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An Ongoing Reflection on COVID-19 from Six Feet Away

By: Christina Lee

Our world during the coronavirus pandemic is on hold, yet constantly moving.

As for me, I’ve found it difficult to harmonize my position as someone who stays home (or where I’ve been for the past two months, honestly) while I know that out there, the whole world partakes in a global fight against unprecedented circumstances. I don’t know how to reconcile the stressful but quiet stagnation of my social, academic, and work life with the dynamic bustle of the larger world as they cope with new government regulations, social issues rising to the forefront, and the glaringly global nature of the current pandemic.

As someone who is privileged enough to work and study from the comfort of my home, what I am about to express might not feel justified. I almost feel guilty for having the leisure to reflect, to point out my observations when I know that there are others occupied with holding onto life, risking their health and safety everyday. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that reflection might be one of the more productive things I can do as of now, to recognize lessons beyond not panic-buying toilet paper, disinfecting surfaces, and social distancing.

These lessons relate to the numerous social issues that appear unrelated to the virus at first glance but are actually relevant and quite predictable consequences to the coronavirus’s impact on our world. Only now under the guise of the effects of an unexpectedly rampant virus are we starting to shed light on some of the more headline-worthy issues—from increased numbers of daily domestic violence calls to hotlines in Colombia ever since their lockdown to one-dimensional regulations in Panama that failed to accommodate the identities of their transgender population, as well as government orders in Malaysia suggesting that housewives wear makeup and try not to nag their husbands.

The most striking aspect to these headlines are that they are all part of the process of disillusionment; we only let these social issues come to our attention now because firstly, they may give us a new way of looking at the coronavirus, but most importantly, we oftentimes fail to realize that these events actually originated from existing, systemic problems present all over the world. These problems are ingrained in our culture, yet we fail to acknowledge them until a worldwide crisis pushes our limits and the next journalist needs a headline that people will read.

We can’t find temporary interest in issues like these only because they are timely, and we certainly shouldn’t forget about these issues once the pandemic subsides. If anything, the resurgence of these topics is a sign that tells us what values and mistakes society has built up so far, and these are now exacerbated by the virus. Domestic violence, discrimination, or inequality isn’t something that just happens within a day; these are all results of systemic, habitual, and ongoing sociocultural shortcomings that always need consideration, regardless of whether we are in a pandemic or not.

Hopefully, there will come a time where we will be able to view the coronavirus in the same emotionally distanced state as we view the diseases of our past, but we cannot let the lessons we are constantly unearthing and bringing to the forefront become as ephemeral as the virus.

Yes, the pandemic is ongoing, and there are no solid conclusions to be made just yet. But we can only hope that we come out of this more enlightened, aware, and cognizant of the world we have created—and we must carry that with us into the future.

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Dear Andrew Yang: I Voted. Why Are People Still Racist?

By: Christina Lee

This year marked an exciting milestone for me: it was the first year that I was able to vote! Imagine my excitement upon finally exercising my right as an American citizen in a democratic process that I know I must not take for granted. So, I voted, and it was great. But why did I still feel uneasy about walking around in public several weeks afterward, right before the enforcement of California’s shelter-in-place order?

My uneasiness felt eerily familiar, like that first day of kindergarten when I looked around the classroom and noticed that no one else looked like me. Or that unforgettably awkward time in middle school when my teacher confused me for the only other Asian girl in the class.

Sure, these are not blatant experiences of extreme racism, but they’re the foundational roots of little things that give rise to larger issues. The ignorance, the discomfort, the establishment of “otherness” and foreignness.

So when former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote in his controversial op-ed for The Washington Post that he “felt self-conscious—even a bit ashamed—of being Asian” after receiving looks of distaste in public since the coronavirus outbreak, I felt that. We all did.

In fact, we were all on board when he spoke candidly about the country’s state of insecurity and fear following the pandemic. It’s not surprising that, in the words of Yang, “people are looking for someone to blame.” It’s human nature. It was bound to happen.

And then, things start to go downhill from there.

Yang writes in an almost humorously unnecessary and flippant manner: I obviously think that being racist is not a good thing. (Thank you for your insight, Yang!) Still, here’s the best part: But saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” won’t work.

I’m afraid that even Yang himself doesn’t realize what he is implying.

