To little fanfare, in 2019, the Associated Press Stylebook abolished a hyphen. Stripped of the small dash, compound heritage terms such as Asian American and African American quietly appeared untethered, like invited couples who had just broken up. The decision stemmed from an old grief. For many, the small dash implied that there were normative Americans, as opposed to hyphenated subtypes—as if the purest ones weren’t saddled with bulky add-ons. At worst, the hyphen was a shackle to a provisional citizenship, a mark that designated a mongrel. “In this country American means white,” Toni Morrison said. “Everyone else has to hyphenate.” Even the unencumbered French Vanilla has its own dignity.
As a Korean American, the hyphen suggested a partnership of equal identities. Two sides of the same coin. But I never knew what that partnership meant. Which identity was primary? What were the proportions of each? With the hyphen, Korean was joined to American like a married surname, with no mention of whether that union was a happy one. Growing up in a white Southern California suburb, I tolerated this mixed identity as well as I tolerated being the only Asian kid in the classroom. I felt it like an existential fault line whenever someone volunteered me in a game of “Guess His Ethnicity!” or asked me where I was really, really from. On the other hand, Koreans didn’t know what to do with me, either. In college, I found my people among other hyphenates, children of immigrants who badgered me for the way I spoke like an elbow-patched English professor. At parties, while they compared stories growing up in hagwons—after-school academies where Korean American children received tutoring and learned the mother tongue—I receded into the crowd feeling like a Hester Prynne, the American with the scarlet A.
Which is why my ignorance to this grammar revolution needled a secret fear: that there were caucuses of world-changing Asian Americans to which I was not privy. Unmoored between two cultures, I belonged to neither. The hyphen was a negotiation between two irreconcilable identities, a legal sign that I, along with my “almond-shaped” eyes and strange food, was somehow just as American as Cracker Barrel, even when I didn’t feel like it. The thin line was my 38th Parallel, marking not so much a treaty as a cease-fire between two opposing sides.
But without it, Korean and American orbit the empty space in which I stand alone eating dried squid but speaking really good English. In its place is an embedded caesura, a pregnant pause that gives rise to a question that I had always been afraid to ask: Where do I belong?
“Do you eat kimchi?”
The older couple in matching polo shirts were kind enough, but as we stood in the apartment waiting for the friend who summoned us to move furniture, the husband and wife gave me a familiar look. It was a look I’d seen from other white strangers approaching me as I readied not so much to introduce myself as to satisfy their racial curiosities. I was accustomed to it. I’d come to expect it in places like Massachusetts’ North Shore, a place bereft of Asians such that when I happened upon one in a ten-mile radius, I would stop and stare long enough to be acknowledged, and it didn’t matter whether that person were Korean, Hmong, or Malaysian—in that knowing glance was a passed note that said: You are not alone.
But that was different. The look on the couples’ faces was that of trying to place a grouse they’d seen in a field guide.
“Yes, I eat kimchi,” I confessed. Simple present tense, habitual act. I could have lied and said no, thus ending the conversation. I could have walked past them toward the many-edged wooden dresser that was already tensing my lower back. But I was used to paying the cost of civility, coddling the delicate indelicacy of others. Trained to pardon the ignorance of strangers—because hey, they weren’t really racist, after all—I feigned my delight that one more person (in this case, two) had distilled the most interesting thing about me to a dish of fermented cabbage.
The husband and wife lit up at my admission. Winner, winner.
“We just tried kimchi. In fact, we love Korean food! There’s this restaurant down in Peabody—” they said, almost in unison. As they beamed at me, I smiled and took a deep breath. How could I be angry at this earnest couple old enough to be my parents? Getting angry would summon the specter of the hypersensitive minority, dredging up white guilt while all the couple wanted was a conversation—and, perhaps, a real connection. And so, in the same way as I’d been trained, I buried my embers beneath the thin topsoil of playing nice.
Heaving the dresser against my chest, I shimmied out the door.
Navigating this transverse chasm between Korean and American, I spent grad school reading postcolonial scholars from Edward Said to Anne Anlin Cheng. I was there to study theology—another category sanitized from its other sub-types (Black theology, Latin American theology)—but literature was my secret passion. The collision of these twin stars created a wormhole toward new possibilities, new ways of being into which I plunged. Cheng gave me a new vernacular, one that described the psychological stuckness of Asians, who, “shuttling between ‘black’ and ‘white’…occupy a truly ghostly position in the story of American racialization.” Though Asian American bodies were subject to racism, we became disembodied through a Faustian pact: a model minority status at the low, low price of our humanity. But it was Said who, back in 1978, coined Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”—a critique that remains as relevant today, with a Yellow Peril emergent with the so-called China Virus, beatings of elderly Asian citizens, public figures shamelessly stretching their eyes with their fingers. Orientalism is very much alive, domesticating the “model minority” with a long-stranded coil of aggravations.
