March – Santa Monica. Was at the DMV with my father, talking to ourselves. A man saw us and thought we were lost and asked if we needed help. I said that we just needed to find the place to take the permit test and before even asking me, he said, “You’re an international student, right?” This was the second time someone at the DMV assumed that I wasn’t a native. The first time, I walked up to the booth and the lady literally barked at me, “Language Chinese?” When I said “no,” in a frustrated manner, he said, “well you can understand why I thought that right?” and didn’t apologize.
June – Temple City. Was walking out of a tea place when a man came up to me and shoved a paper written with Chinese characters in front of my face, saying “what does this say?” After my initial shock, I walked away and snapped, “I can’t read that,” while he smirked and sneered “thank you.”
I have both the pleasure and misfortune of working in a very wealthy part of Pasadena. Because of this, being in the minority of sales associates where I work and of residents when I stay, I constantly come in contact with people who find me somehow to be an oddity. They believe the questions they ask me are completely innocuous — something they think they have the right to spring out of the blue that in any other situation would be very strange. You don’t have a conversation about fishing and suddenly ask a person what their mother’s maiden name is. But yet, when you’re Asian in a densely-white populated area this is something you have to face on a regular basis.
So I decided to chart moments of microaggressions — no matter how small or insignificant for a month as a project. In the end I was surprised by the findings of my own research.
In the month of July, I was asked what my ethnicity was five times in 30 days, averaging every 6 days. If you only take the first and last occurrences as the range, it turns into every 3.8 days. If you take out the days I did not work, getting out of Temple City and choosing to interact with people raised the likelihood even higher.
Once in July and in August, I was asked three times within 72 hours.
July 4th – Friday, Pasadena. Was at work, talking about a presentation on North Korea. A man who spoke with an accent asked, “Is that where you’re from?” Me: “…No.” Him: “Ancestors?” Me: “No.” Him: “What is your ethnicity?” Later I found out he was Israeli but born in Mexico City. My coworker thought it was ironic that he couldn’t tell that she was half-Mexican.
July 11th – Friday, Pasadena. Was at work, chatting with a woman who was buying a book on Japan for her sister who was going there. I asked how many Asian countries her sister was going to see. In turn, she asked, “So what country are you originally from?” Me: “…I’m from here.” Her: “Oh.” Me: “Originally, I’m from Ohio.” Her: “So you’re an all-American girl, huh?” She apologized and laughed awkwardly. My friend later told me that I probably looked “too Asian” that day.
People think they’re clever and creative. Sometimes they try to work their way into a conversation. Other times, they force their way through. They think they’re smart because they ask me what my ethnicity in the moment I mention anything vaguely foreign or political. Sometimes the moment I open my mouth, so they can interrupt me about something they were jumping up and down to ask.
If the conversation was actually relevant, if I’ve actually known the person for more than three days, or had a conversation longer than thirty minutes and it related to something important, of course I wouldn’t mind.
But most of the time, it’s not the place. Here’s an example.
OKAY: Person A: Yeah, because of my culture my parents are really strict. Like, they don’t let us eat meat because they weren’t raised like that. Person B: If you don’t mind me asking, what is your culture?
NOT OKAY: Person A: Yeah, I heard the sushi at that restaurant is really bad. Person B: So are you Japanese? Person A: No… I just like sushi like everyone else.
August 17th – Sunday, Venice. At a house party with mostly white people, plus some Filipino-American men. They talked about some of their experiences, which was interesting. But I knew it would be only a matter of time when some person would draw the comparison. Most of the people were very accepting and just talked to me as any normal college student. But when I stopped to make a remark to a group at a table, a guy out of the blue asked, “Hey are you Filipino?” Me: “No.” Him: “Where are you from?” Me: “Pasadena.” (I’m actually wearing a shirt that says Pasadena on it.) Him: “Well what is your ethnicity?”
Here’s why you should care.
It is a constant reminder that I do not get to have an identity. I get categorized first as an Asian, sometimes as an Asian girl when people are hitting on me or talking down at me, and only second as a person with an actual personality. (Having a personality first is exclusively a white privilege. People who break their stereotypes get to be seen as the Asian or Black “anti-stereotype.”) People asking me what I am, where I am from, and what my ethnicity are telling me again and again that I do not get to be seen as a normal American. These are not questions that normal Americans receive.
Would you like to be asked “are you gay,” or “where do your parents come from?” or “are you really American?” every six days? Maybe the first few times it would be innocent or even funny. After the 100th time, it ceases to have any more relevance except for what it says about you and the ignorance of other people.
Yes, it does dampen my day and it does make me frustrated. Yes, it is something I am used to, but refuse to be complacent about.
Next time you think about bothering some stranger or near stranger, stop and think to yourself. Is this any of my business? Am I asking something completely irrelevant to the situation or the conversation?
Chances are, your curiosity doesn’t need to be fulfilled. Especially if it comes at the cost of another person, suddenly being disrupted from their fantasy of normality because it happens to them every six days.
“So what are you?”
“I’m American and I’m a human. What about you?”