Saturday, January 26, 2008

Living without chopsticks

There was a slight pause from conversation at the Japanese steakhouse as I politely asked the waitress who was walking towards the kitchen "Could I get a fork please?"

As I looked up after taking in my first bite of fried rice, I saw several sets of eyes upon me. Undeterred and comfortable of the use of my eating utensil, I reached for a swig of my Budweiser and washed down the remaining food in my mouth. Only after looking the table once over did I realize that my friends were all using chopsticks and drinking sake.

It was the sort of awkwardness you feel when people around you notice some stray food that happens to be stuck in your teeth but are weary of publicly embarrassing you. Realizing the position that I was putting my friends around me in, I stood up and sarcastically stated, "I know I'm breaking stereotypes here." Everyone around the table laughed, even the couple that was not in our group. I had escaped an uneasy situation with a joke once more by taking the first jab at myself before anyone else spoke up. Crisis averted.

Growing up in an all white suburban town was never difficult for me. I had always felt at home with the company that I surrounded myself with. Ask any of my friends from my hometown and almost all of them will tell you that I was their first and perhaps only Asian friend.

But is that truly who I am? I never have thought of myself as the "token," or a symbolic representation of asians manifested into a microcosm of society. I was raised by white parents, had all white friends and lived in an all white community. I didn't speak Korean, I had never been to Korea, I never ate Korean food and thus never learned to use chopsticks. In fact, the only thing that ever distinguished me as Korean were my physical characteristics. Even my name was white.

Most of my life was spent separating myself from that culture which I was oblivous to. When I was adopted my father made sure that part of my Korean name was left before I made my citizenship official. In fact, his remarks in my high school yearbook as a senior were "never be too proud and forget who you are or where you came from." Nevertheless, I never told many people what that middle name was and for a while I too would sometimes forget it ever existed.

I used to carry my ethnicity as a chip on my shoulder. Being different was too risky for me as I didn't want to set myself too far apart. When my friends would mistakingly use words that they had overheard on tv or from their parents like "gook or chink," I never called them out on in. Instead, I pretended much like them that what had transpired never really happened at all. I carried that so-called chip with me through college as I would walk by the mostly Asian tables in the cafeteria or ignored the exchange students while passing by. It was my intent to let all of them know that I was "not" one of them.

I'd like to think that my choice to enter the Air Force was based entirely on patriotism. However, the more I truly think about my past, the more I know deep down somewhere in my subconscious an effort to prove to the world that I was just as American as everybody else also played heavily in my decision making.

I wish I could have a caveat after my nametag on my uniform that reads (*adopted). I can see the curiosity in people's faces as I introduce myself. They look at me, then my nametag, back at me and so forth. Usually after the 4th or 5th nod I'll finally step in and tell them my concise backstory that I have told countless times. To their credit, few people ever just assume anything. I've even lied a few times and told people I was part Irish. The majority of the time I get the "oh yea, I can definitely see that reply," to which I say to myself "you liar."

So playing to people's naivety might not be entirely fair. In truth I'd rather just leave people scratching their heads in curiosity as they try to put 2+2+2 together. It saves me from having to explain anything.

Yesterday I went to a Japanese restaurant with my girlfriend. Ordinarily I ask for the fork but this time I instead reached for two chopsticks and dove in. I'm coordinated enough to use chopsticks and to be honest my reasoning for not using them before had never been for lack of talent. (Hell, I can dribble 4 basketballs simultaneously...and do it well, chopsticks are the equivalent of dribbling one). My choice to ignore the chopsticks and go with the fork had always been because chopsticks represented a culture I was not familiar with. Forks meant America to me, forks are what my friends from back home used and forks were what I was going to use. This time was different though. I was surrounded by complete strangers who probably assumed I had been using chopsticks for my entire life and my girlfriend who had seen me do much more embarassing things.

So was my stray from flatware this time a tacit acceptance of my culture or out of amusement? To be fair, probably a little bit of both. I guess like most people I've spent entirely too much of my life wondering what other people thought of me and have never accepted my background for what it truly is...diverse, unique and amazing. To that end, don't expect me to preface my nationality with a hyphen. No, I think Theodore Roosevelt would be turning in his grave. Instead, understand that I will never be "fully Asian, or Irish." I consider myself first and foremost an American; period. However, this does not mean that I can't have an appreciation for other cultures or my ethnicity. In conclusion, I suppose the best lesson that I could learn from all of this is that sometimes it's important for all of us to get out of our comfort zones and for lack of a good explanation, just try something different.

Perhaps I have over analyzed the fork/chopstick use but probably no more so than my 5 friends that witnessed me pick up the fork on that memorable night. As I looked around, I saw 5 white men who were very comfortable with who they were and what they were eating with. They used a utensil not to fit in or because of the company they were in, but because sometimes its simply "ok" to use chopsticks. Today more than ever, I am beginning to make strides to accept my ethnicity instead of shying away from it. Maybe living in the middle of the Pacific makes it easier for me. Now when I have the choice to use a fork or a chopstick, I go with the latter to make up for lost time. But if I'm really hungry I just find it more practical to use my fork :)

Joshua Joseph 'Do In' Carroll


Anonymous said...

heh I was there the second time you tried to use chopsticks... I remember this story. Good thoughts here though, Josh... I don't think I've ever really thought about what it must be like to grow up completely immersed in a culture other than that of your heritage... Definitely a good reminder that the cover of a book doesn't mean anything.


Janet said...

I'm so proud that you are coming into the man you are destined to be. Good on ya. And the statement about you not being witty is totally false. :)

Janet said...

One more thing, is your profile picture one of those pictures from your modeling portfolio? Just curious...

Alex said...


Good story. I've been meaning to ask you about the Air Force. I've always thought about having a career in the military, and now that I finished my masters degree, I might pursue one in the AF or Navy. I'll be in touch!


Birtz said...

You're my main squeeze!!!! I've always told you that you should write a book or something. I've actually though of writing a book about my dull and boring life and having you proof it like every other thing that I write and having it say written by carroll and birtz or something corny like that. I agree you have struggled with caring about what people think about you, and I'm very happy to see you come out of your shell because you have a lot to offer in this world. I've told you many of times that you're the smartest person I know and that nobody can take you and me on a one on one game. haha. maybe. Don't worry about the stereotypes and keep being the person you are and the person your parents brought you up to be. And be proud to be that person because that's why you're my best friend man. Kate and I love you for you. Sorry for the sappy note, but you're my boy and you know I'm always here for you!!!! Tell Charity Hello!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Josh,
I can totally identify with a lot of what you said. I honestly had forgotten that you had told me you were adopted, and found it so refreshing to read what you had to say. I grew up similarly to you, white family, white town, and then had the non-white population of Merrimack trying to figure out why I didnt talk "black!"
This year I have been working at an adoption agency, and went back to Egypt for the 2nd time to visit, and just when you think you arent totally "American," you also realize that you arent totally the ethncity you were born with either. Its a struggle, and I agree, sometimes I wish I had a label that just said I was adopted so I wouldnt be stereotyped to live up to the ethnicity I am perceived (which varies from black, to hispanic, to middle eastern, depending on where I am in the world).
I guess what I really wanted to say, was thank you for writing this. It made me feel less alone in my continuing identity struggle!
All the best to you! :)