Empathy isn’t sympathy necessarily. It’s the ability to recognize the presence of an emotional state even if you don’t understand why it’s present or what caused it. A society, a country, a world cannot grow closer together if the parts that create it don’t come to recognize what makes it. Empathy is a great beginning to making that growth start.
“That’s not my problem.”
“Those aren’t my people”
“Why should I care?”
These are the thoughts that counteract the very action required to start to care. We should care because we are human and in many cases if we can replace the object of scrutiny with our own image we might begin to see why it matters.
But that’s hard to do for various reasons. It’s not an easy thing to take ourselves out of our own comfort zone and to force ourselves to be uncomfortable for a second. Sometimes that second is all it takes to learn a little bit of empathy.
To realize sometimes what’s really important in the moment isn’t always about ourselves.
I’ve never viewed myself as a Korean American, even though technically I am one. I was born in Busan and lived there only long enough to know I wasn’t wanted before I was shipped to Mississippi. As a nationalized citizen, I take a lot of pride in being a citizen of this nation. I almost feel like I remember, and maybe it’s from the photos I’ve seen, the day I stood before the judge and became an American and was given a coin. It was one of those memorable moments like when I was baptized.
I’m a pretty white guy and it’s not just the last name of Cushman that makes me feel that way. Growing up we’d order take out from the Oriental restaurant in Memphis, that was until they found squirrels in their freezer. I didn’t have many Asian friends and my school was mostly full of Viets, Cambodians, and Malaysians so I never really fit in with them. This became apparent when they’d go to their ESL class and I stayed in my English class with the rest of the white and black kids. Those are the moments I truly knew I wasn’t Asian.
There were brutal reminders I wasn’t white or black though. The constant jokes and taunts from the other kids. The fights… the many fights I got in as a child that I never started, but I was going to be damned if I was gonna let some kid talk shit to my face. I mean, I was a Cushman and we had a lot of pride in our name. But I was an adopted Cushman and boy did the kids remind me of that fact. I felt that outlier even from my own relatives and this underlying feeling that we were just… different. I’ve never even been invited to a cousin’s wedding and I don’t talk to any distant family members much since all my grandparents are dead. When I lost my college scholarships due to a board suspension my senior year of high school, I learned the hard fact that self defense is not a defense in the face of the greater majority. I was a true minority.
I’m almost 39 years old now and many things have changed in my life. I found my first Asian friends in college, I fell in love with my birth nation… then fell back out of love with it after the rejection of my birth mom. I thought I’d grown used to the incredulous comments when I say my name like “are you sure you are Jason Cushman?” I thought I’d finally grown to know my nation, even after the military.
And then this virus hit. The side glances are normal, I’ve always lived in either white or black neighborhoods where people wonder if I belong there. But fear brings a new factor and new layer to people’s perceptions and I find myself again feeling like I have to prove I belong where I’ve always been. It gets old and I’m getting older.