Books on Books, Reviews

A Mirror of Memories

Julia Lee’s Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in a Black and White America is my story, too.

For the past several years, what has fueled me (or has been slowly burning me up, I can’t tell anymore) is the growing rage and fury that’s been inside me like a fireball. I often have visualized myself as Ryu from the 1980s video game, Street Fighter, who is ready to unleash his fireball attack. My problem is that I don’t know where, at what, or at whom I should unleash it. When I picked up Julia Lee’s memoir, Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America, I immediately recognized that rage she kicks off with. For me, it’s rage about the patriarchy, anti-Asian hate, racism (both internalized and external), genocide, past self-hatred, and microaggressions that happen multiple times every day, the “model minority” myth, Japanese incarceration in World War II, the inordinate number of incarcerated Black and Brown men and women in the U.S., the school to prison pipeline – the list goes on and on. 

But all this rage was the perfect foundation for diving into this book, where I felt a sense of validation and of being fully seen. 

I found and saw myself in Lee’s stories and in her memories, especially when she describes the Korean concept of han and hwa-byung, both which do not have an equivalent English transition. Lee writes, “To use the language of modern psychology, hwa-byung is considered a “culture-bound syndrome” or “cultural concept of distress.” Typically seen in middle-aged Korean women of low socioeconomic status, its symptoms include rage, insomnia, depression, heart palpitations, heavy sighing, a rising heat in the body, and stomach problems. Some researchers attribute it to the accumulated resentment and sense of injustice suffered by Korean women trapped in a patriarchal social system. If han is the curse of being Korean, hwa-byung is the curse of being Korean and a woman.” I felt most seen right in those words and my heart leapt at my fate of this double curse. 

Most of the time, I found myself reading this book with a fist in air and furiously highlighting passages while crying bittersweet tears of healing.

As a once-avid reader, finding books where I  can see the inner parts of myself have been few and far between. I long avoided reading this memoir because I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I sobbed through Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart, which took me over a year to complete. Maybe it was just the right time, but I ended up voraciously devouring Biting the Hand in a matter of days. Most of the time, I found myself reading this book with a fist in air and furiously highlighting passages while crying bittersweet tears of healing. Lee asks herself the same questions I had been asking myself since kindergarten, when I realized that my ethnicity and racial identity was different from the majority in my school, “How could I reconcile my two warring selves without being torn apart? I love my mother but I hate my mother. I love being Korean but I hate being Korean. I love America but I hate America.”

With that constant inner battle, I experienced what I thought was a desire to be white, but Lee so aptly reminded me that I just really wanted to be seen and treated as a human being. I still feel this to this day. The category of “racial other” pulsated through me as I recalled my own childhood where adults and children alike asked me, “What are you?” with exasperation after asking if I was Chinese or Japanese. And even in today’s world, where people have now even begun to ask me things like, “Oh, are you Korean? Do you listen to K-Pop? Have you seen the latest K-drama on Netflix?” 

K-pop is now a global phenomenon. In fact, according to Middlebury Language Schools, “College enrollment in Korean courses in the US increased by 95% between 2006 and 2016.” Korean food is popular, not looked down upon as it was when I was growing up. Kimchi is everywhere and even Trader Joe’s sells things like gochujang (red pepper paste), kim-bap, and bulgogi bowls. Even so, I still find myself asking the same question that Lee asks in the beginning of her book, “Who was I? Or rather, what was I? What did white people see when they looked at me?” I don’t want to be the sole representation of a country that I wasn’t born in, even though that’s where my roots are. I don’t want to be a token or to be that “Korean friend” – is it too much to ask to just be me and to be seen as just me?

I am still left with this question of what it even means to be seen as an individual since I’ve had to undo my own internalized white gaze. What does it even look like to be a human being who happens to be caught in all these intersectional identities? And where is my place in the racialized conversations of the pandemic and now? Do I even belong here? Lee points out, “Whiteness cast Asians as perpetual foreigners and the model minority, cast Black people as perpetual criminals and the problem minority, then sat on the sidelines to watch what happened.” This is where I have found myself for many long years, but Lee’s book has given me permission to leave that place and to shed the shame that has shrouded me for nearly half a century. It has led me to a place where I felt that all things had to be hashed out in this false narrative of the binary – that the cost of my liberation had to come at the cost of other racialized groups, especially my Black allies and friends. What I have come to realize, and what Lee plainly states in her book, is that there is an abundance for all of us. Standing by my Black allies and friends in solidarity is a part of my own liberation. I have been living in a mindset of scarcity, trying to hold on to my tiny crumb, without realizing that there is more than enough!

However, to do that, I need to know that I can be a force for my liberation – that I do have power and privilege that I can leverage. It was at this realization while reading Lee’s book that I understood what she meant by “biting the hand.” Being me and being human means that I have the ability and necessity to break away from the white gaze. I also need to see that I am different from the generation before me, and my child is going to be different from me. I am an evolving, living being with a choice. Actually, we are evolving, living beings with a choice. Will we choose to dismantle oppressive power structures, or will we perpetuate and uphold them? Will we allow for ourselves and for the next generation to evolve and flourish or will we drown one another in scarcity, exceptionalism, and individualism? Will we be courageous enough – be bold enough – and love ourselves enough to bite the hand that feeds us? I am grateful toJulia Lee for forging a path with her story, and I hope that it will inspire you to step forward and give yourself permission to reclaim your belonging, too.





Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in a Black and White America by Julia Lee. This book was originally published on April 18, 2023 by Henry Holt and Company


Filed under: Books on Books, Reviews


Phyllis Myung is a pastor, communicator, and writer. Originally from Seattle, Washington, Phyllis now lives in a suburb outside of Boston, MA. She lives with her husband, teenager, and an adorable rescue dog named Cookie. Phyllis is currently working as an associate pastor in the greater Boston area, working primarily with children, youth, and their families. Phyllis is a champion for mental health, children and youth, and justice. She is constantly on the hunt for the best burger in the world, singing along to BTS, and her happy place is always wherever the ocean is. You can find Phyllis on Instagram @mamamyung.