If we start to adopt an attitude of believing that “not being racist can’t stop racism,” it is only symbolic of our giving up. If we truly begin to submit to the meek way of thinking that we must find other ways around combatting racism besides speaking up against it, it simply distracts us from our main goal and the glaring issue: saying “Don’t be racist toward Asians” should, in fact, work.

Yang tells me, my family, my friends, and the rest of the Asians in America to start showing some love for Uncle Sam to battle racism. “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” he writes. “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red-white-and-blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.”

Maybe the Asian Americans making headlines for becoming victims of coronavirus-related hate crimes—being stabbed, being spat on, being cursed out—should have been wearing red, white, and blue. They should have known better!

Let’s be honest: if my wardrobe was the key to solving racism, I would have changed it years ago. Yang thinks sporting patriotic colors is the solution, so how will he explain the fact that people will inevitably notice my gold skin, monolid eyes, and dark hair?

Yang then suggests in an example of “patriotism” and poor taste that Japanese Americans during World War II “volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans,” dismissing the hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans who couldn’t do so because they were busy being held in internment camps under a xenophobic government that justified their racism out of “military necessity.” In other words, they were trying to protect the other Americans from an “enemy,” the enemy being Japanese Americans. Or like today, the “enemy” is us.

In essence, Yang argues that we must forgo our Asian heritage because it is something shameful, dangerous, and suggesting of malintent in times of crises. He claims that we must try to blend in, that we must try to prove something that doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be proven, that we, Asian Americans, are the problem.

With a current president referring to the pandemic as the “Chinese virus,” our social and political atmosphere scares me. I’m afraid that we are not progressing as a society, that we are embodying the echoes of a scarred past, that Asian Americans and fellow minorities are giving in. I’m scared because the first Asian American political figure I’ve ever seen doesn’t quite understand the problem. Or perhaps he’s doing just that—giving in.

Let’s not let our fear make judgments for us. Let’s not give up our identity and roots to make others feel more comfortable with their ignorance. Let’s not allow ourselves to think that we are the problem, that we must accommodate. Fear is a powerful thing, but what’s even more powerful is that we can control it.

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The Ones Beside Me: Reasons Why I Write

By: Christina Lee

I don’t remember how I had recalled this particular moment—or if I had been able to correctly remember it at all—but upon hearing my dad relay a remnant of it, true or not, I couldn’t help feeling guilty, struck by unwarranted emotion as I heard him say to my aunt one day in Korean: “My daughter says that she doesn’t really know who her mom is.”

This was not a case of mistaken identity, possible infidelity, or a period of separation between mother and child. In fact, I’m not really sure what it was. To this day, I just hope that it was a translation error, that I might have said something along those lines in English nonchalantly one day and that my dad picked up on it of all things for whatever reason. I’d like to tell myself that I’m not really sure what it was, but actually, it might have been the numerous times my mother stood in stony silence at the stove, by the stairwell, atop her bed, never saying a word but her furrowed brow saying it all. The day would pass, and she would wake me up for breakfast like nothing happened.

I even asked her to take a Myers-Briggs test. “These questions are awful,” she said, staring at the long list of descriptions in that sans-serif font while I tried to translate the words aloud in Korean to the best of my ability. Claiming that she couldn’t understand half the questions—thus leading to her marking the “neutral” answers for too many questions—my mom looked at the results as confusedly as I did. I was unsatisfied. She shrugged and left.

The next year, I asked her to take it again. This time, in Korean.

Why I had so persistently pursued my mother for her to take this arbitrary test of ambiguous answers, I have no idea. Or maybe it was that moment, that instant plunging feeling of dissatisfaction when I realized that I really didn’t know who my mother was, hence my insistence on her to take a popular personality test so that I could finally discover the smallest piece of who she might be.

My mom, years of her residing in an unfamiliar country because of her husband’s family. Because of this, because of that. A phrase my mom always told me not to use because it implied blame, contempt toward another. And yet, that was her whole life—a life of heteronomy, of wills imposed by another, experiences she could justifiably attribute to the words: “It was because of that.” But she couldn’t say those words out loud. She kept them nestled inside her. At times it would poke and stab at her insides, but she wouldn’t let me know of her pain.

“My kids say that they don’t really know who their mom is.”

