The New York Times posted a video on Facebook (#thisis2016) about the discrimination Asian Americans face, and I watched it. In it, a group of Asians lists the ways in which they’ve experienced racism in this country.
I’m sorry that I can say this, but I relate to much of it. I’ve gotten many of those comments.
Even sadder is that it doesn’t even faze me anymore. If it happens, I learned long ago not to get upset.
I’m bi-racial: mostly Chinese and some Native Hawaiian. But for this blog, we’ll just call me Asian.
I’m a fourth generation American on my mother’s side. My great-grandparents came from China to work the cane fields. My father’s ancestry is Native Hawaiian, so I’m not sure how to account for my Americanism on that side.
My first language is English and my second attempt at language is Spanish. My cultural identity is fairly American.
People are ignorant, and often, they aren’t even malicious about it. They’re just small. You have to be bigger to overlook it, and feel compassion for how narrow their worldview is.
I’ve lived in Hawaii much of my life – from birth to age five, then through middle and high school, and then from 1996 onward. I’m somewhat insulated against what is happening in the rest of the country.
Here, Asians are the majority, and interracial marriages seem the norm to me. The biggest ethnic mix-up I get here is to be mistaken for a Japanese national while strolling in Waikiki.
However, I’ve gotten my fair share of racist comments over the years while on the mainland. Here are some:
In elementary school in Connecticut, kids would always, always pull their eyes into slants at me and say things like “Ching Chong Chinaman.” Funny thing is, I couldn’t even see ethnicity at that age. I just saw people.
Once, my parents and I could not get served at a Friendly’s on the East Coast. It wasn’t in Connecticut, which was a pleasant experience (aside from those school kids.) It was a colony state, but I can’t recall which one.
They acted like they didn’t even see us. We seated ourselves and waited for service, but the waitresses avoided our table, yet helped customers who came in after us. My parents finally got the hint and left. We were angry and hurt. And hungry.
Living in San Jose was a lot easier for us. The Asian community in California was larger and longer established.
Because it felt more free, I didn’t notice much racism in my youth in California. However, as an adult, I’ve traveled there several times with my Caucasian husband, and noticed with surprise that restaurant staff only speak to Claus.
They don’t appear prejudiced. I think it’s a deeply ingrained, subconscious reaction to assume the colored face can’t speak English – or as well as the white one. Ironically, English is my first language, but my husband’s second.
Going slightly off geographical topic, we got stared at a lot in Denmark, too, which is Claus’ homeland. The Danes are famed for their fairness and open mindedness, but I think it was still a novelty to see an interracial couple. I haven’t been to Denmark since 2009, so perhaps things have changed.
I can’t recall if we got covert stares in other European countries – probably because I was too busy sightseeing – but I do know that European restaurant staff also uniformly address Claus, not me. I can’t speak to that because I haven’t lived in Europe.
I can speak to my homeland, though, and America has had an Asian population since the 16th century. It’s really lame of other Americans to be so dense.
In New Mexico, people assumed I was either White or Other. I suppose in many parts of the country that expands to include a third choice, African-American. “Other” in New Mexico usually meant Native American Indian, Latino, or Asia— sorry, make that Oriental since we’re going full bore.
My boss, a really nice Italian-American, thought I would be excellent with numbers than other races. He believed it was hardwired into our DNA. “So… you guys aren’t all good at math?” he said.
When I lived in Pennsylvania, I could not make a friend to save my life. I’m sure it was racism, because I have always make friends quickly – both before and after my time in Scranton. (“The Office” on NBC portrays Scranton as a much nicer place than it was in my reality.)
People were mostly polite to my face but regarded me warily. I never saw another Asian person while living there for six months. I felt tolerated but not accepted.
A few years later, I was living in Hawaii. I met a lawyer at court who asked if I happened to be a TV reporter in Scranton in 1995, because he remembered seeing someone who looked like me.
The memory stood out for him, he said, because there were no other Asians on TV at that time. Talk about coincidence and confirmation.
To be fair, there were a couple of nice folks I met in Scranton; my neighbors. This lawyer also seemed like an open individual. He even mentioned he adopted a daughter from China.
Good exists. You sometimes have to look harder for it.
Scranton is the kind of place President Obama meant when he remarked in 2008 that some small town residents get bitter and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” Scranton was a long time coal mining town – the anthracite capital of the world. I wasn’t like them, and they let me know it.
I’ve taken many trips to New York City over my lifetime. Sometimes, my parents and I would catch a Broadway play on the weekend, or we’d take out-of-town relatives down to explore the city. I also have cousins living in Manhattan, so we’d visit for dinner once in a while. At various points in my adulthood, I’ve also had reasons to visit New York.
It’s a city of immigrants, and naturally, I’m expected to be one. This is the only place where people have asked me “Where are you from?” often followed by “Your English is so good!” It’s ironic I was paid to speak for a living.
When I was living in New Jersey, I said, “Jersey.”
I remember one man – and he wasn’t white, just so you know – persist, “But before that?”
“Hawaii,” I answered. I’m sure he had no idea what that meant. He probably didn’t know where Hawaii was or if it was part of the US.
“But before that?” he pressed.
When nightclubbing in Manhattan, a drunk guy kept approaching me for a dance. I declined, and frustrated, he finally swore at me and called me a gook.
He didn’t even get his racial slurs correct. What a double idiot.
Speaking of racial slurs, remember four years ago when the media bashed the NBA’s Jeremy Lin with the “chink in the armor” comment – along with some other derogatory remarks?
That really upset me. I totally felt for him, because I know; I’ve been there.
So I’m in Hawaii now, and I’ve been here for a long time. I don’t get racially disrespected. It’s nice being part of the norm.
I don’t actually carry the racism with me. I don’t brace for it when I travel out of state. It doesn’t usually happen, but if it does, I just blow it off.
The thing that’s been enlightening for me in this situation has been travel. I’ve been to half the US states and almost two dozen other countries. Luckily for me, it happened consistently from a young age, when my worldview was still forming.
I see the world as a unified place, with good and bad people, smart and stupid ones, sensitive and insensitive ones. One jerk doesn’t speak for his or her entire race.
I work on being happy and secure within myself, and calm towards others. You can’t take things personally. If the situation presents itself, I try to dispel flawed notions with gentleness, because getting angry would only shut the other person down.
And I try (TRY) to bring my best self to the world every day, in case someone’s looking and expecting me to be a representative for my entire people.