Thursday, December 27, 2012

What are you?

Recently I attended a work function with my husband.  Always gracious, he introduced me as his wife to a work colleague and her husband.  The rapid-fire interchange went something like this:

Colleague’s Husband: “Did you say you were Chinese or Japanese?”
Me: (taken aback--I didn't, since I usually introduce myself with my name, not my ethnicity--but after a pause and a smile) “My family is originally from Vietnam.”
CH: “When did you come here?”
Me: “I came here when I was a young child.”
CH: “Oh! That explains the good English accent then. Let me ask you something: I saw a young woman who looked Chinese in the park.  She was really angry and offended when I told her that her English was so good.  Should she have been so offended?”

I will stop there, because it is simply nails on chalkboard from the first sentence.  What are the common threads in these situations: 1) they are usually in “polite company,” 2) the person grilling me inappropriately is usually an older (say my parents’ age) Caucasian person, 3) who may only know how to say “hello” in Chinese (like CH above) or eat sushi from time to time…and thus consider themselves knowledgeable about everything Asian, and therefore 4) are at serious risk for making a major faux pas.

I wish I had the fortitude and strength of our president and first family, who seem to stand proud despite the racism hurled their way from all directions: protesters during the election with signs like “Bring White back in the White House” or criticsm from prominent African Americans that our president isn’t “black” enough.  But I am only human, and in spite of my understanding about sticks and stones, those words do hurt. 

The thing is, just like that young woman walking her dog, I am not looking for a fight.  I really just want to live my life like any other average human being—go to work, enjoy time with my family, go out to dinner or a party—without being grilled like the inquisition about my personal history.  But because of the black hair on my head, my olive complexion and almond-shaped eyes, I look a little chinky.  So I become the Rorschach for well-meaning but ill-guided people out there who want to talk about what they know about Asia to an Asian person (one saving grace: at least CH didn’t call me “Oriental”).  It also stinks that my parents had the audacity to give me a name that wasn’t sufficiently American, so I get lots of flack about that too.  Some choice examples of recent zingers:

In any “Asian-y” restaurant, this time Japanese:
Zinger #1: (turning to me, the lone Asian): “What would you order here? What does ‘XX’ mean?”
Me: “I don’t know, I haven’t been here before. And I am Vietnamese, not Japanese.”
Zinger #1: (confused and disappointed) “Oh, I thought you would know because you are Asian.”

BTW: I never get asked what Zinger #1 should order at Legal Seafood.

Zinger #2: “Doesn’t your name mean ‘XX’” in Chinese?”
Me: “I’m not Chinese.”
Zinger #2: (embarrassed, but laughing): “Oh, I couldn’t help myself.”

On this second point: even after having so many difficulties with my own first name, I gave both my kids Vietnamese names.  So in some ways, I’ve doomed them to a similar fate: of chronic mispronunciation, misspelling, or even worse: of kids (and adults) making fun of how their names sound like or rhyme with...But really, there’s the rub.  I want the dude and little miss to have names that reflect both their cultural backgrounds... just as they look a little like both my husband and myself.  And with that comes the inevitable, since we are all judged by our looks, our names, our voices.

And so, because of my kids (I guess I am a major role model in their life), I am trying understand how best to respond these days to the inevitable zingers.  I haven’t figured out the answer yet.  I often come up with the perfect comeback in hindsight, too late to confront the offender of their ignorance.  In the meantime, I’ll commiserate with other friends and family who go through the same thing.  Case in point, another zinger a friend of mine shared with me.

Me: “I hate it when people ask me where I’m from. They are always unsatisfied with my answer too, that I am from New Orleans.”
Friend: “Well, at least they don’t ask, ‘What are you?’  Now that’s the worst.”

And we just laughed.  What are you, indeed.  Maybe that’s the appropriate response, just to laugh.


  1. Laughing is the only way to keep from crying (or screaming) in these situations. I'm Vietnamese and my husband is Caucasian. I have a little blonde 3 year old daughter, L, who goes to a daycare by my office that teaches in English and Mandarin, further confusing the issue since neither me or my husband speak Mandarin.

    We commute in everyday to Boston and apparently people who share the same schedule think I'm her nanny. One of my friends was debating the pros/cons of nanny versus daycare and the person she was speaking to, used my daughter and I as an example of how a good nanny can expose your child to foreign languages. I guess she sees us often on the T and hears my daughter having little conversations with herself in Mandarin. And this person who was extolling the virtues of "foreign nannies" is.... wait for it... Chinese! Oh well... queue laughter.

    1. Wow what a story. We are all guilty of our own stereotypes, myself included. Some of the most racist comments I've ever heard have come from other minorities! You gotta laugh, because otherwise I agree, you're just gonna cry. Thank you for sharing!