by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Paula
“Wow. You are so healthy looking. I mean, I think it’s great. I just didn’t think. . .Wow. . .Really. . . You are just so. . .so healthy.”
I first met Rick when I was working in a restaurant in my early twenties. At five feet, five inches and approximately 135 pounds, I guess my physical stature came as quite the shock to him. Though I only worked with him for a few months before he eventually moved on to another job, each time we were on the same shift he couldn’t help but remark upon my “healthy” appearance; clearly my physical presence challenged his own preconceived notions of what he thought an Asian woman would look like in person. I don’t necessarily think he was implying that I was grossly overweight or obese, but I do think his repeated, deliberate (and probably in his mind, polite) choice of the word “healthy” was meant to point out that I was much, much bigger than what he believed Asian women should or would look like. He wasn’t the first one to remark upon my “unusual” or “remarkable” height as an Asian woman, but the way he stared at and talked about my “healthy” self was practically enough to drive a girl to a buffet of eating disorders.
A couple of years earlier, in the winter of 1992, I happened to be in between schools and was waiting tables at another restaurant. It was the time of the Winter Olympics and every television in the bar was set to the Olympic games. I came to dread the ice-skating competitions because inevitably, at least one person from virtually every table would ask me one of the following questions:
~”Has anyone ever told you that you look like Kristi Yamaguchi?”
~”Are you an ice skater, too? It seems like most of the great figure skaters happen to be Asian.”
~”I’m curious about something. . .what is it about your people that makes you so driven and such fierce competitors?”
~”Are you sure you’re not a figure skater? I mean, you are Asian.”
And no matter how witty, how original, how honest or how tactful my reply, the reaction was usually the same: a combination of disappointment, disbelief and frustration that I could not affirm or offer an adequate enough response that supported what they wanted to hear or believe about Asians. Debate with me, yell at me and stiff me on a tip; I’m still not going to tell you that I think I look like Kristi or Midori or any other Asian skater who happens to be in the ’92 Olympics. Newsflash for the obstinate patrons at Tables 22, 23, 26 and 31: We really do NOT all look alike. Really we don’t.
And lest anyone think that the ignorant comments ceased back in my twenties, just last week I was on the receiving end of two comments in two different incidents that were no doubt driven by the Asian stereotypes that still remain alive and well in this country.
The first took place in an upscale grocery store, in the “International Foods” aisle. I was picking up a few items we needed for dinner and there was a slightly older woman standing several feet from me, perusing the Asian food selection. As I passed her en route toward the check out, I noticed she was studying the available options in soy sauce quite intently when I happened to get a funny feeling. Just as I was about to exit that particular aisle, BAM!, she caught up with me. “Excuse me. I was wondering if you could recommend a certain brand of soy sauce that’s suitable for stir frys?” Come on, seriously? Do you honestly think it’s okay to ask that, just because I’m Asian? I just came to get some salsa and a taco kit for my kids. My response of, “Well, I’ve never made a stir fry before, and I’ve only ever used this brand (of soy sauce), which is right there” was none to satisfying for either of us. She looked disappointed and I was slightly perturbed that I didn’t come back with a different response.
I’ll admit, there’s still a part of me that is somewhat uncomfortable with assuming the role of educator in a situation like this and risk once again being called out as the one who is overreacting, the one who is making a scene, the one who is judging others too harshly or the one who is being unnecessarily confrontational. I don’t think this woman’s intent was malicious, just ignorant. Yet, I still walked away feeling as if I didn’t get to finish what I really wanted to say; something that could have been both tactful and effective to give her pause to examine just why I think questions like that are so inappropriate and offensive.
The second occurrence, however, was much more overt and unfavorable in nature. I was picking up a birthday gift for a friend’s daughter and was waiting in line to pay. In front of me was a white male, who looked to be in his forties. When it was his turn to check out, he happened to look behind me and we exchanged glances in the way you acknowledge someone when they happen to be looking right at you. He then looked at the person manning the cash register, a young Asian woman who appeared to be in her early twenties. He got a slight smirk on his face, then looked at me again and then again at her. “Hmmmmmm” he murmured in a suggestive overtone (the best way I can describe it is to think of Joey Tribiani from Friends and his infamous “Hey, how youuuuuu doin’?) that left NO doubt in my mind that he was somehow aroused that two Asian women were practically on either side of him.
