“What Are You?”: Let’s Talk About Asian-American Encounters

[to] customer service guy, fun fact: my race is not a conversation starter and I don’t care that your ‘best mate’ is getting married to an asian girl.

When I posted this status on Facebook about how a customer service rep unnecessarily remarked on my race, I was kind of surprised by how it blew up with ‘likes’ and comments — but also not that surprised. 

Among my friends, including those on social media, it’s pretty common knowledge that these types of comments are unwarranted. But I was reminded that it’s not common knowledge for everyone.

To backtrack, I was at a Verizon store getting a phone upgrade. This guy was helping me along and we were making typical small talk. Then, out of nowhere, he asked if both of my parents were Asian. I was unsure of where he was going with this but answered, yes, only to have him tell me he was surprised I didn’t have an accent.

As those words left his mouth, I felt myself cringing. Really? Did you really say that? I told him, politely, that there are lots of Asian-Americans like me without accents and that his comment was a little offensive.

He seemed taken aback, shocked, even; he immediately apologized and said he didn’t mean offense. Okay, I thought, well good. Glad that’s over. But then he continued the conversation by telling me that his best friend was marrying an Asian girl, as if that were a way to redeem himself.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 3.53.49 PM

As it to convey, hey, I’m a nice guy. I didn’t mean any harm. My best friend likes your people, so I can relate and it was okay of me to say what I said. I wasn’t so much upset as I was flummoxed by his cluelessness. He was only making things worse without even realizing it.

I told him, maybe a little less politely that time, that he didn’t have to tell me that. That I didn’t see the point. Again, he seemed shocked, as if he had done nothing wrong and couldn’t comprehend why I was responding to him so unfavorably.

I quickly changed the topic and we continued talking about my phone plan. This time, he got the hint, and my race wasn’t brought up again. But the whole scenario, which I considered a microaggression — a subtly racist interaction that unintentionally perpetuates stereotypes — was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable though not unfamiliar.

Growing up Asian-American in Greater Cincinnati meant that my race has frequently been a source of curiosity. Unlike being in a more populous and diverse city like New York City, which is full of Asians, I’m one of the very few in this part of Ohio. Only about one percent of the population here is “Asian/Pacific Islander.”

So I’m used to comments about my race. It’s been brought up throughout the years in the form of inquisitiveness — sometimes honest and sometimes ignorant, taunts, jokes and, more recently, solidarity.

Lately, my race only gets addressed up by feminist friends who are all about intersectionality. When I first met my friend Mónica, she approached me about helping out with a zine she was creating that focused largely on women of color, created by women of color. I had never met her before. Yes, she singled me out because of my race, but it was in a way that felt welcoming and empowering.

The people I surround myself with now are open-minded, inclusive and cognizant of the importance of racial diversity. So when someone addresses my racial identity in other ways, such as to tell me they’re surprised I can speak English so fluently, it feels odd: a reminder of the past and what exists beyond my little bubble.

As people were commenting on my facebook status, mostly expressing revulsion, my friend Matt messaged me privately. He noted that this guy doesn’t seem particularly bright, but wondered if race could ever be an appropriate conversation starter. He thinks it can be.

He was asking from the perspective of a mixed-race person — “Half Anglo white, half Mexican, mostly indigenous” — who is constantly questioned. Matt is often confused for being Asian or part-Asian, especially by Asians. I personally thought he was half-Asian.

I told him that yes, race can be a conversation starter. After all, he and I were talking about it and it was fascinating. Nothing is off limits, but it all depends on the person, context and situation. When Verizon guy asked me if both my parents were Asian, I was happy to answer. I would’ve even told him I was Chinese.

In this case, though, Verizon guy saw me as an Asian-American stereotype — someone who has an accent. An “other,” who he was surprised spoke English just as well as he did. This is something that Hollywood and the media has propagated since its inception. And for someone like Verizon guy, who probably hasn’t had too many interactions with people outside of his race, it may be all that he knows. 

china doll stereotype

The “China Doll” stereotype has long been a popular trope in the U.S. mainstream media.

