By Philip J. Kim, Assistant Editor at the Kirwan Institute
Here are two facts about me:
(1.) I am Korean-American.
(2.) I am allergic to rice.
Oftentimes, when the second fact comes up in a conversation, reactions are not too surprising: shock, confusion, disbelief, denial, all accompanied by an uncertain laughter. Surely, it is quite a funny prospect, even seems quite contradictory. How can I, an Asian, be allergic to rice? Even I have started to doubt the fact recently; Am I really allergic to rice? I ask myself, even immediately after jovially stating it in conversation.
But this doubt makes me question why I am even concerned with being allergic to rice in the first place. Why don’t my other allergies, to dog dander or ragweed, prompt the same doubt in the story of who I am? Deep down, I know the real reason why I doubt the fact. It’s not because the allergy has little physical effect on me, or that I conjured up the memory from some other experience; rather, it is the fact I believe that rice is an inherent part of the Asian culture, and my being allergic to rice suggests that I am somehow not Asian.
Simply, this thought reflects how race and culture not only have to do with how individuals conceive of other cultures, identities, and races, but also how each person views themselves in relation to their own culture, identity and race. For me, my allergic deviance to the norm left me with a mix of thoughts and emotions. It made me question not just the definition of what being Asian meant, but more importantly, how I defined and constructed the term, and my own relation to it. All in all, I think it was a worthwhile activity – I saw my own self with the same lens I viewed others.