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AAPI Month Interview Series: Daniel Song

Full Interview:

This is an interview of Daniel Song (DSong) conducted by the leaders of Korean Club (Ryan Chang, Jerome Chung, Nato Yeung, and Irene Yoon).

Irene: Could you give a quick introduction of yourself and how you identify within the AAPI community?

DSong: Hi, I’m Dan Song, and I identify as Korean and Korean American. I’m a history teacher here at College Prep. I’ve been here for about eight years, and I’m also the faculty advisor for Korean Club.

Irene: How was your heritage shaped the person you are today?

DSong: I mean, my background, like my heritage as a Korean American person, is who I am. My relationship with my parents is shaped, I think, by their immigrant background. Having to help them navigate this English-speaking world, this white-dominated world and spaces as a young person always felt kind of unusual to me. So, helping them fill out forms at the DMV, reading and translating for them, calling the utility company, and saying, you know, “What’s the deal with this bill?” Dealing with the “Where are you from?” questions as a kid [and] “How much do [you] know karate?” All that stuff was really defining in my youth.

Specifically, I think my Korean heritage is something I was taught to be proud of, and so even when I got those questions, like “Where are you from?” I [was] like, “I’m Korean,” and back in the 1980s in Pleasant Hill, there was a lot of “Where is that? I’ve never heard of that,” and so there was a lot of explaining. Part of it was annoying, for sure, and offensive; even at an early age, I could feel that, but part of it was kind of empowering to be like, “Well, I’ll tell you a little something about Korea. Here’s where it is, this is what Korean people eat, these are some things Korean people wear,” so I think early on my parents instilled in me pride and a sense of place and cultural heritage and background that still stays with me today.

Irene: Does your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

DSong: Yeah, I mean we celebrate Lunar New Year, we get together with family. We really introduced that to my kids and have highlighted the importance of that. We [also] celebrate Chuseok (추석), [which] is like Korean Thanksgiving and Harvest Moon Festival. Those are kind of the two main ones. It was super exciting for me to celebrate Korean first-year birthday party [and put] them in hanbok (한복). We all wore it and took pictures, and the kids got to choose the objects. That’s a tradition that I really want for them to continue to connect with their heritage. It was a great chance for me to connect with my own and do this thing that I kn[e]w growing up that Korean people have been doing for a long time, and so that’s been wonderful. There are some other things that I didn’t know as a kid, ‘cause I was a kid, so for example, a marriage, like [a] Korean marriage ceremony. My wife and I did that together, and my brother is going to do that this summer; even though neither he nor I got married to Korean people, we still carried [on] this tradition. So those are all things that I would like my kids to see and my family [to] be aware of.

Irene: What did your kids pick up during their first birthday?

DSong: Henry picked up rice, which supposedly [means], this is what my mom tells me, he’ll always be content, he’ll never want for anything because he’ll always have rice [as] sustenance. Lily picked up a brush, like a writing, calligraphy brush, which apparently means she’s gonna be a scholar. But I feel like all of those things, like no matter what you pick up, it’s all good, you know.

Irene: Mainstream media has often been criticized for its lack of or trivialized portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans. What do you think about that, and who are your favorite Asian American actors?

DSong: Okay, the first knee-jerk reaction is Bruce Lee. Especially since growing up in the, before you know K-dramas became super popular, like before Shang Chi was a multi-million dollar movie, for a kid growing up in the 80s, Bruce Lee was the only major Hollywood representation of Asian Americans on screen that was in the cultural zeitgeist, especially for an 8-year-old boy like me. And so, pretty early on, I admired how he could sort of be a leading role in a movie, and you know, beat up people who were bigger than him and stuff like that.

Obviously, that kind of cut both ways because then people were like, “Oh, do you know kung fu?” But, as a kid, for sure, Bruce Lee. And then, as I got older, you get to see a little more, a few more Asian Americans on TV. I remember watching Lost. It was on ABC, [and] Daniel Dae Kim was on it. There was a Korean couple that was sort of central, not central, but were key ensemble actors. They would always speak in Korean, and they would be subtitled, and I remember thinking, Oh, this is cool. This is a major hit TV show. Again, this was probably around the early 2000s, again before I think K-dramas really became almost mainstream, at least out here in the West Coast.

Jerome: Do you have any recommendations for movies, shows, books, podcasts, etc., for AAPI month?

DSong: Oh yeah, for sure! Oh, what was it… I just started reading… Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. Highly recommend. I just, I literally just picked it up two days ago and read the introduction, but it’s great. It’s an autobiographical book of essays, and I think it really grapples, or with what I’m aware of in the introduction, seeks to grapple at what it’s like to be both promoted and bounded by the Model Minority Myth in the United States, which is something that is so real to me, you know, something that I deal with [and] think about a lot.

Jerome: This past year, there has been an exponential rise in hate-filled action towards members of the AAPI community. What does showing up for the AAPI community both internally and externally look like to you?

