An #importedAsians POV: Mila Konomos
As the screen flickers, Mila appears in front of me. Her dark hair is pulled up in a sleek side-parted bun. Her long turquoise chandelier earrings graze the pink collar of her white '80s style Power Ranger t-shirt. I’ve known of The Empress Han, on Instagram, for some time now. But, this is the first time I’m having a conversation with the person whose work and message metaphorically slapped me out of my white savior-glorifying, self-diminishing, adopted puppy coma. So, when I see her face blink onto the screen in front of me, with a smile that’s warm with a hint of mischief, I know it’s going to be a great first interview.
Her slender hands tell a story of their own as she passionately explains how compelled she felt to speak up as an Asian-American after the Atlanta shootings. Living only seven miles from one of the targeted salons, it literally hit too close to home for Mila, and she began sharing her story and being featured on media outlets such as CNN, National Geographic, and the LA Times. As a Korean adoptee, she recognizes the shared experience of racism between herself and a community that has become so racially targeted. Because adoptees are so under-represented, she was encouraged by her dear friend, Kavi Vu, to share a narrative that’s valid and vital in order to expand what it means to be an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI).
Mila is among the many adoptees who have struggled to find belonging throughout her life. She became more involved in activism in the hopes to also explore her Asian-ness. But, Asian adoptees trying to speak up against the hate have sometimes been met with rejection by some members of the Asian community due to the duality of being an Asian person living in a predominately white environment and growing up around people who constantly isolate us in our Asian-ness. Yet, we are also somehow not “Asian enough” to be considered part of the Asian community by some. Mila has clearly risen above all of this as she explains that she realizes she can’t “become” Asian.
“The world simply needs to expand what it means to be Asian. And,” she continues, “while adoptees will never have the context of Asians who grew up in an Asian home knowing about their food, traditions, and culture, I can define what being Asian means and what that looks like.”
Using her platform on social media, Mila expresses herself creatively as a form of self-therapy. Lately, she’s been performing in a series of TikTok videos as a way to regain some of her power back. Many Asians can relate to the dismissive and gaslighting comments she uses in her videos titled, “If I spoke to white people the way white people speak to me.” Through recreating micro-aggressive moments experienced, this is her way to push back against aggressors that she wasn’t able to find a retort for in the moment they occurred. These light-hearted videos pack a punch! Not only are they extremely comical, but the raw, in-your-face message is relatable by so many on a variety of levels. In other words, it’s funny because it is true. Mila believes in the value of finding ways to express yourself as a way to feel seen. However, I have to confess that I feel like she’s perfected using humor as a tool for insight and education.
“Comedy is rooted in pain,” Mila shrugs.
She goes on to explain that her art saved her life. Being a lifelong sufferer of emotional and mental health symptoms, she said that she found a home in the concept of Han. The Empress Han is the title Mila goes by creatively and within the online community. In Korean culture, the concept of Han is explained as an emotion that is a form of resentment, grief, and hatred. As Korean adoptees, often our identities are diminished and erased, leading to traumatic difficulties in finding where we fit in the world.
Mila boldly states, “We’re tired of being told how we’re supposed to feel, and how we’re supposed to think, and how we’re supposed to frame our adoption story. I’m sovereign over my story. Over my pain. Over my trauma. I get to decide what it means to me. How I’m going to process it. How I’m going to live through it. How I’m going to embrace it.”
She is trying to find meaning and empowerment through her experiences and gives gratitude to Han for helping her realize she doesn’t need to be ashamed of her sadness.
One of the most important things to know about Mila is that she is magical when it comes to expressing herself. Her most recent accomplishment is the release of her musical poetry album, Shrine. It’s the first installment of her three-piece collection. Mila explains that the idea of a shrine can represent a person or a history. And, her poems are her objects offered to honor her journey. But, she hopes that all other adoptees traveling their journey can see their reflection in pieces of her poetry in Shrine. Mila best expressed healing as being like the Japanese art of kintsugi: taking something broken and fusing the pieces back together with gold, making it more precious and honoring the broken parts.
That’s an important message to process because everyone living—adoptee or not—has been broken whether in big or small ways. And the world has told many of us that it makes us imperfect and that makes us unacceptable. But, when we can find the strength to put ourselves back together, we should recognize and honor the fact that our value is greater after. That’s what I find so incredibly inspiring about Mila. She always finds a way to radiate positivity. Even when the trolls in her comments section are reporting her, her response is a simple: “I feel so affirmed.” In return, I smile, knowing the amount of strength she has in her that she continues to radiate to others, whether through her work or through simply being herself.
She’s raw. She’s fearless. She’s unapologetically herself. She is The Empress Han!