How am I supposed to know her when even a simple Myers-Briggs test can’t tell me? I only know her in shades of pain—of lost youth, of external demands, of expectations from people she cannot win against. When I told her that I wanted to study English, I couldn’t have made her pain any worse. I didn’t know how to explain to her that I felt no satisfaction scrolling through the list of majors for each college until I reached “English.” I didn’t know how to explain to her that I like to write.

At the dinner table, the biochemistry major, computer science major, and mathematics major stare at me. The biology major and agricultural science major, too. “So, what are you going to do with an English degree?”

Ever since establishing my future major with my family, my father never ceased to drop hints every once in a while: “You never know—you might end up liking computer science,” or “Did you know a statistics major is easily employable?” or “What would be your second choice in major?”

After I answered something along the lines of “music,” he gave up and finally changed the subject.

Yet, the disappointment didn’t stop; he continuously held onto the hope that maybe his youngest daughter would change her mind, suddenly realize that no one has use for her English degree in this world, that surely if she was actually concerned about her future, she would throw her books to the floor and pick up a calculator. He then began to ask me, “What do you think of law school?”

And so, I throw a question back to him: How can I be expected to pursue something as monolithic as law when I still need ways to get over the littlest things that have happened in my life? My mom’s Myers-Briggs test results, the day I cried by myself after my dad suggested I consider changing majors, the idea that my parents may not perceive the justification of their marriage mutually. 

I don’t know how I can be expected to pursue anything other than English when I see my mom on her worst days, knowing that no one would ever suspect that she is actually experiencing one of her bad days, when I know that she keeps much to herself, when I finally see what’s “going on” now that I’m older and more perceptive and more aware of the battles she faces. I don’t know how I can be silent when someone closest to me desperately needs a word or two to let her know that she is not alone in feeling the way she does, that what she experiences is not in solitude.

The next time my dad asks, “How about you consider law school?” I will probably not cry alone at night like I did the first time after struggling to remain impartial in front of my dad as if I were really considering enduring additional years of schooling to study something that does not even spark an inkling of interest within me. Rather, I would maintain that same semblance of thoughtful silence, but inside, I would be fully understanding that if I devote my English studies to something that actually inspires me, I will be able to constantly and consistently find the courage to write essays like this, to tell stories about my culture, its expectations, and those closest to me directly affected by such wills ingrained in tradition, knowing that in that moment I have not left anything unsaid or inadequately expressed until the next time I pick up a pen.

There is no future lawyer within me as far as this pen or Word document in front of me can tell. Instead, there are unresolved bits and pieces of inner conflicts, burning questions, fermenting sentiments that call to me for an attempt at expression. In short, I am only ready to cater to the things that strike me as urgent, things that poke at me for attention. I can’t dive into the demands of others, of others’ problems, secrets, and desires that I cannot even begin to imagine. I cannot trust myself to take that on at this moment. I’m being honest. I must take care of the ones beside me first.

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When is the Right Time?

By: Christina Lee

Kobe Bryant—dead in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Later we would find out that the legendary basketball star’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna had also passed away in the crash alongside seven others.

Headlines cropped up relaying the news of the tragic death of the 41-year-old sports legend. Known for his 20-season professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers and as the recipient of numerous awards, Bryant’s sudden death resounded with basketball fans across the nation and all over the world.

However, the athlete’s death was not the only keyword blaring across the headlines. Reporters, victims of sexual assault, and critics of the late athlete were now posthumously bringing up Bryant’s rape allegation from July 2003.

That year, a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado hotel claimed that Bryant, who was 24 at the time, had raped her in a hotel room, bruises on her neck a testimony to Bryant’s strangling of the woman. She then filed a police report but later refused to testify. The case was dropped, but the damage was done. Bryant admitted to having sexual intercourse with the woman yet insisted that the ordeal was consensual.

Bryant then released a statement: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

Bryant was arrested on July 4, 2003.

Now in an era of internet cancel culture and easily viral boycott sentiments, outspoken victims of sexual assault as well as reporters from major news publications were quick to point out this case from 17 years ago, criticizing the flawed history of this highly praised basketball legend. Their efforts did not go undetected.

Upon tweeting about Bryant’s rape accusation just hours after his death, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was put on administrative leave, the news publication deeming her tweets to display “poor judgment” surrounding the issue. Sonmez had to stay in a hotel overnight as a result of a leak of her home address and unrelenting rape and death threats.

