2) Metamorphoses to Love
By Nancy Ko
That morning in November after I received the Rhodes Scholarship, a fellow winner messaged me privately: “You deserve more hoopla on Facebook. My people are going crazy.”
I burst out in hysterical tears. To my own bewilderment, I did not stop crying for the week I spent at home. In the months that followed, I found myself nudged into an abyss with the hesitant alarm of someone who does not quite know how or why she got there but feels, in a creeping sort of way, that there is no easy getting out. “What’s happened to me?” he thought. It wasn’t a dream.” And like Gregor Samsa I found myself pacing the inside of my mind in search of What’s happened to me?
Months later—February—I attended a conversation at Harvard Bookstore between Min Jin Lee, the Korean-American novelist, and Jeannie Suk, the Korean-American professor of law. After the conversation, audience members lined up as Min signed copies of her latest novel.
She wrote in my copy: We are sisters.
That night, I went home and cried. But differently: when it was over, for the first time, I began to feel un-trapped.
When I was twelve or thirteen my closest confidante was a Chinese-American girl—I’ll call her Nicole. Even the short passage of time has rendered our friendship a series of fleeting moments, outlines, feelings. Memory is like that. But I remember that her family was from Hong Kong, that she also lived in south Brooklyn. I remember that we both loved French class, 80s music, the TV show How I Met Your Mother. We were extremely witty together, I think. I was always making grand statements and she, moderating them; Nicole was better at keeping a cool head than I.
So we shared a lot. This, in the beginning, formed the foundation of our closeness. But later it seemed to cause problems. I ended a relationship with one boy only to watch him attach himself to Nicole afterward; I ended a relationship with another only to watch him do the same. I was on vigilant notice when Nicole wore boots the day after I had worn boots, when Nicole said something that resembled something I had said the day or the week before.
I had felt in her a sister. But then — I can’t pinpoint exactly when — I began to retreat from her, sometimes even recoiling as if from the grotesque. I began to think — quietly, anxiously, to myself — that Nicole was imitating me as a way of overcoming me, and that this was threatening, that this was bad.
What was it about Nicole’s mimicry — or my anticipation of it — that was so threatening to me?
There was one time, in the slow twilight of our friendship, when things spilled out and over, into the open. At that point, we had begun high school and would take the train together every morning with our friend David into lower Manhattan. David and I lived near the same train station in Bensonhurst; we would meet there at 6:25, wait for the D train, and board it until the Atlantic Avenue station. There, we would join Nicole—who, ideally, would have just gotten off the N train—and the three of us would take the 2 or 3 together, bleary-eyed, from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to Chambers Street in Manhattan, arriving at school with half an hour to spare before class began at eight.
One morning David was late. Our usual train came and went. I paced the cold, stiff platform: 6:26, 6:27, 6:28. Another train’s doors opened and closed. 6:34. I gave up, boarding the next train at 6:40. As the D pulled into Atlantic Avenue, I anticipated Nicole’s waiting face, asking what had taken so long, asking where David was. But at the platform, she wasn’t there either. I waited. My anxiety began to curdle into annoyance. I arrived at Chambers Street, walked to school, and waited more, shivering, in front.
David and Nicole arrived, together, minutes before class was to begin. They were giggling, and without me, and Nicole was wearing a new pair of boots that I had coveted for a long time. When I came into their field of vision they greeted me as if nothing unusual had happened.
“What happened? I was waiting.”
“We were just late.”
“Late at the same time?”
I felt acutely disturbed. I began to feel that I was no longer necessary.
* * *
I first came across the 1992 film Single White Female in Sianne Ngai’s critical work Ugly Feelings, which points to the film as a biography of envy. I hesitated to think about my friendship with Nicole in relation to Single White Female precisely because the film was so recognizable, because it magnified and exaggerated the kind of uneasy feelings that, nevertheless, exist, rumbling underneath or hovering over like a shadow, quiet—until they’re not.
Single White Female focuses on the relationship between Allison Jones, a woman who sends out an ad for a new roommate, and Hedra Carlson, the woman whom she chooses. While at first supportive, the friendship between Allie and Hedy becomes sour when Hedy begins imitating and even impersonating Allie. By the end of the film Allie, perceiving Hedy’s mimicry as a threat, stabs her in the back with a knife only to be horrified at Hedy’s resultant death. In the final shot, Allie and Hedy’s faces combine into a single photo.