The hyphen as leash.
But Orientalism creeps in mundane guises. At a friend’s wedding reception just before the pandemic, I sat at a table enjoying a Chinese feast laid out on obligatory Lazy Susans. (With much experience, one develops an unspoken etiquette for spinning the dumbwaiter: 1.) Clear the circumference of glasses and jutting utensils; 2.) Always yield at the first sign of rotational tension, 3.) One full second of inactivity after replacing the big spoon means you’re done with the Mongolian Beef.) Perhaps it was my haste in reaching for the hong dou tang—a dessert porridge of red beans—but the woman sitting across from me was visibly intrigued at my enjoyment. Gawking at the strange concoction, she aimed her camera phone at me as I was about to eat, leaning in and directing me to show them how it’s done for the unhyphenated Americans at home.
In another place, I would have explained that I wasn’t Chinese. I would have described my nostalgia for Korean red bean desserts and the hybrid cuisine that was a staple of my childhood, having frequented Korean-Chinese restaurants with my family. But here at a table in which I was the only Asian person—hence, the unwilling and incapable ambassador of the entire Asian continent—I inhabited a familiar silence. I looked up to see the phone thrust in my face, another thin monolith that separated the Asian from the American. The most interesting thing about me distilled to a slurry of beans.
Still, I didn’t want to make a scene. I preferred to eat my dessert than fight at a friend’s wedding, just as I preferred to move heavy furniture than berate an elderly couple. I had ignored acquaintances who mocked Asian accents to my face in “good fun” and listened to non-apology apologies. I had seen the outrage people on social media directed towards acute racism, while their collective rage stopped short of the million aggravations that remained undetected and ungrieved. I had deposited my anger, my embarrassment into that hidden account where only I paid the interest. I played nice.
“Racist institutions in fact often do not want to fully expel the racial other,” Cheng writes. “Instead, they wish to maintain that other within existing structures.” My identity trapped in the Pan-Asian amber of Yellow Face and Fried Rice, I am merely a provisional American, restrictions apply. A constant reminder of distance kept between my Korean and my American selves.
The hyphen as a pointed shaft aimed at my ribs.
Though my parents were among the immigrants who saw assimilation as success, our suburban Southern Californian home was still my plot of imported soil: traditional meals, a native tongue spoken on the phone, and Korean soap operas in their slow-motion emotive glory. Korean American was not so much a joint identity as one that was either-or, Janus-faced in a town where the most “exotic” restaurant was festooned with a colorful pagoda. As a child, I was teleported back and forth between a world of classmates standing for the American flag, and a world where I bowed to my parents’ friends, who scolded me in two languages. Home was a stark reminder of the many rites that reddened the Eastern dynasties tinctured in my blood.
It was especially true when my grandparents stayed over, bringing with them the full experience of their exiled life—Korean newspapers strewn on tables, the aroma of ginseng tea and fermented soybeans wafting into my bedroom. Neither of them knew how to stay still: they tended the yard, stooped to pick up the smallest crumbs from the carpet. One afternoon, I came home from school to see my grandmother at the side of the house, kneeling over holes she had dug into the soil. Having prepared jars of kimchi ready to ferment, she lowered each into the ground before covering them with her loamy hands. Without explanation, the short, rugged woman shuffled back into the house as if she were late to her next task. I didn’t dare interrupt her.
I rarely invited my white friends over then, imagining them cringing over the pickled radishes and salted fish my grandmother would have heaped upon them. Back then, I minded the quizzical stares I’d get for speaking Korean, the questions over the pungent aromas coming from the refrigerator where nothing was as it seemed—the quart of cottage cheese filled with dried anchovies, the tub of margarine packed with fish cakes. I didn’t understand it then, the world my grandparents brought and cultivated in a foreign land. But when I was alone with them, their rituals, with all their sounds, smells, and sights, irrigated my soul to its deepest roots.
