Lucky we live Hawai’i…
but not why you think.
Each Sunday night, we ask a thought leader to share a perspective in and around AAPI culture. This week, we’re delighted to have Simmone Park share what "belonging" means to her and how being in Hawai'i has finally allowed her to take off her "racism-colored" glasses.
Simmone is a stand up comedian, writer, speaker, and activist by night. By day, she works as a management consultant for a Law Firm and Global Peace Movement. One day soon, she hopes to pursue comedy and the arts full time. She is currently writing her first autobiography and spreading her comedy special, "Once You Go Asian..." across the Hawaiian Islands.
Simmone was a survivor of a violent assault at gunpoint in 2015, where she turned the tables and not only fought off her attacker but robbed him. Fraught with PTSD, she wouldn't stay longer than 3-4 months in any city out of fear for her survival. Until Hawai'i! Simmone has found peace and feels safe in Hawai'i and has undergone immense therapy and healing from her life trauma. Her dream is to open a retreat on the big island of Hawai'i, where she can help North Korean defectors heal from their trauma before entering into the real world.
I write this whilst sitting on a plane hovering somewhere along the vast Pacific Ocean, on an early morning flight from Phoenix to Honolulu. I am sitting next to Nanette, a lovely wahine from Lana’i island. Before takeoff, we spoke pretty openly about trauma, life, love, comedy, the Islands and more. We realize we have a mutual acquaintance. We were 20 minutes into our conversation before it was revealed that I wasn’t from Hawai’i… I was Canadian. She was shocked! “You look like one local girl.”
I feel lucky to live in Hawai’i for obvious reasons. The sun, the sea, the sand… the aloha! I am often brought to tears by the sheer natural beauty that surrounds me. Yet the main reason I love Hawai’i so much is because I fit in. I feel like I belong.
English-speaking Asians are the norm here and since most people are a mix of multiple ethnicities, everyone jokes about EVERY ethnicity and nobody seems to take it personally.
Growing up in Canada, that was not my experience. To me, racism was a part of my everyday existence. I was born in Toronto to a North Korean immigrant father and a South Korean immigrant mother. People think Canadians are so polite…could there really be racism in Canada? But I can attest, for me growing up, racism was real. And it wasn’t even just the micro-aggressions of pulling on their eyes, or saying “lei ho ma”, “konichiwa” or “Ching chang chong”. Blatant racism was commonplace… the most prevalent experience being when three men showed up at my 11th birthday party dressed in full-KKK regalia. They didn’t like that an “Asian” family was taking over a business in their neighborhood. My father, a 5th Degree Black belt in Tae Kwon Do, promptly went outside and beat the crap out of the three men.
Over the course of the next 5+ years, my father made it his mission to win their trust, become their mentor, and succeeded in getting them to abandon their Neo-Nazi viewpoints in favor of Christianity. As if converting Skinheads to Christianity wasn’t the most Korean thing you’ve ever heard. But that was just the way my father was… always wanting to help, lending out money we didn’t have, desperate to make a difference in people’s lives.
I found my high school journal a few years ago and read an entry when I was 16 years old where one of my tormentors apologized to me for being a Skinhead. He would tell me stories of how cool my father was. I guess this goes to prove that racism in Canada is exactly like racism in the United States… except in Canada you get an apology after the hate crime (“sorryyyyyy”).
After my 11th birthday, in lieu of rose colored glasses, mine were colored with the lens of racism. Whenever something I didn’t like would happen, surely it was because they were racist and they didn’t like the yellow color of my skin or my slanted eyes or my breath that exuded a faint stink of kimchi. For a long time, I would remain stuck in the pain and dwell on what hurt me, I suppose because the default to operating from a place of hurt was just easier to bear.
When you experience traumatic encounters involving white supremacy, definitely go to university in Germany. Worst idea ever. In Berlin, I was spit on and had beer thrown at me by Neo-Nazi Skinheads on the U-Bahn. I was dating a blond-haired blue-eyed German named Max, and we would have old men physically run into us while walking down the streets of Kreuzberg, just to break us apart. Oh how I made things difficult for myself… I was a salmon swimming upstream right into the bear's mouth. A little ironic that the Coat of Arms symbol of Berlin is a black bear.
