Julia Lee is Angry and So Am I ┃ A Review & Reflection on "Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America"


I was sitting on the floor of my high school bedroom, a copy of Julia Lee’s memoir Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America open in my lap, when I was startled by the realization that I was angry. My face burned. I dug my nails into my palms. I drew in heavy breaths. What I was feeling was no mild, passing irritation; it was pure, intense fury. 
Two months before this moment, I had attended my college graduation, so content with life that I could almost believe I was floating. I was exhausted, don’t get me wrong— I chugged copious amounts of coffee as I ran in high heels between four or five different ceremonies across campus, my family in tow— but I felt, more than anything else, deeply fulfilled. Despite unexpected hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic that had submerged me in sadness for the better part of two years, I had not only completed my degree but secured my dream post-graduate plans, surrounded by a diverse community of kind, passionate, and supportive students I felt lucky to call my friends. I even had the opportunity to plan and emcee the graduation ceremony for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (APIA) seniors at my school, a profoundly healing moment after years of wrestling with my mixed-race identity. 
Looking out at my peers, our robes and regalia and traditional cultural dress puffing our silhouettes out like clouds, I thought I had finally “made it.” The future appeared as uncontrollable and expansive as the sky above us. I was really, really happy, happier than I could remember feeling for most of my college career…
And then, abruptly, I was thrust back into my high school bedroom, back to a place and into a past self that I did not want to revisit as I waited out the awkward intermediary period between my university graduation and the start of my new scholarship program. It was a place I had lacked strong community roots, having just been transplanted there before I started high school; a place I could not escape the collisions of complex family relationships; and a place I had felt ugly, unconfident, and Other.
Indeed, on the day that I realized I was angry, I had been approached multiple times by an older white man at a local gym who told me that I resembled a Hispanic Asian version of an actress he admired. Recognizing that this man truly believed he was paying me a compliment, I nodded my head and smiled wide as he guessed at my ethnicity (Korean mother? Puerto Rican father?); talked about a Thai ex-wife who had exposed him to all the “Asian stuff” (She had anger issues, though); attempted to speak nearly indiscernible Korean to me (And young say yo); and expressed disbelief that my first name was Claire (Really? There’s no way. You look like you should be a Mikyoung or a Kim or something). As my workout progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable as it occurred to me that this man had to have been looking at me to have decided to interrupt my exercising multiple times. I tried to finish up quickly, and I waved goodbye at the man when he grinned at me on my way out the door.
I did not become angry until after I returned home and recounted the incident to my mom. She was appalled that someone would tell me that my name could not be what it is because of my physical appearance. At the gym I had defaulted to a performance of politeness, one that existing in ethnically ambiguous skin here has compelled me to put on often throughout my life. At home, my mother’s frustration allowed me to drop the charade, if only for a moment.

First, I became scared. This incident was at least the fifth time that a man older than me had approached me in my hometown since I moved back. While the gym man had not overtly hit on me, I feared his motivations for speaking to me— would I be his nighttime Asian fantasy this week?
But then I became incensed. In most of the incidents, the older men had propositioned me with some combination of “What is your ethnicity?” followed by “What is your phone number?.” In one episode, a man came up to my car window to ask for my contact information while I was preparing to leave the parking lot of a bookstore. A friend joked (?) that I should purchase a gun for my safety. I already felt confined at home after graduation; I wanted to be able to go to the gym, to the bookstore, to the freaking public library in peace. I was angry that I was actively avoiding leaving my house to evade these men, and I was even angrier at my own powerlessness to change the situation, the way these men could make my heart thump faster and my fingers shake with fear, the fact that my docility was my best defense against the potential danger they posed.

.·͙*̩̩͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩̥͙ ✩ *̩̩̥͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩͙‧͙ .