While Korean friends still poke fun at my Americanness, there is an incomparable affection we share: one that disarms that always-on, self-auditing impulse, perceiving ourselves through the white lens. This “jeong,” untranslatable in Western terms, is a type of kinship that puts one soul in contact with another, reaching outward toward a communal bond. I have felt it among Koreans—and other Asians—who were nothing like me, from street racers to sage ajummas from Boston to Seoul, a quiet acknowledgment of our collective identity. Despite the differences among us, there was no need to hyphenate.
Jeong also bridges distinct points in time. In 1937, Younghill Kang wrote East Goes West, a satirical, semi-fictionalized account of a Korean immigrant’s experience in America. Through the character of Chungpa Han, Kang trains his critical eye on American consumerism and racism, while navigating the tensions of assimilation. When I discovered the book, I recognized it as a work that would have changed my life had I read it growing up. Kang, through his rich, confident prose, contrasts the proud heritage of Asian immigrants and their American realities. As a younger man, I would have found a mentor in Kang, someone who articulated both the desire to fit in (“When I get out of college, then I may begin to master American civilization, American culture”) and the resentment toward the condescension of others (“I couldn’t make him understand about Korea”). And yet, as I have found a passion and a sanctuary in literature, I regard authors like Younghill Kang as kindred spirits across time, whose voices encourage me to add my own against those who would attempt to reduce me, domesticate me.
In Kang’s novel, the protagonist, Chungpa, is assured of his assimilation by his friend Kim, who says, “You will get along somehow…Professors in Boston have great sympathy for any adopted Oriental child. As long as you are willing to be docile and obedient.”
“That’s just it!” Chungpa exclaims indignantly. “I hate being nicey-nice.”
Is jeong really untranslatable? As a Korean (blank) American, I have to believe that this kind of collective kinship isn’t limited to one half of my identity. I question whether a hyphen was just a hyphen, and not a bridge to a greater belonging. While many cultures (and American subcultures) extend hospitality to their own, like Korean jeong, they all have a dark side—a centripetal bent that breeds xenophobia and racism. Kinship, when parochialized, is only for those who look like “us.” Jeong may have a warm heart, but it has one hell of a cold shoulder.
Staggering in the abyss between identities, I am still confident that the warmth I feel from other Koreans radiates from a hearth of a shared belonging. In a wasteland of indignities, I still have hope that the real connections I’ve felt, albeit brief, are intrinsic to us all. It is luminous, the possibility that jeong is universal, that we can cleave to those unlike us. And if it is real, it is as much a responsibility for the West as it is for the East.
Perhaps literature saves the world. Maybe not in modernist myths oblivious to human frailty, but in the visions of authors—even those “canonized” in the West—who dared to dream of a different ideal, taking the litany of our weaknesses and refracting a universal jeong through it. E.M. Forster is a sentimental favorite of mine, an author whose characters “muddle” their way toward human connection, stumbling over their worst traits. In A Passage to India—despite his regrettable caricatures—Forster embeds this longing within his Indian character Aziz, who, despite a cultural impasse with a British woman, exclaims, “You understand me, you know what others feel. Oh, if others resembled you!”
This ideal also exists in possibilities between strangers, emerging in paroxysms of truth as in Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, everyday epiphanies that have inspired lonely poets, prophets, and mystics. Estranged from the world around them, they find refuge in realms they create. Realms like the Clearing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a place where those made discarnate by violence can gather, where “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine.” Sufferers seeking healing, they are in fact searching for each other. In their valence, the world finds hope against despair—the kind of spiritual resilience that James Baldwin describes in The Fire Next Time: “Not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Some might call those prophets overly sentimental, or dismiss their visions as too indulgent for a society beset by political urgencies. But we need them in an age where inflamed rhetoric has us scorning our differences rather than celebrating our commonalities. We need the mystics who can help us dream again. Neither at home with Koreans nor Americans, I need the artists who entice me toward a new homecoming, like Woolf’s Lily Briscoe who “struggles against terrific odds to maintain her courage, to say, ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see,’ and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.” A vision of belonging, both transcendent and immanent, worth clinging to at any cost.
The identities to which we cling refuse to remain siloed. As society continues to divide, each separate unit finds its limit, where fear and longing both speak to that lost affection that would draw us near. We may not need hyphens, but we are desperate for living bridges, ambassadors of jeong in the space between.
is an essayist and short fiction writer based in Los Angeles, California. His work, which often centers on issues of belonging, liminality, and faith, has been published in Tiferet Journal and Wanderlust Journal. Michael is currently in the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Pacific University.