge feels important to me. But it’s also true that at the moment when we set pen to paper (literally or figuratively) we are alone in the act of literary creation; we have the gift and the responsibility of being the dominant artistic force behind our books. And it’s impossible to deny that our industry is still lagging badly in terms of representing the fullness of human experience to the world at large.

Find the emotional heart of your character and be true to it from start to finish. That’s the core of your story; that’s where its true power ultimately lies. Perhaps you’re a writer who identifies as a member of an under-represented community, as I do, and are creating characters built on a foundation of your own life experiences, as I’ve done. Good. Do it; persist like hell; understand, embrace, and advocate for the fact that your story is part of the global reality. Your story is more than just a contribution to the world’s diversity. It’s a priceless, irreplaceable, inextricable part of it, no matter how difficult it might seem to have that acknowledged and supported. Your story matters.

One Response to DiversifYA: Mike Jung

  1. “Your story matters.”

    Beautiful, brilliant, powerful. Thank you for all that you’ve said here.

    And–can I borrow that shovel when you finish with it?