So as a rule of thumb, it probably isn’t a good idea to approach talking to someone of a different racial background than yourself by saying, “Oh, wow, you really don’t fit in with X stereotype. How very surprising!” It helps to get to know more people of color versus relying on what you see about them in the media. Or, if that’s not possible, just treating them like you would anyone else.

It’s also important to ease into discussions about race a little bit. When people — and particularly white guys — immediately ask me “where I’m from” or “what I am,” I’m usually put off. It feels like they’re reducing me to “exotic” before getting to know anything else about me.

Give it some time. I’ve had people ask me this question before asking my name. Before attempting to get to know me in any way outside of my race. It’s as if that’s all they see. Sometimes they explicitly express that they’re interested in Asian girls, and that’s doubly uncool.

Editor’s Note: B’s story is far from uncommon. In fact, a quick and informal poll of female friends who identify as Asian-American uncovered an unfortunate wealth of similar stories:

  • From E: “This is a bit of an anomalous situation, but once…my sister and I were on a horseback riding tour in Wyoming, and somehow it was just the two of us with the guide. He was a typical white cowboy-type, kind of dashing in his way, until he opened his mouth to say, ‘What are you guys?’ (Humans?) In this situation, where we were literally in the mountain wilderness alone with him, how sassy could I afford to be? So I just replied, ‘We’re Chinese-American.’ He seemed perplexed for a second before relaxing. ‘Cool,’ he replied. ‘I love sweet and sour chicken, I eat that all the time at this place in town.’ Was this a strange flirtation attempt couched in the language of…food? What was I supposed to say, ‘I’ve eaten mayonnaise before and it’s pretty good?’ Here’s a hot tip: don’t treat someone’s ethnicity as something edible. If you have to reach that hard to find something with which to connect, just use, you know, your shared humanity.”
  • From S: “I had just moved to South Carolina from the Midwest and was pumping gas at the place by my house. An older white man smiled and waved, then said, ‘Where are you from?’ How friendly! ‘Ohio,’ I replied with a smile. ‘Oh! But you look so Oriental? I’ve been to Ohio a couple times myself and never seen anyone who looks like you there.’ Yes, because you obviously met every person in Ohio while you were there?”

    jenny yang

    From a webseries starring Jenny Yang, which explores what would happen if Asian people did and said the kinds of things to white people that Asian-Americans deal with all the time.

  • From E: “A bunch of friends and I were at the roller-skating rink when we passed by a huge group of 6th graders. Yes, 6th graders. I was the only person of color in my group, and when I skated by them, the ring-leaders of this group immediately started pulling their eyes back into slants and shouting, ‘Chinese! Chinese!’ I was both amused by the simplicity of this taunt (technically true, after all) and horrified by the fact that they were only in the 6th grade. Where had they learned this behavior?”
  • From K: “I was in the parking lot of a grocery store…in fact, it was my first trip to buy groceries after arriving in the US! An elderly white man approached me and, before I could do anything about it, spat in my face. ‘Go back to Vietnam!’ he shouted. I am Chinese.”
  • From Y: “An older man in San Francisco hitting on me was fascinated by the fact that I was studying English in college, then said that that would explain how my accent was so good.”
  • From L: “It appears that strangers have taken a liking to calling me ‘China.’ I’ve been called ‘China’ in the following scenarios/phrases: On the streets of New York: ‘Ni hao ma (imagine in the whitest accent you can), China?’ ; Getting off at a busy subway station: ‘Heeeeeey there, China!’; ‘Going back to Hong Kong, Chiiiiina?’” (That last one kills me because it should be ‘Going back to China, Hong Kong?’ Get it? Get it?)
  • From M: “I was on a dating app, and some guy messaged me to say, ‘Is it true that Asian girls have sideways p*ssies? I’d love to find out.”

Originally written for Acro Collective: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.

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