Transkoreaning is an interactive performance art and social intervention that uses the South Korean language and South Korean culture as mediums to critically explore so-called authentic Korean identity and the construction of self through the lens of the Korean diaspora, drawing on feminist, gender, queer theory and German philosophy.
It is a durational piece and employs the internet (blogging, vlogging and social media), and direct interaction with the South Korean society to rethink and reshape notions of cultural identity, while questioning modern (and digitised) South Korean identity cliches and stereotypes, further constructed and perpetuated by the popularity and dissemination of Hallyu (film, drama, and music), beauty practices and medical tourism. Thru a period of three months I will endeavour to become an authentic Korean person by “transitioning,” in other words, going through a process of changing my cultural presentation to accord with my outside sense of my ethnicity – the idea of what it means to be an ethnic and cultural Korean woman. Further, gender and race perceptions intersect to form a conventional image of an Asian/Korean woman, which I examine diligently from a transnational feminist approach. This work will be performed from early December to early March for 3 months.
This work explicitly engages many of the political themes and performative explorations that The German Speaking Project (2008) dealt with: transnational identity, integration, and the self as Other. In this new work, I am interested in complicating the subject matter as I incorporate words invented and used by “Other” communities (transgender, queer, and ball culture): drag, passing, trans-, transitioning, realness, and coming out, etc., to draw on trans- experiences in my real life internal conflicts overcoming a kind of “ethnic dysphoria.” My deliberate appropriation of these words are done with respect. Nonetheless, I am very aware of the ongoing co-option of the transgender community and thus, I seek to make clear my intentions are not to conflate or profit financially from such experiences. I find queer and transgender terminology, stories and theories relevant to my process and I hope a witty usage will prove to be a suitable one, and one that brings a closer understanding in the transgression of identity boundaries. On a side note, I was quite dismayed by Rachel Dolezal’s usage of the word “transracial” when describing her experience in identifying as black. Obviously unaware that this term has been in usage academically and politically for over two decades to define the lives of people who have been adopted and raised by families of a different race or ethnicity, her claims and co-option of the term are gravely destructive.
Just like The German Speaking Project, this work Transkoreaning interrogates ideas of nationhood and ethnic identity performance. I am drawing on the work of Judith Butler in her seminal text Gender Trouble when she claims that, “gender is a kind of improvised performance, a form of theatricality that constitutes a sense of identity.” I make this performance to mock the notion that being Korean is fixed, unchanging and easily categorized, yet my performance is an earnest search for authentic self, while unpacking serious questions into “post-identity.” As a member of the Korean diaspora, a Korean-American woman who was transracially adopted, I consider myself to be part of the silent forced migration of ethnic Koreans overseas. As a teenager, I came out to my adoptive parents as a Korean person, which was met with animosity, stemming from the ostensible fear of losing me, yet rather ignorant and phobic. My coming out period was a time of curiosity about my birth culture, making friends with Korean nationals, 2nd and 1.5 generation Korean-American classmates, and learning traditional music and dance.
The persistent longing that many adopted people have for kinship has been well documented in books, films and creative production. I am well aware of my subject position in the production of what Sigmund Freud refers to as melancholia, a process of grieving for a loss that I am unable to fully comprehend or identify, a mourning for my other self that is perhaps pathological. Whether or not this takes place in my unconscious mind, through this austere and constrained performance, where time and struggle play a role like the work of TehChing Hsieh, I hope to disrupt the adoption narrative and instead engage a larger story about biological essentialism and issues surrounding ethnic kinship.
Further, I am also careful to describe my engagement with “authentic Korean identity” that has been defined globally by South Korean culture and life (as opposed to North Korean). Perhaps it is instructive to consider my “becoming” in relationship to the resettlement education that North Korean defectors receive when they enter into South Korean life. Unquestionably different circumstances, but the weight of cultural difference and even language distinction are both massive and perplexing.
On a side note just to contextualise economically different kinds of forced ethnic Korea immigration and migration: According to reports in 2010, North Korean defectors received a resettlement fee of 20,000 USD when they entered South Korea. In 2013, the minimal costs to transnationally adopt a baby from South Korea was same as what the defectors received. According to Holt International, the present maximum cost could be more than double at 52,850 USD.