This concept of constant threatening, attempting to maliciously silence the outspoken seems to be a recurring pattern for those invested or involved in this issue. Bryant’s accuser was also as dangerously threatened—a man offered to kill her for $3 million, another left death threats on the woman’s answering machine, a Long Beach man sending her up to 70.

The number of awards, the countless seasons one has played, the amount of times one has claimed that the sex was consensual do not overwrite the consequences that another individual must face for the rest of their life, all because one man could not control himself at a Colorado hotel. For Bryant, that day in July may have been a moment he wanted to erase from history after the exposure of his act to the public, but to the victim, that day most likely remains as one of the most traumatic experiences of her lifetime—how can someone of such high social standing understand what it is like to continue living under the label of a traumatizing sexual-assault case in a modern-day, witch-hunting society?

Perhaps we haven’t given enough thought to the repercussions of the victim speaking out—death threats, harassment, an invasion of privacy. And for Bryant? A $136-million contract and endorsements for some of the largest corporations in America. The difference is too clear to deny that this rape allegation can only remain as a trivial speck in an athlete’s career.

For fans, Bryant’s character as it is re-exposed and re-interpreted by the public can create conflicting sentiments—one man’s sexual misconduct from years ago could tarnish and complicate his whole career, creating tumult even after his death, even 17 years after its occurrence. But maybe that’s the price to pay for fame. Maybe that’s the price to pay for the social elites who abuse their power.

It’s impossible to doubt that fans, critics, reporters will continue to bring up his past; we will continue to have discussion surrounding the privileges of powerful figures in popular culture, and we will continue to reiterate that one’s status is not an excuse for poor behavior. We will continue to discuss these issues to establish that we cannot habituate the silencing of victims, nor can we encourage the erasure of the ugly truth to serve the already-powerful.

The victim was threatened for accusing the successful basketball star during his career; Sonmez was put on leave for bringing up the topic after his death. If now is not the right time to talk about rape, when is it?

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How the K-Pop Industry Creates a Modern-Day Witch Hunt

By: Christina Lee

I hadn’t planned on writing about any specific controversy with wholehearted deliberation, but as I write, it is November 2019, and the Korean pop industry has seen two suicides within six weeks of each other.

In fact, I wasn’t planning on writing another piece about the shortcomings of South Korean culture in comparison to those of other developed countries. Instead, I had simply hoped to demystify through a feminist lens the faux glamor of the Korean pop industry from the perspective of someone who has found interest in this music scene before its rapid ascent to mainstream attention. 

Now, it is almost obligatory for me to discuss the recent deaths of K-Pop idols Goo Hara and Sulli, each former members of some of the most popular girl groups in South Korea. The two had been close friends, a relationship evident as especially poignant when Hara, crying, communicated with fans over Instagram Live on Oct. 15, 2019, the day after Sulli’s death. “I’ll live diligently in your stead,” Hara said in her tearful message to her late friend.

Perhaps Hara understood the pain that Sulli had felt—both had risen to popularity in the late 2000s and early 2010s for their eye-catchingly good looks (as profound an accomplishment any idol can achieve in the superficial industry), faced criticism for their personal and artistic choices (as grown adults), and suffered from the malicious effects of online hate comments often targeted at these choices (e.g. Hara’s plastic surgery, Sulli’s “no-bra” look). In short: both were victims of a modern-day witch hunt based in South Korea.

Perhaps the warning signs of Hara’s threatened well-being should have been sufficiently clear that day of September 2018 when Hara walked into the public eye covered in bruises after claims of assault, her then-boyfriend Choi Jongbum having threatened to ruin her career as a celebrity and inflicting damage to her uterus, vagina, and cervix, according to Hara’s gynecologist.

Then, a month later in October, Hara made headlines after news broke out that Choi had blackmailed Hara with their sex tape.

Hara—famous K-Pop idol, friend of Sulli, victim of revenge porn. Choi—attacker of Hara’s celebrity status with the idea of ruining her fragile “perfect idol” image in mind, a classic example of someone who exploits a woman’s sexuality, especially when the glorification of sexuality has built that woman’s career.