DSong: Yeah, on a very internal level, supporting my parents, who are old Korean people. It’s hard to think of your parents as old, but my parents are old now. My dad’s in his 70s, right, and it really hurt[s] me to hear them say that they’re scared to go out in Oakland now or that they’re scared to go out in San Francisco, or they don’t want to take public transportation anymore. That was really hard for me to hear because they're my parents, and one, to think of them as old, and two, to think of them as potential targets [of] anti-Asian violence is super hard. So at a very basic level, being there to support them, whether that means taking them to go get groceries, driving them around, making sure that they feel safe and supported, is important, and then doing that for others.

I think that supporting Asian-owned businesses and supporting… spaces where you can show like I’m proud to be a member of the Asian community. And then, sort of from a structural level, really examining what sort of policy changes, like education, we can be doing as a society, sort of broadly to like counter this, to get at it, to understand, to push back on hate directed at the Asian community.

Irene: Is there such a thing as the “typical” Asian American experience? Are there any stereotypes you have heard or have had to face being Asian American? How would you define the Model Minority Myth, and has it played a role in your own life?

DSong: No, I don’t think there is a thing as the “typical” Asian American experience. I think that’s part of the problem. I think it often gets generalized as if Asian Americans are a monolith, which [they’re] clearly not. My own experience as a child of immigrants, who are relatively well educated [and] came over post-1965, is going to be very different from Asian Americans who were here previous to that, like Chinese and Japanese Americans have been in this country for longer, or even Korean Americans that have been here since the 1900s, early 1900s. That’s going to be different than post-1970s, like immigrants who are either refugees or fleeing areas of violence. I mean [there are] so, so many different experiences, like class, education background, where people settle. I grew up in California, which is going to be better than an Asian person having grown up in, I don’t know, somewhere else, like Kansas. But, where I grew up, Pleasant Hill, at the time in the 1990s, [was] very different from growing up, say in San Francisco, where there was a much greater, sort of plurality, where [the] majority of Asian experiences and Asian viewpoints [makes] it hard to generalize. So, no, I don’t think there is.

As a side note, I think one of the things that I really, really, really loved about living in San Francisco for as long as I did is that walking around in San Francisco, there is no, it’s hard to generalize because, there [are] so many Asian people there and they’re all doing so many different things. So it’s not like the Asian person is like the town doctor. There [are] Asian people who are storekeepers, there are Asian people [who] are doctors, there are Asian people [who] are picking up the garbage, doing janitorial work. There's literally everything, so no one can really generalize, and it felt really great to be in that bubble of no one’s making assumptions about who I am as an Asian person. That’s all really freeing to be in a place like that.

Stereotypes, yeah! Like, “Why aren’t you good at math,” and the fact that we’re sitting here, and I can’t understand any of this stuff suggests that is not true. We’re in the math room right now, and I’m looking at scribbles that have no meaning to me, so clearly, that can’t be true. You know, as a kid, martial arts sort of stuff. I think as I got older, some less overt, “Do you know taekwondo,” sort of things, [and] a little more expectations around me being willing to go along with what everyone’s saying, stay silent about things, and not rock the boat. Maybe not necessarily subservient but more sort of compliant, I guess.

Define the Model Minority Myth? I’m borrowing this analogy from the Second Wave Feminist Movement, but the analogy is it’s both a pedestal and a cage, which I think is a really apt analogy. The myth that Asian people are hardworking, that they don’t rock the boat, that they’re apolitical, [and] that they’re “good minorities” is a pedestal that white society tries to raise Asian people upon, but it’s also a cage, which means that “Oh, you’re this good minority so you shouldn’t do these things,” like protest for more rights or complain about the fact that white society is limiting your opportunities in some way. So it’s both of those things. And I think it's particularly pernicious and difficult because [of] the way that it’s crafted, like “Oh, it’s just a compliment, you should just take his compliment.” And then when you’re like, “No, this isn’t a compliment,” they’re like, “What’s wrong with you?” like, “Are you trying to say you don’t want to be called hard-working or like contributing members to American society?” And I’m like, no, it’s not that I have a problem with being called hard-working. I think that’s a great compliment. But you’re doing two things—you’re calling me hardworking because one, you don’t want me to protest the conditions under which my hard work is happening, and two, you’re using it to put down other people who white society feels [aren’t] “hard-working” enough or [aren’t] conformed to the white standards of “hard-working.” And so it’s difficult, and that’s why I think the analogy, pedestal, and cage, is an apt one. Again I’m borrowing that from, I think that’s Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who used it in her arguments about why women are treated to this double standard.

Has it played a role in your life? Yeah. Yeah, I mean subconsciously and consciously, it has defined the limits of what I perceive to be possible or acceptable. Of it, I don’t wanna say that the model minority myth is imposed on me completely because some of it is what my parents believed to be the right thing to do, and I’m hesitant to say that what they’re trying to do has fallen into the Model Minority Myth because to say that you want your kids to be like a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever, go to a good school—I don’t think that’s completely subject to the model minority myth. My parents come from a specific socio-economic background in Korea, where that was the thing, and [so they] wanted their kids to have that here. Part of their message to me about working hard and keeping my head down is, I think, a genuine cultural thing that people from their class background and socioeconomic background in Korea believed in. But part of it is the social construct of [the] model minority, imposed and pushed by white society here in the United States. So, it’s tough to parse out which is which, but I think a combination of both of those things has kind of limited what I think is possible when it comes to [if] I really want to put myself out there for community activism. Do I really want to stick my neck out in advocating for others? Is that my place? Is that my role? Second-guessing myself there, especially in my youth. Yeah, I think it’s certainly played a role.

