Every Six Days: A Social Experiment on Microaggressions

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?”



  1. Ahhh, the infamous post. I see what you mean now.

    I’ve heard similar incidents happen here and there in the US and I find this story interesting and I can relate, strangely enough.

    I’m a Franco-Tunisian born outside of both countries and I did not live in Tunisia. I didn’t even live in France until I was 17 years old. I learned French at home with my parents and in school in Egypt and while I like to think that my French is reasonably good as my second language, I am consistently told that I have an accent and it’s true. On the other hand, people have told me that they understand me when I speak French because I don’t swallow my words. But that’s another story.

    The way I relate to this is because of the point I made about my French and the way I have only been living in France for the last six years. I was in Paris for an internship at UNESCO for a few months. Walking with a friend, someone asked me for directions. I gave them to the best of my knowledge. Afterwords, he consistently asked me where I was from. I told him I wasn’t Parisian, I was from Lyon (the city I’ve been living in for the last few years). But that didn’t appease him, he just kept going on until he gave up and walked off.

    What really strikes me is that unlike me, you’re born and raised in the US, a third (?) generation Chinese American with a link to China that is fragile at best. And yet, in this environment, it’s still not obvious that you have more in common with them than with persons in China.

    You know, I think I’ll go there myself and speak English there and when they ask me where I’m from, I’ll drop the bomb and tell them the truth. That I’m not from the US or Canada.

    1. Yeah, I’m aware that it’s a little different in Europe, with constant immigration and Europeans constantly being strangers in each others’ countries. The racial nuances seem to be a little different. Another thing that’s crazy is that a lot of my biracial Asian friends also get the same treatment as you described. That always surprises me because I had always thought it was purely appearance that caused those assumptions. Your last note is the part of the reason why I wrote this seemingly controversial post. My accent is clearly Californian. I dress in a typical American fashion. I initiate animated conversations with strangers about topics involving American pop culture and history. Still, people are often surprised when I tell them I’m from the states. The funny thing was that at my university, people would make remarks like “oh, you’re not a real Asian,” based on the way I acted, as a compliment. Basically, most of the time, I feel like I get denied both identities, and I just get viewed as whatever people immediately label me as. As for the last note, you should definitely visit me if you ever come by here! I’m guessing your English-speaking accent is authentic enough to draw some heads when you say that.

  2. Well, to be fair, even as a European and a North African, I am an anomaly. You can easily fit the number of bilingual/trilingual Tunisians into a luxury cruise liner. In my case though, I am what they call a TCK (Third Culture Kid) which means that I have a culture of my own based on my parents’ culture and the culture of the countries I lived in. And the school I went to had a high population of US citizens and the majority of my teachers were from the US, to the point where when I first went to the UK to study, I was constantly mistaken for someone from the US and Canada (I did actually say I was to a group of strangers on a train, but only because I was confident that I would never see them again. I told them I was from Boston. They were from England and had never been to “America” as they call it so I got away with it).

    In the UK, to be “Asian” usually means to be from South Asia (Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, etc.) because of the communities living in the UK who came from what was formerly known as British India. There tend to be more people from that community than people originally from China, since the only part of China that was part of Britain was Hong Kong.

    If you want a vague idea of what I sound like, I do have this vlog from my first undergrad work experience

    It dates from 2011, but my accent is such that I do have influences of the UK as well in some of the words I say and my turn of phrase

      1. Yeah, you could totally pass for American. I’m surprised though, your voice sounds different than I expected, kinda reminds me of an actor though I’m not too sure who. I’ve read a little into Third Culture Kids and I think it’s pretty fascinating and vital to understanding the world better to know about individuals who have really lived and experienced their lives around the world. It definitely seems appealing to get to know TCK friends (or lovers) and understand an entirely different type of experience.

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