Jason Koo Poems
Asian, Latina, and Proud
In “Model Minority” by Jason Koo and “Clashing in Coney Island” by Sheila Maldonado, both authors portray a sense of cultural identity within their writing to capture the complexity of being a minority in America. Koo and Maldonado are Brooklyn poets who write about their own struggles as minorities. Koo describes the Asian stereotypes that perpetuate throughout his daily routine. On the other hand, Maldonado captures her perspective as a Latino-American in Brooklyn through a class photo. As young writers, these authors provide a new narrative to a previously underrepresented topic. Through these two poems, the authors question our current social norms in American and its impact on our national identities.
Both Jason Koo and Sheila Maldonado use their own racial identity to challenge the implicit pre-existing notion that minorities are inherently inferior in terms of entitlements within our pre-dominantly-white population. Moreover, both Koo and Maldonado use the idea of space and relaxation to emphasize the consequences of racial stereotyping on a regular basis. Koo describes these unspoken norms of Asian Americans through his journey on the subway. Koo writes, “I make myself into as tight an Asian as possible in crowds/ As a courtesy to other people — / It’s the model minority in me, you might say, Coolly, while enjoying your extra space.” Koo illustrates a sense of internal oppression as he forces himself to make room for others at the expense of his own comfort. Given that the title of this poem is “Model Minority”, this quotation depicts the social conformation that Asian Americans must uphold in order to fit the stereotype of this “model minority”. More importantly, he states “it’s the model minority in me” to criticize the fact that many Asian Americans have accepted this type of attitude in society. Koo also separates the reader from his own personal experience when he says “coolly” and “your extra space” to demonstrate the social approval of this injustice.
Additionally, Maldonado describes the same social pressure of conformity. She describes a moment in the photo with the girl next to her in the photo, Makea, and Makea’s cousin Tecia. She writes, “…along with her / cousin Tecia, whose house was a / cool, gray cave in the summer where we / watched Whoopi Goldberg on early cable / play with her ‘long, luxurious’ blonde hair.” The house is not only a physical escape from Maldonado’s school life as a teenager, but also an escape from the societal forces around her. More importantly, she describes Whoopi Goldberg on TV with blonde hair. Although a wieldy acclaimed African American actress, the imagery of Goldberg with blonde hair contradicts the social escape that Maldonado was seeking because she is bombarded by this standard of beauty. The portrayal of Whoopi Goldberg also demonstrates the role of the media in perpetuating the standard of beauty. However, just like in Koo’s poem, this portrayal is widely overlooked as any change would disrupt the entire system.
In another parallel, Koo and Maldonado use minor side character interactions in order to elucidate the ramification of dual identities. At the end of his poem, Koo recalls his walk back to his apartment. He describes an encounter with another woman who is obviously suspicious of his actions. He writes, “I soften / My steps so she won’t have to hear them but this makes me even more threatening / So finally I move past her without looking and let her see / I’m just a harmless Asian dude, me smiling.” Koo makes sure that the woman can see her because he needs her to know that he is a “harmless Asian dude” so that she has a sense of security. The imagery of the quotation above reflects the fear of many women when they are alone at night. Koo shifts this imagery simply because he is an Asian American and does not hold the same stereotypes as out men. Additionally, this quotation ties in the idea of the “model minority” because as an Asian America, he is perceived to be less masculine than other males. The interaction with the woman also reveals that all of our racial identities carry with us wherever we go.
A similar interaction occurs at the end of Maldonado’s poem as well. She describes a day out with her friend and an interaction with an old man. She writes, “Out in the drugstore one day with her / during lunch, I was decked in / Ceasar’s Bay regalia and when an old man / spoke to me in Spanish I had / the nerve to be surprised but he told me / Try as you might, you can’t hide.” Maldonado buys clothes from Ceasar’s Bay, a department store in Brooklyn to try to mask her cultural self. Just like Whoopi Goldberg in the previous quotation, she conforms to the societal standard and buys into the consumerist environment around her. More importantly, she describes her clothing as “regalia” which is Spanish for royalty. The use of Spanish demonstrates Maldonado’s inability to remove herself from her own heritage. The old man emphasizes this point even more when he tells her that she cannot hide her Spanish tradition and Latina personality. She is not strictly Latina or American, but a mix of both cultural identities, just as Jason Koo is a mixture of Asian culture and American culture. Additionally, both quotations occur at the end of the two poems because they represent the true reality that minorities have to face as they try to establish an American identity with their previous heritage.
The similarities between Asian-American writer Jason Koo and Latina-American writer Sheila Maldonado not only reveal the harsh implications of the social norms we cement into our daily lives but also a growing backlash against these current traditions. The racial stereotypes expressed through these two poems are constantly being tackled as organizations rise up to the challenge. Groups like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March in Washington transform the typical notion of social identity and question the idea of conformity. Just as Koo and Maldonado discuss these issues of racial identity through their poetry, organizations challenge these same issues through protest and marches.