Jerome: Was there ever a moment where you felt extremely ashamed or proud to be an Asian American?

DSong: Ashamed? It’s hard to say ashamed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt ashamed to be Asian American. I do remember very, very vividly a moment where I was, God, I don’t know, I was in middle school, so I must’ve been 11, 12, something like that. I was playing with a good friend of mine, who was Japanese American, like fourth-generation Japanese American. We’re playing basketball in his driveway, and these kids, they didn’t go to our school, but they were roughly the same age, came up and, you know, we were just saying dumb, like kid stuff, probably bad words that I shouldn't repeat here, stuff like that. I remember saying to the kids, sort of like, “You guys just wanna be cool, and you’re not,” and the kids turned to us and just said, “You guys just wanna be Americans, and you’re not.” And I was just like, oh. And the fact that I can recite that exact conversation today, right now, 30+ years later – that cut pretty deep. I didn’t feel ashamed. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m ashamed to be Asian American,” but I was like… I mean my reaction now, and I’m gonna swear here, but it was like, “Oh shit, that’s the way people see me.” That’s the way those kids saw me. For me, it really clarified a moment where white society is always going to see me as Asian first and then maybe American, and so that was a real formative moment in my early childhood.

Proud? I mean, I really feel like Koreans and Korean Americans [have been] on a real good hot streak around the last ten years. Just the cultural influence of Korea—South Korea is such a small country, and just to have everyone being like, “You know what the best refrigerators are? Samsung refrigerators. You know what the best TVs are? LG.” Having Oscar movies, TV shows, Korean food is like all the rage. People are literally standing in line to get homemade tofu, right, and banchan (반찬). There’s a banchan restaurant in Oakland that just does banchan. This is wild to me, right, this is bonkers. Korean food, Korean culture, Korean music, Korean everything is so hot right now, and I think that’s super cool. I wish that would’ve happened when I was like a kid, [but] you know, a lot of pride. I’d say in the past decade, or so, it’s felt good, it’s felt good.

Irene: How do you believe AAPI individuals contribute to the history and the culture of the US?

DSong: Dang, that’s a tough question to ask a history teacher in a short interview like this. I think they’re critical. I think they’re critical and largely forgotten. I think we’ve tried to emphasize field workers in California in the 1880s and early 1900s. Canary workers, all organized [and] run on solidarity with one another. Filipino Americans, Chinese Americans, and also Mexican Americans organized for labor rights in California. We never tell that story, [yet] that’s so essential to our understanding of how American society views immigrants [and] people of color. I think it's trite… or a little hackneyed for me to say that Chinese Americans built the railroads, but they did. New Deal Era projects like the Golden Gate Bridge [and] the Bay Bridge could not have been built without Chinese labor. So much of San Francisco’s wealth couldn’t have been supported without Chinese merchants. I mean, so much, especially right here in the Bay Area, in California, so much of our history is built on the backs of Asian labor, Asian organizing, and Asian solidarity with other non-white groups and other labor groups. So, yeah, I believe that AAPI individuals are essential to the, I think, rather, I would even push back on the question. Rather than “contribute to the history,” they are the history. They are not contributing to the history. They are inexorable from the history and the culture of the United States. From the first settlement, like [the] 1840s, when the first Chinese immigrants g[o]t here, all the way until the present day, they have shaped the culture and the path of US history. So yeah, essential.

Jerome: What does AAPI Month mean to you?

DSong: To me personally? I think it’s just an opportunity to celebrate broadly. It’s an opportunity to be visible to the broader United States. I feel like, here in the Bay Area, there’s an awareness of Asian culture that doesn’t quite sort of exist in other places, and I know this because every summer, I go to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m often the only Asian person in the room, and so, yeah, there needs to be AAPI Month there so that there is a little bit more awareness of cultures. I’m not saying that it doesn’t need to happen here; you can always learn more about other cultures, and so it’s great to have this month.

And for me personally, it feels great to be seen. Not just seen, but recognized as having an experience that’s different, but also essential to the United States of America. I think it is sad in some ways that we have to have these months, as if, “30 days! You only get 30 days to talk about your cultures!” I do think that’s bad, I think that the intent is also to put that question back on white Americans or the general public, “Why is there only a month of this?” I’m not saying we’ll reach a place where we won’t need to do these things, [but] we’ll hopefully reach a point, where there’s more fluency in understanding other people’s experiences and their identities. Hopefully, these heritage and history awareness and education months get us out of this paradigm of thinking this is abnormal. AAPI month is part of the American experience, culturally, historically, politically, like all of it, and gets us away from thinking, You get 30 days and just white society gets the other 330.

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