Thick Dumpling Skin recently sat down with Terry Park, Mr. Hyphen 2011, to talk about body image, activism, and being a scholar. Terry is one special guy. He is so nice, funny, and down to earth. From the mouth of Hyphen’s publisher, Chris Jocson, “he is the rockstar that we don’t see on TV.”
How did you define “good looking” growing up?
I equated “good looking” with the white, Mormons that I grew up with in Utah. And Mormon white is much whiter than the rest of white America—I’m talking lots of blonde hair, lots of blue eyes, lots of tucked-in polo shirts and rubgy sweaters, and since Utah is a pretty outdoorsy state, Mormon bodies are usually tall, slim and fit. So to be a short Asian American kid growing up in this kind of environment made me both highly invisible and visible at the same time. I tried to copy their standard of beauty as much as I could, but I could never erase my Asian features or my immigrant Korean parents, so like a lot of Asian kids growing up in the US, I experienced a lot of racial self-hatred. Even though I had plenty of friends and was pretty athletic, I never felt good looking.
Courtesy of Tiffany Eng & Retrofit Republic for the wardrobe and styling
For many readers of TDS, they felt ostracized from the Asian community - both by Asians/Asian Americans and by others - because their bodies didn’t quite fit with the stereotype that all asian women should be slim/fragile. Obviously body image issues and eating disorders are experienced by males as well. As an Asian American male, how did that play out for you? Did you ever feel ostracized by the Asian community because of the way you looked?
While Asian/Asian American men might not experience eating disorders to the same degree that Asian/Asian American women do, we definitely feel representational disorders. What I mean by that are the reductive representations of Asian American men that get produced and circulated by dominant US media, and perhaps even more troubling, the kinds of narrow responses to those limiting representations that are just as damaging and ostracizing. So, for example, as an Asian American kid who straddled the 80s and 90s, I remember seeing the character of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. Even though I was maybe 6 or 7 when it came out, I remember understanding that he was to be read as foreign, sexually unappealing, and even a little threatening. As for his body, he was incredibly skinny, unfit, and short, which was accentuated by a large white girl who had a crush on him. So he was an object of desire, but an object of desire by an undesirable, unfit woman. For a lot of Asian American men watching this kind of representation, the response is often, “I want to be an object of proper desire, I want to feel included, I don’t want to be threatening. So in order to avoid any association with Long Duk Dong and everything he represents, I will remake my identity and my body by their [white] terms so I can be desireable, included, and safe.” I definitely felt this urge, and acted upon it to varying degrees at certain moments in my life.
One thing I could never remake, though, was my height. I’m pretty short. I’m about 5’4”, or 5’5” in my driver’s license, or 5’7” on my OKCupid dating profile. I can work out my body as much as I want, but I will never get taller. I actually tried to once, when I was going to an international school in Korea, I begged my parents to make an appointment for leg-lengthening surgery. They finally gave in. For those who don’t know, leg-lengthening surgery is where they basically break your legs and lengthen the bone by a few inches. It’s supposed to be incredibly painful. But thankfully, I came to my senses and canceled the consultation.
Even after that, I struggled with my short height. I knew that it reinforced how people in the US view Asian American men as inadequate and outside of the ideal masculine body (at least B.L./Before Linsanity). I also knew that my short height was a highly-visible reminder to Asians and Asian Americans of everything that they were trying to avoid in their quest to become desireable, included, and safe. In some ways I feel that it’s worse in Korea, where especially in Seoul, middle to upper-class women tend to be very height-conscious. South Korea is now a pretty advanced, newly-developing country, and because of the improved diet, the younger generation is a lot taller than the previous wartime generation. So now I feel like I stick out in both Korea and in the US. For example, in my international high school I was told by a friend that “I would get a lot more girls” if I were “just a few inches taller,” and a few years ago in NYC, an Asian American girl told me to my face that I was too short to date her—even though I was taller than her. So yeah, I feel like my short height has made me ostracized from multiple communities. But I’m okay with it now, because I’ve met women who don’t care that I’m short, and I also take pride in other physical attributes, like my baby-soft skin. Thanks, Sephora!
Being a scholar, how does racism and stereotypes work itself into the way you viewed yourself growing up?