I found myself drawn to the affective relations present in Single White Female. If, as Ngai argues, Hedy’s mimicry is an act of self-assertion—she, too, could do what Allie could do—what is it about such self-assertion that is so threatening to Allie?
Hedy manages to mimic Allie to a tee; Allie is unnerved. The unease felt surely cannot be only Allie’s, but also our own. For if anyone can be (mistaken for) you, then who is you anymore?
The anxiety of being mistaken for another. The anxiety of doubles. This, I think, is what lay beneath the slow twilight of my friendship with Nicole. I don’t remember living any period of my life without the awareness that to be an Asian woman in America means to work within this anxiety. At one time, there was nothing that inspired in me more distinct indignation than to hear that “all Asians look the same.”
If, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage all the time,” then to be Asian in this country and not different all the time is to be taken as relatively unconscious—that is, invisible. To be seen as being has meant to be seen as being different.
The escalation of Single White Female to violence and murder is an exaggerated gesture towards the suicidal consequence of the pressures faced by women (let alone Asian women) to be seen as being. Not enough has changed since the late critic John Berger observed in his iconic television series Ways of Seeing:
A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others [...] is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.[ii]
What is the way out of such a hermeneutics of comparison? One remedy, of course, is to abandon the preconditions of comparison altogether. I think we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as discrete individuals whose thoughts and feelings are all our own; thus we can be compared. Yet as the irreverent scholar Teresa Brennan noted, the distinction between individuals, and between the individual and the environment, is ultimately a constructed one. We can be stickily intertwined with one another, one’s mood influencing the other’s and the other’s mood influencing the one. Every deep and loving relationship I have had with another person has somehow disturbed the separation between inside and outside, self and other. This is, on the one hand, terrifying. On the other, it has made me feel like I am truly living within life.
Conversely, to deny the stickiness, to reinforce the separation, to sustain the illusion of self-containment means to deprive others of such parity. I recognize in my desire to demand recognition as “different” from Nicole not only the internalization of the precondition that a same exists, but also an acceptance of the corollary: that this same is somehow “less than.” To fixate on difference is to have contempt for what isn’t different. It is to have contempt for what is, inevitably, a part of oneself.
* * *
Yet I fear that to end reflection here is to place the full normative burden of abandoning self-containment on exactly those for whom self-containment was never truly achieved in the first place.
Around the same time as my retreat from Nicole, I began to feel that I cared very much what others were thinking of me. To be clear, I didn’t care so much whether people liked what they thought of me. Rather, I cared a great deal as to whether their impression of me, of “Nancy,” was a truthful one. I began to feel that identity was a defensive pursuit, an act of self-preservation. When catcallers on the street commented on their “China doll” I sharply corrected them that, in fact, I was Korean.
If I felt like Allie with relation to Nicole, the encounter with my colleague on that strange November morning made me feel like a rejected Hedy. Hedy’s mimicry was, in Ngai’s interpretation, an act of self-assertion. But in that moment, I felt deprived of self-assertion, of a deep desire to be recognized as enough. I wanted to sharply correct him: “I actually don’t care about how much hoopla I get.” Instead, I explained, “I’ve been getting a lot of emails, my people don’t use Facebook haha.” I was stunned into prostration.
The concept of race, to Ngai, “names the struggle in which it is most taken for granted that no degree of acquiring what the envied other has […] will ever culminate in the other and one becoming indistinguishable.”[iii] My colleague’s words (re)enforced a hierarchical separation between us precisely when I had hoped for the opposite. As Brennan herself notes, one needs a sense of self “in order to act upon the world.”[iv] But self-assertion is lost without recognition. One cannot simply abandon the need to be seen as being, for to be seen as being is a key part of being.
I think I am not alone when I say that for much of my life, I have felt caught between: between the denial of individuality from without and the need for a self from within, and between the fear of being grouped by others and the need of a group for oneself. If Gregor was changed once into a beetle then we find ourselves constantly shifting—in small ways, as if in a seat—in order to be seen as being, and in order to be.
What was it about that February night at Harvard Bookstore that began to un-trap me? That there was room for both Min and Jeannie—as Min and as Jeannie—that night. That, along with it all, We are sisters. That love was there.
Nancy Ko is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
[i] As quoted in Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 131.
[ii] John Berger, Ways of Seeing: Part Two (London: BBC, 15 January 1972).
[iii] Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 173.
[iv] Teresa Brennan, The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity (London: Routledge, 1992), 239.