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INTERSECTIONALITY IN THE STUDIO: Susanna Koetter

Text by Susanna Koetter

I’m not Chinese but generally when a stranger takes a stab at my identity—always unsolicited—that is usually the guess. Two examples come to mind; one from childhood and the other from last week. We were in Montana to visit my father’s aunt, a woman just shy of a century who was raised by literal homesteaders. I think it was Kalispell, although my memory escapes me. As we were strolling along Main Street we met eyes with a boy who was accompanying his bike across the way and without even asking, he just remarked, dumbfounded,

“I’ve never seen a Chinese person before.” As a reflex I retort, “We’re Korean.” I couldn’t understand why my mother didn’t take offense to such a statement, and instead just smiled as the boy just repeated himself. “I’d never seen a Chinese person before.” It wasn’t clear if he was really speaking to us.

The second example is far less formative, and perhaps only memorable because of its proximity to the present. It is so formulaic I am certain to forget it as soon as the next one takes place. I was waiting in line for the bathroom at a bar, which invariably translates into an invitation for conversation from a strange, usually white, man. Drunkenly he asks, “Are you Chinese?” To which I answer, “No, are you Chinese?” A pause; confused, “No.” As if it were already mapped out, the bathroom door opens and I gesture, dismissively, a “rock on” hand sign.
There’s no telling how the world sees me until they decide to tell me. As a mixed person I am graciously offered this telling, on average, about once a week. Seldom does anyone ever ask who I am, instead preferring the what. I’ve come to realize that the speculations of my face will reflect the querent more than anyone else.

Besides Kalispell, I’ve only felt the weight of that stare in rural Korea, in a place I coincidentally cannot remember, also on the street with my mother, this time to get lunch with her sisters and my older cousin who also mixed, but who I am told looks more Korean. There were no words, only a selfconsciousness detectable to my mother, who assured me that the Ajjumas (older women) may have never seen people that looked like me and my cousin before. Years later, while studying Korean one summer in college, a teacher asked me if my father was a soldier. I was confused by such a question because didn’t the war end 60 years ago? It didn’t occur to me at the time the two Koreas drawn at the 38th parallel was a living testament to the fact that the war never ended to begin with.

I call it “racial dysmorphia,” which is basically another way of saying that I do not—rather, cannot— see my face with any consistency or certainty as to what I may appear as. Clearly there is some type that is registered in the back of people’s minds, and in looking there is the pursuit to be satisfied by apt categorization. Often these clues are also in and of themselves, racist. For instance, it is not a coincidence they could tell I was asian through my “eyes.” I’ve developed a resistance to giving strangers complete answers: as soon as I begin to sense a what or a where pointed in my direction, I will respond with anything but my mother’s ethnicity; I want in this engagement to prove again that “Boston,” the only place I could ever call home, is not a satisfactory answer. I am interested in this pursuit of identifying signs; where seeing becomes an act of assigning meaning, finding therein a relationship between the querent and the world, between what is and is not, what is inside and outside the boundaries of a word.

Susanna Koetter is a former painter and trained printmaker from Boston, MA. She is currently working with fabric dye processes for a forthcoming series of flags. Koetter recently received her MFA from Columbia University, and lives in New York.