Being a student and scholar of Asian American studies has allowed me to critically situate the racism and stereotypes I faced growing up in Utah within a longer history of the structural challenges Asians have faced ever since we were pushed out of Asia and into the US. Especially for those Asian Americans growing up in places like Salt Lake City, it feels very isolating—there was never a Koreatown that I could escape to, or anything resembling an Asian ethnic enclave. There was one Korean-owned Asian market called “Oriental Market” that I loved. I had a few Asian American friends in Salt Lake City, but I don’t remember ever really talking about race with them—the internalized racism we quietly and individually endured was difficult to talk about. We were all trying to pass to varying degrees. Also, I wasn’t Christian, so I couldn’t turn to one of the few Korean American sites of community, which probably would’ve made life easier.
So I just struggled on my own, with very little understanding from my white friends, or even my parents. If the internet had existed back then, maybe I could’ve found a community online, as I did later on sites like AsianAvenue.com. In college, when I took Asian American studies classes, I realized that my experience was common to many Asian Americans growing up outside of California, New York, and Hawaii. I remember reading Mary Paik Lee’s classic memoir, A Quiet Odyssey, and being blown away that Korean migrant workers picked beets in Utah in the early 1900s. I also read about the transcontinental railroad connecting in Promontory Point, Utah, and the Topaz internment camp. I played a lot of basketball in Utah and used to go to a basketball camp at the University of Utah, where I remember being not just the only Asian, but the only person of color in the entire camp. You can imagine what that was like. So now that I’m older, have some knowledge of Asians in the US, and even in Utah, I can see that wasn’t alone in my struggles—and actually had it much better than the railroad workers and the beet farmers and the internees who had very little resources except for each other. That’s the way it’s always been—we need each other to survive.
How were you, or are you, able to overcome that?
I can sum it up with: art, activism, and academia. That can be encapsulated by an off-Broadway solo I wrote and performed in called 38th Parallels. It was also my MA thesis at NYU. In it, I explore the ways in which my parents’ traumatic experiences before and during the Korean War shaped my own upbringing a thousand miles away in Utah, and then when I lived in Korea as a high school student and after college, as an activist.
Growing up in Utah, I felt incredibly ashamed of my Mom—her broken English that hovered over my unbroken English, her racial difference that mirrored my own, her wacky, irrational Korean mom sayings like, “last night I dream you hit by car!” Her nonsense always seemed to threaten my sense of self and sense of the world, both predicated on whiteness. It wasn’t until later, when she nonchalantly told me that her oldest brother was either “kidnapped” by or voluntarily joined the North Korean army during the Korean War (her story shifted), and told me that she used to always wait as a little girl for her oldest brother to come home after school, and then one day he didn’t—and with her mother, ran to the local park where they saw him and other boys rounded up, and her brother told them that he’d come back, but he never did…so now I understand why she says things like, “last night I dream you hit by car!” She totally makes sense. It’s what she had to live through, to witness, that’s nonsense. So I turned those memories, rumors, and secrets into character monologues, and those monologues became my show.
Who are some asian american role models for you and why?
Jeremy Lin. I wrote a VaLINtine’s Day Card to Jeremy, for my Hyphen blog, that explains why.
I have many others. Like my parents. Like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Eddy Zheng. Artists who I’m honored to now call friends like Bao Phi and Taiyo Na, organizers who create spaces for artists to perform like Ryan Takemiya, dedicated fathers and filmmakers like Tony Nguyen, my dissertation advisor Sunaina Maira and tammy ko Robinson, who embody what it means to be an activist-scholar, tireless activists who have dedicated their lives to reunification and peace on the Korean peninsula like Christine Ahn, Paul Liem, and Sukjong Hong, activists/artists who practice and promote self-care like Joy Liu, folks like Tiffany Eng who raise the next generation of API leaders, Jenny Ton and Julia Rhee for making us look good while we do good, all the people at Hyphen Magazine who volunteer their time to make a dynamic Asian American cultural space, and all the guys at San Quentin, especially Vinny, Sane, Jimmy, Kogen, and J.C… there are too many to name. I really feel blessed and humbled to be surrounded, supported, and challenged by so many amazing Asian Americans.
What does winning Mr. Hyphen mean for you?
It means that APSC has $1000 to continue doing their amazing work supporting API inmates and educating the broader public about the prison-industrial complex effects API individuals and communities, particularly Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities. It means greater visibility and recognition for their amazing work, and hopefully, more members. It means my nieces thinking that their air guitar-strumming, unicorn-prancing uncle is absolutely insane.
What advice would you give your teen self?
Embrace your inner unicorn.
Terry wasn’t kidding about embracing the unicorn.