Author Julia Lee knows my anger. In Biting the Hand, she describes a similar personal encounter from her college days with an older European man. Lee first met him during a study abroad trip. When Lee returned to the United States, the man mailed her a letter bemoaning that he was not close enough to visit her and enjoy her “Oriental” beauty. Disturbed, Lee took the letter to an advisor at her undergraduate institution, Princeton University. The advisor dismissed her concerns and characterized the man’s actions as innocent and even flattering. 
Lee’s discomfort conflicted with the compliant, timid role her advisor and the man expected her to play— the same role I had played for men in my hometown and the same role that our systems of race and gender had cast us for at birth. Hindsight empowers the author, and now me, too, to denounce what happened to us for what it was: Asian fetishization. Not a form of flattery, but a device of dehumanization. 
In Biting the Hand, Lee demands that we confront this truth, because her book is as much a manifesto as it is a personal memoir. She employs her memories as vessels to deliver social analysis and connect genuinely to her readers, and boy, are they powerful. As she recounts her childhood memories during Sa-I-Gu (the Korean name for the 1992 Los Angeles riots), for instance, she contextualizes and condemns anti-Black sentiments among the Asian and Asian American communities. Lee invites readers to embark with her on a journey to unpack the roots of her rage, and, in doing so, encourages us to interrogate the sources of our own anger, advocate for ourselves, and seek grace from the internal outrage that injustice can foster within us.
Lee is not the first to write about anger as an inescapable aspect of living as a marginalized woman in the United States. While reading Biting the Hand, I was reminded of the essay “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” from Black feminist Audre Lorde’s collection Sister Outsider. In “Eye to Eye,” Lorde declares that white patriarchal culture has fostered so much anger in her that she has learned how to “metabolize hatred” and know anger like “the beat of my heart and the taste of my spit.” Lee, similarly, traces the source of her unrest to what she calls “meager” white supremacist culture. In contrast to the culture of “abundance” she experienced under generous Black academic mentors and within her community of friends, Lee observes that the culture of meagerness facilitates unnecessary competition among minority groups for the promise of advancement in society, even in everyday scenarios. She recalls hating some of her other Asian classmates in high school, for example, believing that only one of them could be liked by their white peers. 
Of course, Lee’s acceptance among the white community should never have had to be contingent on the rejection of her Asian American peers. Why did she, as many minority students thrust into white and wealthy environments do, feel this way? Lorde and Lee agree that a symptom of metabolizing anger is deep-seated hatred of self and others, even those who may share your marginalized experiences. A culture that does not respect who you are teaches you how to devalue yourself, and, as a result, those around you. If you can never truly conform to a culture's parochial expectations, the expectations everyone else assigns worth to, how are you ever supposed to know your own worth? You learn to hate that you fall short; you learn to hate yourself. And you learn to hate others around you, too, because when you have been told that just one of you can reach the summit of success, you learn to see in others everything you have learned to hate about yourself. As Lorde eloquently writes, “We do not love ourselves, therefore we cannot love each other.”

.·͙*̩̩͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩̥͙ ✩ *̩̩̥͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩͙‧͙ .