Growing up, I didn’t want to be white. No way, those were the oppressors. No banana or Twinkie here. Nope, if they hated me because I wasn’t white, then I was dying to prove them wrong. Show them I am just as good as them. To some degree, that’s the Asian way. Always something to prove, and often to people who don’t matter.
I consider myself to be extremely fortunate. I have always been afforded the ability to travel extensively, live in other countries, and experience all that the world has to offer. And in every country I’ve traveled to or lived in (a lady never tells her number but I would assume it’s around 50), I always got along with the locals. I would try very hard to make myself relatable enough to connect with, and be accepted by, the locals. Whether that was through the genuine adoration of the food, music, or dance, learning the language and specific slang, or otherwise, I would find a way to connect on a deeper level. But it took an incredible amount of energy and effort.
Hawaii is the first place in the world where I don’t have to do anything and I feel like I belong. In Canada it is “but where are you REALLY from”. I know most of you reading this have been asked that, and probably on more than one occasion. Despite being born in Toronto, I still feel I am not Canadian enough for Canada, whatever that means. In Asia, my inability to articulate and emulate Asian words as well as I can German ones, get me a combination “tsk tsk” and stink eye of disappointment. Nope, I was not Asian enough for Asia. But in Hawaii. Oh, in Hawaii, there are Hawaiians, Tongas, Samoans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Tahitian, New Zealanders, Micronesians, mixed with European and Black, and more. We have everything here and that means that a lot of people kinda look… like me.
I merely have to exist and people think I am local. Actually, it is when I open my mouth and speak that locals get suspicious. I guess I let the cat “oot” the “beg” and my Canadian accent gives me away. This is the first time in my life that people think I am one of them, without having to do a single thing. And strangely, there is no other feeling like it… Acceptance. Belonging. Aloha. Love.
Hawaii is the first place I have felt safe and had the freedom to be my TRUE self in a long time, maybe even my entire life. Asians typically keep their cards close to their chest and do not air their dirty laundry, yet I made the decision to reveal a lot of my personal life and trauma in my first comedy special entitled “Once You Go Asian…”. I air my dirty laundry on stage for anyone to hear!
While some may consider it a risky move to expose yourself in such a small community, I choose to put it all out there. Why? Because when I can joke about my past and the things that hurt me, that means I am finally getting over it. I used to be so scared to reveal myself to the world because I was ashamed and thought people would judge me. In Korea, there is a saying similar to “You are not who you think you are, you are who others say you are”. By putting it all out there, no one can ever hold me hostage by the details of my own existence. I believe that if people can accept me as I am, not as I purport to be, then I am truly free. I now know that if people will judge me because of my past, it is because they are the ones who are unhealed.
I wasted so much of my life trying to prove to white people that I was just as good as them and I refuse to waste another second doing that. I am proud to be Asian and proud of my scars because it has produced one strong human. In my life, I have experienced hate crimes, rape, an assault at gunpoint, attempted molestation when I was a teenager from a boss 50 years my senior, and everything in between. My hope is that my openness will encourage other Asians to let go of their past, take their mental health seriously, and open up about the things that they feel are too shameful or dark to reveal. That is when we can start to heal.
And the best part is, the more you do it, the easier it gets!
Lastly, the onslaught of Asian hate seen on the mainland hasn’t made its way to Hawaii and I doubt it ever will. If ONE elderly Asian, or Kupuna, was pushed to their death, beat up, lit on fire, or any of the other horrid things I hear in the news… there would be hell to pay.
In Hawaii, we stick together.
In Hawaii, we stand up for one another.
In Hawaii, I feel safe for the first time in my life.
And if that ain't luck, I don’t know what is.
You can connect with Simmone at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her journey on Instagram @sparkthepower
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— JD, founder, Crushing The Myth