It would be a lie to say that I was surprised when Hara, after suffering years of reading hate comments, burning under the unforgivingly scrutinizing pop-industry spotlight, was reported to have been admitted to the hospital for an attempted suicide on May 26, 2019.

After the initial expressions of “shock” had made their rounds on social media and in the headlines, it seemed as if Hara’s Instagram post from three weeks after the incident that read, “Thank you, and I’m sorry. I’ll overcome this and show everyone a better version of myself,” was enough to reassure everyone that she was fine. Media outlets and fans conditioned by the fast-paced, fleeting nature of the pop music industry soon forgot about Hara’s incident and moved on to the next “scandal,” the next source of gossip. Hara spent that summer promoting in Japan.

Nov. 24, 2019—Hara was found dead in her home. If we connect the dots, none of this—Hara’s struggles, her depression, her death—should have come as a surprise. But perhaps it did because Hara did look happy in her Instagram photos, right? She was smiling and making new music and keeping herself busy. How did this happen?

I can’t help but think about the suicide before Hara’s, how South Korea experienced the almost identical death of Sulli. One would think that Sulli, as one of South Korea’s most well-known, recognizable, relevant, and controversial celebrities, upon her death would have incited a wake-up call for the country, a call for better awareness of mental health, for effective action against cyber-bullying and hate comments, for justice for exploited women in the industry.

I imagine that Sulli at one point had asked herself, “Why me?” I imagine that a reasonable answer to that question would have been, “Because South Korea’s inability to reconcile their traditionalist values with the fast-paced, progressive side of pop culture results in their failure to appropriately address social issues that target the young females of their entertainment industry.”

Instead, South Korea’s answer came in the form of a talk-show-meets-variety-program on one of the country’s biggest cable TV networks.

Called “The Night of Hate Comments”—which unsubtly drew conceptual inspiration from Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets”—the show, which featured Sulli as a host and feature guest for the first episode, was not unlike any other gossipy talk show in South Korea, each episode designed to make domestic headlines about what this celebrity said and what this celebrity did that one day.

Viewers watch Sulli as she stands in front of the camera, holding a pink cue card in front of her and reading aloud the hate comments directed toward her. She stares at the words in front of her for a little too long—the edited-in piano music fills the awkward gaps—and gives a hesitant response, laughing it off at the end in her high-pitched titter. The same light-haired Sulli who committed suicide just a month before her best friend. Sulli trapped on that studio set, the hosts and various guests continuously asking her why she doesn’t wear a bra, why she posts the things she does on Instagram, why she dresses like that, why her eyes look like that, why she is the way she is.

I want to emphasize that the K-Pop industry is just as visual as it is music-oriented. The perfectly sculpted idols, their mysterious media presences, their fans capturing their every move on video—it is impossible to become successful, especially as a female celebrity, without making a loud visual statement. So they take it to social media.

Here, the problem arises. The female idols establish their presence on a platform like Instagram, post their “Like”-garnering selfies, and watch as the number of comments increase in relation to their rising popularity. Thus, the risk of “misspeaking” (which often, in essence, amounts to “having an opinion”) increases, and her next social media post initiates the witch hunt.

While “The Night of Hate Comments” claims to be a show that encourages “consideration of proper commenting and cyberculture,” never does it seem to address the elephant in the room, that the real dangers of toxic online culture adds (and will see that it does indeed from the death of their own host) to South Korea’s already high suicide rates, that the country is known for similarly exploitative and abusive tendencies like the illegal-filming or “molka” epidemic—which is in the same vein as the revenge porn that damaged Hara’s life, that people on the internet commonly target women in the K-Pop industry because the nature of their work suggests that their sexuality and public image are profitable, the very things that are vulnerable to harassment.

In other words, scripted late-night variety shows are not a substitution for mental health support and justice for the exploited.

My writing is not a cry to boycott the industry of K-Pop. It is rather a tired plea for South Korea to recognize that their activism and attitude toward mental health and toxic cyberculture are not enough. It will be a difficult transition to reconcile the country’s Confucian roots of forgoing the individual and their mental health in favor of maintaining a collectivist mindset with the more progressive and heavily Westernized K-Pop industry as an important export. In short, South Korea stands in limbo between the demands of a Westernized world and their own traditional roots. Now, it is time that the country supports their progressive industry with an attitude toward mental health and justice that is just as progressive.