Labels, identities and how people can be goddamn idiotic about them

Also published on Wordpress.

Eugene Lee Yang is a member of the The Try Guys. His Korean-American identity is a recurring theme in the videos. In fact, someone made a video compiling every time Lee-Yang speaks Korean onscreen.

This video is a surprise to many people because of how short it is. In the comment section, I explain how he is not Korean, he is an American of Korean-descent.

And then, the backlashes pouring in like sewage tsunami.

People thought my refusal to call him simply Korean is gatekeeping Korean identity and denying his Koreanness. Of course, if you can read, you know it is not true. I explicitly called him an American of Korean-descent; literally the word Korean was there!

I refuse to call him simply Korean because I believe our identities are shaped mostly by the places we grew up in, NOT by our citizenships and certainly not by how our ancestors lived their lives.

There is another Korean-American former Buzzfeed employee called Evan Ghang. In his case, I have no issues calling him simply Korean. Why? Because, unlike Yang, Ghang actually spent much of his childhood in Korea!

Obviously, you can still get exposed to your ancestral heritage without living in your ancestral land. But, if the exposure only occurs at home, then you are barely exposed to it.

Oh, and that video of Eugene Lee Yang speaking Korean? It is only seventeen seconds long. At that point, there were already lots of Youtube videos featuring him… and yet, he barely spoke the language in any of them.

It is not me gatekeeping Korean identity (I don’t have Korean lineage!) and I don’t mind if Asian-Americans identify simply as Asians. It is about me trying my best to be as empirical as possible.

But, I also shouldn’t disregard how different places treat labels.

In Hawaii, “Hawaiian” is reserved to anyone with indigenous lineage; those who do not possess it are referred to as “of/from Hawaii” and/or their ancestral lineage (e.g. Filipino or Japanese). This is not intended to gatekeep the Hawaiian identity, it is meant to respect the people who have become a disenfranchised minority in their own ancestral homeland and almost lost their heritage to cultural genocide.

That fact reminds me of political implications of labels and how I was dumb to not bring that up sooner in the argument.

Whether you believe it or not, white and black Americans (who are not (perceived as) Muslims) rarely have their Americanness questioned (if ever), even when the former identify with specific European ethnicities and the latter identify as African-Americans.

But, Asian-Americans? Even with their status as “model minority”, they are still seen as perpetual foreigners. When they are asked “where are they from?”, the askers often mean countries instead of cities or states. The increasing hate crimes against them during the ongoing pandemic is a harsh reminder of that.

In Indonesia, my home country, I don’t feel comfortable calling Chinese-Indonesians simply as Chinese. They are bigots’ favourite scapegoats and, like Asian-Americans, also seen as perpetual foreigners, even though many of them can’t speak any Chinese languages and never identify as Chinese.

But, with Indonesians of other backgrounds, I have no qualm about referring to them by their ethnic lineage, even ones who grew up outside their ethnic homelands. Why? Because their ethnicities are indigenous to the archipelago; it is impossible to accuse them of being foreign.

The word ‘indigenous’ also has developed more negative connotations. Under Dutch colonial rule, it was politically empowering. But now, it is often used to “othering” Chinese-Indonesians.

My point is labels are more complicated than we think they are.

On one hand, I believe we should be careful about culturally labelling ourselves and others. We should go beyond lineage and citizenship as they don’t always shape us, if at all.

But, on the other hand, we should also consider the political implications of those labels, regardless of how rational they are. Even with our best intentions, we may end up unwittingly exacerbate the prejudice.

Basically, just like everything in life, we need nuances…. something which my opponents clearly lack.

At one point, I just straight up called one of them a cunt. They insisted that I was denying Eugene Lee Yang’s Koreanness, even though I clearly wasn’t. It is obviously they couldn’t care less about honest conversations.

Initially, I accepted that they had good intentions. But now, I wonder if they were ever well-intentioned in the first place. Maybe, they were trying to emphasise his foreignness, to make him even sound less American.

Who knows?

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The same opponent I called a cunt also brought the word “nationality” and how “Koreans” are a nationality because they share the same Korean root.

I acknowledge them for getting one definition of the word right. Well, only one. While “nationality” can be a synonym for “ethnicity”, it also has another definition: citizenship.

In fact, in the English language, this other definition is the most commonly used one; apart from my opponent, I don’t know any other English-speakers who use the words “nationality” and “ethnicity” interchangeably.

This is a reason why Donald Trump’s attempt to declare Jews a nationality was condemned. For many, he was putting targets on the backs of Jews by making them sound perpetually foreign.

Just because a word has multiple meanings, that does not mean all of them are widely-used.

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