Chinatown. The word conjures images, vivid and distinct: blinking lights around a set menu in a restaurant window. Dark martial arts studios in deep basements with bearded men dispensing ancient secrets of self-defense. The ever-present smell of cooking rice, its steam scenting everything in the building with a moist sweetness.
Home was Chinatown in years surrounding the Vietnam War. Our tiny community bulged unexpectedly at its seams with the sudden influx of the “boat people” – men, women, and children who had endured the atrocities of war and its blood-soaked aftermath, refusing to surrender their hope for a future in our small New England town.
Most of the politics of the moment drifted leagues above my head. I was just happy to have new friends. With dark hair and darker eyes, my face rounder and my short nose flatter against my face, I was different than my Irish neighbours and they reminded me often. In a room full of same, being different can mean being lonely; I had few friends.
There was Michael, who had multiple sclerosis and fell a lot, but he was funny and liked to play checkers with me, despite my being two years his junior. Tam, who regularly prayed that her brother – kidnapped by the Viet Cong and thrown into the back of a rusting pickup truck one rainy night – would somehow find them in this place, became my new best friend. Her family, my second home.
During my first dinner there, Tam's grandmother handed me chopsticks the same as everyone else. I remember she watched as I picked them up and snagged a slippery piece of grilled fish. She nodded, smiling deep, forcing her creaseless eyes into hiding above apple cheeks flushed with approval. I belonged.
Children can be cruel when differences encroach upon their carefully defined world. And in school, towheaded classmates put fingers at the outer edges of their eyes, pulling them back and up. They mocked the Asian languages they now heard around the playground with taunting sing-song timbres. Without guidance from parents, they had little resources to deal with the clash of cultural differences now dotting their grade-school landscape.
But up we grew, and my Irish genes soon found fertile soil in puberty; my face stretched, my nose lengthened, my hair lightened. My school chums became less interested in our diminishing visual differences and, in time, we set out on different journeys. I left Chinatown with only a passing backward glance to heritage and home.
I applied for a job with a large, multi-national corporation. As part of that hiring process, I was asked to self-identify my ethnic background. I scanned the list and checked off “Asian” without a second thought. The interviewer joked it was good she caught my mistake before the application went upstairs. When I assured her there was no error, I saw her definition of Asian shatter across her face in a series of small ticks and twitches. She forced a thin smile, challenging: “But you look normal.” Wasn’t I? She smoothed a non-existent wrinkle from her dark skirt. “I meant to say,” she offered by way apology, “you don’t look Asian.”
She was right, I don't. The problem is, I am.
I got the job, and have wondered ever since if the hiring manager’s dramatically un-politically correct response factored into my favourability. At the time, however, I was angered by her comments and sought refuge, as I always do, in comfort food. I found the tiniest, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant and ordered my preferred comfort dish, salted pork and preserved egg congee, without looking at a menu. A few minutes after the waitress scribbled my order without looking up, the cook appeared. He glanced at me, and then down at the order he held in his hand. “You want the egg?” He questioned. “Shi,” I affirmed. He grunted an approval and returned to the kitchen. Moments later a steaming bowl of rice-porridge arrived, thick with chunks of salted pork, and a shiny, gelatinous black egg.
This scene has played out too many times in my life to recall them individually. They’ve all blended into a definitive, tangible trend.
In an Asian restaurant, grocery, church, marketplace, I will often be met with a question of assurance. What I’m looking at is not a typical item of choice for those with fair hair and longer faces. Am I sure I want it? When I confirm, in their first language, a smile erupts and I am once again home. When I am outside the often tightly-knit Asian community I hear the jokes and jabs lobbed at visible minorities. I’m proud of my culture and quick to point out that their slur landed closer than they intended.
But what shocks me most is the comment that too often comes as a response: “But you don’t look Asian. You look white.”
It’s meant as a compliment. It’s meant to boost confidence in my ability to “pass”. It’s meant to reassure that I possess enough of the coveted “white privilege” to sleep well at night.
But each time I hear that my heart breaks, just a little.
I know that you are telling me I don’t fit your idea of someone with Asian parentage. And I know that you aren't trying to deny me my heritage, but your assumption that cultures can only look one way broadcasts your inherent bias. When you comment that I can “use chopsticks great” forgive me if I don’t hear the compliment.
If I tell you you’re quite adept with a knife and fork and don’t spill food on your shirt, will you beam with pride? When you pick up books on my desk and flip through them, joking they’re “written backwards” or wonder how I can “read this s**t” forgive me if I don't laugh. Although, I might remind you that the US continued to send children who were less than one quarter Japanese to internment camps until 1949 – four years after WWII ended. They didn't look Asian either.
And when you ask me, with care and concern, “why on earth” I would want to identify as Asian when I “don’t have to”, you wound me.
Even now, excelling in maths and sciences, I still occasionally hear dismissive rumblings from self-identifying “white” colleagues as if, somehow, my successes or driving work ethic are little more than attributes of “Asian genes” and not the result of conscious effort and professionalism.
But am I surprised by it? Not really. In light of the American political landscape, an unstoppable spread of racism is seeping into our lives as racial differences make headlines. And once again I hear familiar affirmations: she looks white.
Like most people with a mixed ethnic heritage, I sometimes struggle to fit into a society that sees life in finites: black/white, gay/straight, right/wrong. Can the “others” that cause us to create new thoughts, new perspectives, survive in a world drawn-and-quartered along such absolutes?
Despite my dyed, auburn hair and hazel eyes, I am Asian. And I am also beginning to explore the other side of my genetic heritage. I'm proud to point out that yes, there’s more to me that just kimchi. But, please, don’t tell me “you’d never guess that I was mixed”.
As a science journalist, I get to write about, among other things, planets. And I was recently asked if I thought we could successfully colonise Mars. We haven’t learned how to colonize this planet successfully. If we don't know how to co-exist peacefully, celebrating our differences as strengths, how can we begin to contemplate life among the stars?
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