I honestly don’t know if the young woman completely caught everything I did, as she was busy scanning all of his purchases and seemingly focused on doing her job. But based on my reaction and subsequent stares, I am quite confident that he knew that I knew what he was thinking. Honestly, who DOES that? And why? Did he really think the store employee and I were going to respond in the manner that would have fulfilled his fantasy: that because two Asian women were in close enough proximity to him that it could have led to a double your pleasure, double your fun kind of escapade? That because we both were Asians, it meant that he could have his way with us – if only in his mind – because after all, isn’t that what we exotic, Asian women were born to do. . .to be sexually submissive and to be the targets of random and frequent objectification, without ever having the right to voice any objections of our own?
So when I finally looked at him square in the eye and said in a somewhat sarcastic, not so approving voice, “Your wife must be so proud” (yes, he was wearing a wedding ring), his look was equal in shock and in offense. (Right. Because it makes sense that he should be the one offended in this whole scenario.) Perhaps he was shocked and offended that an Asian woman would actually speak up, contradicting the notion that we subservient Asian women are better relegated to the position of only being seen and not heard.
As an Asian woman in this country, I know I have sufficiently startled, confused and disappointed many people throughout my lifetime because I have proved to be the wrong kind of Asian. An Asian who counters or challenges the preconceived notions of what many believe an Asian ought to look like, sound like and act like. The gymnastics coach who didn’t understand why I just couldn’t be more graceful and ladylike in my movements. The piano teacher who clearly was not pleased that I couldn’t perform as well as her other Asian students. The math professor who became quite impatient that I wasn’t quite grasping all of the necessary concepts in his Calculus class. The guys at college who would get angry – or worse, be surprised – that I wasn’t more willing to accept their presumptuous and suggestive sexual advances. The coworkers who were obviously displeased that I wasn’t more demure (read: silent) in the monthly meetings. The server at the chain restaurant who thought she was being kind by making it a point to tell me – and only me – “By the way, Miss, you’ll be pleased to know that we make an excellent chicken stir fry.”
On these and on several other occasions I have heard others remark, some under the guise of a joke, “Just what kind of Asian are you anyway?”
As a parent, I harbor no illusions that our almost 6 year-old daughter and 3 year-old son will most likely be subjected to the same set of standards that many hold about what it means to be the right kind of Asian. As for the argument that they’re the lucky ones because at least the Asian stereotypes are amongst the more “favorable” ones, I must respectfully disagree. My children will still (and already have) get put into the box by many who cry foul the moment my children’s behavior pushes the limits of what they believe the acceptable Asian parameters to be.
The truth of the matter is, any person of color in this country has an infinitely harder time – if not an impossible one – of being seen “as is” – beyond the restricting stereotypes, beyond the often assigned and unfair labels, beyond the limited images that the media has constructed and beyond the powerful internalized messages that each one of us possesses.
I want my children to know that the onus is not on them to perform, sound and look a certain way in order to make others comfortable, simply because they are Asian. I want them to know that despite what others may think and believe their personalities, interests or capabilities ought to be, it is up to them to make the decisions that best reflect the thoughts, feelings, goals and dreams that reside in their own hearts and minds. I want them to be empowered with the knowledge and the language that gives them the confidence and the voice to determine what it personally means for them to be a person of color in this country. Most of all, I want them to know they are “right” just exactly the way they are, regardless of what others may tell them about what constitutes a “good”, “normal” or “acceptable” kind of Asian.
I am Asian who is a size 8. I am an Asian who didn’t obtain her Bachelors degree until she was 35 years old. I am an Asian who will voice her opinion, even when it is not explicitly asked for. I am an Asian who often prefers French Fries over rice. I am an Asian who does not appreciate “those” kinds of looks from men who act as if I’d enjoy what they happen to be thinking.
In the eyes of many, I will always be the wrong kind of Asian. But I am finally at the point in my life when I can say that those opinions will not and do not hold any significant influence anymore on who I choose and want to be.
And somehow, that feels perfectly right to me.
Paula was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted as an infant into her family in 1971. She and her husband, Sean, have two children; a five year-old daughter and a son who is almost three. Paula currently is a full-time mom, part-time volunteer for various social justice organizations and is also a licensed elementary and middle school math teacher. She blogs about her experiences as a transracial adoptee and adoptive parent at Heart, Mind and Seoul.