Lee acknowledges such work of critical scholars of color before her, but she also deviates from her predecessors in a number of ways, the first and perhaps most obvious being her positionality. The author writes fiercely and unmistakably as a Korean American woman, a daughter of immigrants, and a college professor. Yet her narrative reaches beyond simply sharing her experiences to make abstract observations about identity. By choosing to structure her story around anger and centering candor and vulnerability, Lee lends her voice to explore a subject and emotion rarely seen in public discourse about Asian American women. It was a marvelously cathartic read.
Early on, Lee introduces readers to the Korean concept of 화병 (hwabyeong), a colloquial term that literally translates to “fire illness.” 화병 encapsulates the physical and psychological symptoms that a person endures when injustice forces them to continually swallow their rage. These symptoms can include dry mouth, insomnia, headaches, chest pressure, breathing and abdomen pains, agitation, guilt, anxiety, and depression. In the Korean context, Lee notes that 화병 has been associated with the generations that suffered social and economic hardship following the Korean War. Lee shows, however, that 화병 lives in Asian Americans, too, so-called model minorities compelled to maintain cool faces while seething under the pressures of assimilation, achievement, disrespect, and hatred. In particular, she highlights, Asian American women confront both Western and non-Western cultural constraints that demand they present as docile, submissive, and obedient. Under what the scholar Aki Uchida termed “Orientalization” in her landmark 1998 essay, popular portrayals of Asian American women confine us to act like submissive “Lotus Blossoms” or seductive “Dragon Ladies.” 
As is the case for any person, anger is not uncommon among Asian American women; yet the raw display of its reality is so stigmatized that I have never before read a book that discussed it. We are supposed to be obedient and pretty. We are not supposed to get upset. In this context, Lee’s decision to write about the 화병 in her personal life is all the more powerful. She observes the 화병 in her mother, who gave up a career in healthcare to work for minimum wage at a fast food joint, fulfill her husband’s desires, and sustain her family’s life in America. She explores the 화병 she holds in herself, a descendant of angry Asian women, immigration strife, and Korean War trauma, when she lashes out at loved ones. While reading I felt like Lee could see the 화병 inside me, too, the strain I have felt to appear agreeable when my deepest wish was to scream at those who diminished me to racial stereotypes. 
The author’s nuanced approach to characterizing Asian American family dynamics also stands out. Popular portrayals of Asian American parents typically depict them as authoritarian and traumatized, demanding reapers of perfect standardized test scores and 4.0 GPAs. With a deft hand, Lee gives flesh to these flat caricatures, dispelling traditional clichés while taking care to legitimize the experiences of second-generation children who suffer from the pressures of sacrifice and success and highlighting the unique challenges faced by Asian immigrant parents. 
The memoir shines brightest when the author recalls memories of her own family relationships to deliver this discussion. In one striking passage, Lee describes her mother’s love as “practically biblical in its level of suffering and sacrifice”: devoted and endlessly demanding of surrender, both from mother and daughter. One moment the mother’s love could emerge in a bowl of carefully cut fruit; in another, it could manifest in yelling or a violent outburst. “The level of sacrifice was so extreme that it soon developed its own coercive power,” Lee explains. For in an unjust world, a mother who wants to protect her daughter can hurt her child as she projects her fears of that world onto the girl. In an unjust world, a daughter who feels she can never reciprocate her mother’s sacrifices— can never live through war, immigrate to a new country, or endure forced assimilation in the same way her mother did— can grow to resent the unfulfillable burden of her mother’s surrender. In an unjust world, mothers and daughters can become “monsters.” Without being pedantic, excusatory, or unkind, Lee’s story shows us how systemic inequalities can affect our closest relationships, yet we rarely turn to them, at least in explicit terms, to contextualize our behaviors in challenging circumstances. 

.·͙*̩̩͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩̥͙ ✩ *̩̩̥͙˚̩̥̩̥*̩̩͙‧͙ .

We live in an unjust world. So where do we go from here? As Lee asks honestly, “How do we love our own children when a broken, traumatized love is the only love we have to give?” The author’s response to this question is one of my favorite parts of Biting the Hand. She writes that we must create our own sources of power and construct loving communities. It is with the strength of these chosen communities that we can cultivate the courage to bite the hands that have fed us: to challenge the authorities and practices that we have grown up with to create meaningful change. Rather than urging readers to find a nebulous community only in those who share our racial background— a common solution that has always made me skeptical as a mixed girl that has been rejected by people on “both sides” of my heritage— the author turns to the indigenous understanding of kinship to guide our community-building. The indigenous concept of kinship teaches us not just to practice kindness, but also to prioritize reciprocity and mutuality in our relationships. In other words, we should choose the communities that choose us, too.
This section, more than any other in Biting the Hand, is what conveys to me that Lee knows my anger. Yes, she knows my anger because we shared similar experiences, but more critically, she knows my anger because she chooses to know my anger. “I see you,” she asserts, directly calling her readers to resist the pain, victimization, and injustice in our upbringings. “You might be invisible to the outside world, but you are not invisible to me.”


  1. What an important post, Claire! And sadly stuff that myself and the women in my family can relate to. My cousin gets asked on dating websites before anything else: "what's your ethnicity?" Orientalism is ingrained in the patriarchy and it's disgusting.

  2. It's inexcusably rude to ask people about their ethnicity and yet sadly it's common. Strangers, usually men, feel entitlement to comment upon the subject when they ought to keep their mouths shut. I understand and share your anger at this. I'm sorry you're exposed to it.