A Proper Ice Breaker
“You’re from China, aren’t you.”
The question caught me off guard, as I was talking to a friend up until that point, not paying attention to what was happening around me. I was at a dorm party that was being held outside the Goerzallee Wohnheim, and the last thing I expected was for someone to make a statement, not even a question, about where I was from.
“No, dude,” I replied to this guy whom I had never met before, “I’m from California. I’m an American.”
He shrugged it off, left me with a parting “Oh” without a real explanation for his random outburst, and walked away. The kid was an American himself, a Stony Brook student, and he didn’t find his comment too big of a deal.
Well, I thought, here we are all over again.
A Little Bit About Me
I’m half Asian, half Caucasian. My father is Texan and my mother is Japanese, and they’ve been married for over twenty-five years now. My identity has always been half-Asian, half-White, although it tends to change with how others view me as. If someone perceives me as more Asian than White, I tend to embrace an Asian identity more. If someone perceives me as more White than Asian, I tend to embrace a White identity more. It’s weird being half, to say the least, as your identity becomes malleable depending on the situation, and it gives less of a clear line as to what, or who, I am.
Which is certainly fine by me. The ambiguous identity of my race has not presented itself as a problem as much as it has presented itself as an advantage. My mixed background has allowed me to understand and connect with a broader range of people than if I had simply been born of one ethnicity. Interestingly enough, however, I’m perceived more often than not as an Asian American.
It’s understandable, of course. I have Asian features. My hair is black. I’ve been told I have Japanese eyes. The touch of Caucasian blood certainly makes people guess that I’m not completely Asian, but regardless, the main assumption is that I am an Asian American, through and through.
I then come across the typical stereotypes attributed to Asian Americans. I should be good at math and science. I’m submissive, or at the least quiet. I am a model minority, and I don’t get into trouble. I’m not exactly the embodiment of outgoing. I tend to only hang out with Asians. I have a tiny penis. I’m bad in bed. I’m not a man’s man. These are, to a certain extent, things I simply shrug off. A girl thinks I’m a virgin – what can I do? It’s a silly and ignorant stereotype that, along with the other stereotypes, showcases the lack of understanding of different cultures. It’s bearable, I tell myself, and I suppose it’s an impossible uphill battle fighting against the stupidity and ignorance that these stereotypes are based off of. So I let them go.
So we come to this beautiful statement by our wonderful stranger: “You’re from China, aren’t you.”
He had heard me talking, no doubt. He was very much well aware that I was wearing a Houston Rockets t-shirt. Color my hair blond and give me blue eyes, and where I come from would probably not have been something he would have brought up.
What does this mean, for a stranger to tell me, “You’re from China, aren’t you”? On one hand, one could say that this was simply a generalization that he had made, a simple misstep, really, and that there wasn’t any meaning behind it besides a little silly stupidity. I suppose I could buy that. He didn’t really mean any harm – he saw a guy with Asian features and decided to tell him he was probably from China. Fair enough.
But let’s assume we’re not so naïve and that this issue isn’t about sensitivity on my part. Let’s also assume that he probably would not have gone up to an African American man and told him, “You’re from Africa, aren’t you.” Let’s then think about what his comment reflects, and why I’ve had a hard time simply brushing it off.
Racism Is Bad, But Some Racism Is More Bad Than Others
He should have called me a Chink. Or a Jap. Or a Vietcong. Any name-calling would’ve been easily dismissed on my part, in the same way that someone could have called me the hole of the rear end. Name calling on a basic level, as racially charged as it might be, is something I can tolerate, because it’s name calling. It’s petty, it’s the lowest form of derogatory statements, it’s childish, and I’ve gone through enough verbal abuse to write it off.
Yet, his statement, his assumption, that I was from China, was surprising. Here was a guy, whose first reaction to seeing me talking to someone, is telling me which Asian country I was from. Not “Where are you from,” or even it’s uglier cousin, “Where are you really from?” It was a blunt reflection of how Asian Americans are viewed in American society.
