Do I need to travel to China?

Crossposted from Mixed Race America

Today at Staples I was waiting to make 5 photocopies at the single copier that was working. An elderly gentleman (probably in his 70s) was photocopying what looked to be (and turned out to be) his legal life documents. He was affable enough–even offered to interrupt his copies to let me jump in, but he said he was almost done and in an effort to fit in more to Southern norms and culture (ie: to be more patient) I said it was OK for me to wait and he really was done within about 7 minutes (a long time for me but in the scheme of things, probably not a big deal).

At any rate, as he finished up, he turned his attention to me and asked: “Are you Hawaiian?”

Let me pause here and note that I was wearing a brown sundress that showed off a lot of my skin, which at this point in the summer is a fairly healthy caramel color. I also had my hair down, and I don’t know if these things are stereotypically “Hawaiian” or not but I also have to say that when I have been mistaken for “Hawaiian” it’s normally older white American men whose dalliance with the South Pacific has taken the form of a trip to Oahu or Maui where I’m sure they’ve seen lots of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans who are local and hence “Hawaiian” and perhaps I do look like them. I should also add, though I’m sure you can guess, that this older man is white.

Anyway, I say: “No”

And he insists that I look Hawaiian and I shrug my shoulders and say I’m not, at which point he asks the dreaded question that ALL ASIAN AMERICANS HAVE HAD TO ANSWER AND THAT MOST OF US HATE: “Where ARE you from? Which country?”

Me (sighing inside–I mean, I just want to make 5 lousy photocopies): “I’m from the United States of America.”

Him, now a bit flustered: “No, I know that, I mean, where are your parents from…where are your people from?”

Me (not willing to give in): “California”

Him: (now he’s bemused and acting like I’m retarded rather than being frustrated by my obvious deference of his questions): “No, I mean what is your ancestry? Where are your ancestors from?”

To which I tell him that if he’s asking about my ethnic background, it’s China/Chinese.

Him: “Oh! Ni hao?”

Me (now being deliberately obtuse): “Sir, if you are inquiring as to whether I speak Cantonese or Mandarin, I do not.”

Him: (now laughing amiably because he thinks we’re having a jolly little conversation): “Oh, I’ve been to China several times and have picked up a few useful phrases. Have you ever visited China?”

Me: (now just annoyed, I mean, he’s a nice older fellow, but really, I JUST WANT TO MAKE MY PHOTOCOPIES): “No, I’ve never been to China.”

Him: (he’s now VERY SURPRISED and in ADVICE mode): “But you HAVE to go to China. It’s where your people are from!”

And I just shrugged and made my photocopies and he left, finally.

And so, here’s the question: Do I really NEED to go to China? My Mom grew up in Jamaica (yes, I omitted that from our conversation because I really didn’t want to be talking to the man in the first place) and my father fled China in the 1950s. There are no close relatives in China, that I know of. I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. I have nothing against China–I would love to walk on the Great Wall, to visit Shanghai, to see the Weigar population of Western China. But there are also places I’d love to go: Italy, Tibet, Costa Rica, Kenya, the Galapagos Islands, Great Britain. Do I owe China a top priority because I have an ethnic connection?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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