A sentiment many of my fellow Korean immigrants share is that we didn’t realize we were Asian until we came to America. “Asian” is simply not how you’d think of yourself as a Korean person who’d only lived in Korea. You wouldn’t feel solidarity with a person in Japan, a country that fairly recently colonized your homeland, nor would you think of someone from Thailand, a country whose alphabet, food, and Buddhism are totally different from yours, as “one of us.”
That all changes once you arrive in America. Identifying yourself as “Asian” is one of the first steps to becoming “American.” One day, you realize you are Asian first, Korean second. The Taiwanese aunties at work adopt you as one of their own and invite you to Sunday potlucks. You go to Japanese restaurants to eat food that feels familiar (though many Japanese restaurants in the US are, in fact, owned by Korean Americans). You learn about mooncakes, boba, butter chicken, and phở—and start to form nostalgic associations with these once-foreign food items. And when you become an Asian-American writer, you learn about the importance of the mango as a symbol of the homeland.
The mango, a tropical fruit, is not something I’d have encountered much in Korea, a country whose climate has been compared to that of Chicago. As a Korean person, I didn’t think I had any business writing about the mango at all. But as an Asian-American person, I realized the mango does have symbolic meaning to me as well, albeit not in the way many diasporic poems describe it.
I decided to become yet another diaspora writer who writes about the mango but from my specific perspective. This is why I made the conscious choice to keep in-line explanations as minimal as possible, to write as if most people reading this would have almost the exact same cultural context as me—I wanted to write a piece that is as close to my experience as possible because this is my individual story within the broader diaspora community. There’s enough diversity in Asian America for us to celebrate the differences as well as the commonalities.
MINYOUNG LEE writes fiction and essays in Oakland, California. Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, North American Review, and Passages North, among others, and has been anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021. Minyoung is an alum of Tin House Summer Workshop, American Short Fiction Workshop, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her prose chapbook, Claim Your Space, was published by Fear No Lit Press in March 2020. Find Minyoung on Twitter @minyoungleeis.