Racism for Asian Americans isn’t particularly given too much thought outside of the Asian community. It makes sense, of course, because when we think about racism, we immediately think about the obvious: blacks and the “N” word. The typical idea of racism revolves around this example, and its extensions, the name calling of other ethnicities that have historically been used as a derogatory term. However, racism is rarely, or at least not commonly, thought of as an institutionalized byproduct. In other words, racism is rarely thought of as words or actions that reflect the institutionalized racism that are prevalent in our society. That is why when we talk about racism against Asian Americans, it’s oftentimes brushed off because it’s “not as racist” as racism against other ethnicities, particularly blacks and Hispanics. How can there be really serious racism, the argument goes, when you Asians work hard and get into good schools and don’t have the harshness that the other ethnicities face – at least you’re not being called the N-word! In this kind of argument, there exists a hierarchy of racism, with racism against blacks being taken the most serious and against Asian and Native Americans at the bottom.
This, for various reasons, is erroneous and a reflection of the misplaced idea that racism is some sort of zero-sum game. There is no “racistier” racism depending on the ethnicity. Yet it passes for some reason. The story of racism against Asian Americans is shrugged off as not-quite-as-important compared to the other stories of inequality.
So what is the story of racism against Asian Americans?
A true American is born in America. A true American speaks perfect English. A true American has family that has lived in America. A true American has integrated himself or herself into American society. These are the prevalent ideas, whether explicit or implicit, that the American society associates itself with when it thinks about what makes someone American. But this list doesn’t include what it is the most important thing when it comes to being considered a true American:
A true American looks black or Caucasian.
After reading that last line, you might think that that’s a load of bull. “That’s simply conjecture – someone who looks Asian can very much be considered a true American!”
And in what ways has society shown that being or looking Asian isn’t detrimental in being considered a true American?
It’s certainly not on television. When was the last time you saw a show where an Asian American was the main character, out of all the shows there are? Is that proportionate to the number of Asian Americans that exist in the United States?
It’s certainly not in literature. The recent craze over “tiger mom” showed that we could only seem to associate Asian Americans in the realm of education. “They are one step ahead of us,” the piece exemplified, “and they are much more focused on education than we are.” The key word in all this being, of course, the difference between they and us.
It’s certainly not in politics. In fact, when we discuss Asia in terms of politics, it tends to associate Asia, in particular China or North Korea, as those whom we have no real understanding of. They are foreign, and they are different from us, and they think differently from us.
It’s certainly not in education. At many elite institutions, there exists a cap on the amount of Asian American students a school would be willing to accept. How could we have these Asians taking over the campus?
In all these examples, there’s a striking similarity in that we are considered the Other. It doesn’t matter if we were born in America. It doesn’t matter if we speak perfect English. It doesn’t matter if we’ve had several generations living in America. It doesn’t matter if we’ve assimilated right into American society and we wave the American flag and root for the Dallas Cowboys on Sundays. We are the Other because we don’t look like the true American.
We aren’t white. We aren’t black. We don’t have blue eyes. We don’t have wavy brown hair. We don’t have blond hair. We don’t have a curly hair. We don’t fit into the image of what it looks like to be American. A real American.
And this is what disturbs me the most about what this stranger said to me. Rest assured, I have thick enough skin to overcome the words that are thrown my way – that has rarely been as issue. What bothers me more than that is that, the origin from which this guy’s words came from is based on the idea that as an Asian American, with an emphasis on “Asian,” I can’t be considered to have been from California. Or Texas. Or Utah. Or Wyoming. Or New York. Or Florida. No, the statement reflects the same idea that the question “Where are you really from?” implies, that we cannot be from the States. We cannot be actually American. We must be somewhere from Asia, our birthplace and where we grew up and our nationality and everything else that makes us American be damned.
In our culture, drenched in the interactions of the different races and ethnicities as well as the intermingling history, it’s interesting that conversations on race are considered so taboo.
Let’s talk. Let’s think about what exists and where we should be moving towards. Let’s hash out all our feelings, and not be afraid to come off as ignorant. With dialogue comes understanding, and with understanding comes acceptance and tolerance.
I’ll even consider myself Chinese for the time being, if that helps. Let’s all get uncomfortable and talk about race.