“Do you… speeaaaak… English?” – Pizza Hut waitress, 1990
It was in kindergarten when I first learned I was Asian. Sure, there had always been signs–I was nearsighted, loved rice, and caused an unfortunate tricycle accident at age 3–but I’d always just assumed it was typical of American families to speak two languages at home and get insulted by employees at Pizza Hut.
It all changed when I arrived at KinderCare, a veritable child’s paradise full of apple sauce, alphabet books, and… other kids. While I had certainly seen other children before, I’d never seen so many in the same place, all looking somewhat different. One intrepid boy finally gathered the courage to welcome the new alien in their midst, coming up to me and saying, quite eloquently, “Ching chang ching chong choo.” Ever the clever linguist, I responded by smacking him on the head with a Tonka truck. I had to sit in time-out for the rest of the day.
Despite my crude introduction to ethnicity, I never thought much about being Chinese… mostly because there weren’t any other Chinese people around. Growing up, there was only one other Asian girl in our elementary school, Lisa. The fact that we had rhyming names made it a lot easier to mix us up, even though she was Vietnamese and stood a foot taller than me. When her family moved to California in the fifth grade, my mother celebrated – now that we were the only Asians left in the school, she didn’t have to introduce herself at parent-teacher conferences anymore. Everyone knew she was Teresa’s mom.
Of course, assimilating into American culture wasn’t always easy. When our Pizza Hut waitress found out we did speak English, she proceeded to ask if we celebrated Christmas too. But the cultural learning went both ways. When I was twelve, I accompanied a friend to Mass. I had never been inside a church before, so I had no idea what to expect. “Don’t worry,” my friend whispered. “Just do everything I do.” So I bowed, I prayed, and I followed her up to the altar where I proceeded to grab the cookie out of the priest’s hand. It was not very good. Only later did I find out that I had just spit out the body of Christ. Suffice to say, that was the first and only time I’ve taken Communion.
WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?
I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” followed by, “No, where are you really from?” I usually say I’m from Boston, but I’m really from Indiana, where I was born. And even though I look like I could regale you with stories of Confucius, I’m probably better equipped to tell tales of my adventures to Dairy Queen. Of course, no one asks me about that.
There are certain expectations that come with being Asian. We are good at math. We are socially awkward. We know kung fu. We are terrible drivers. All these stereotypes are interrelated–We are good at math mostly because our Tiger Mothers read calculus textbooks to us instead of Goodnight Moon. This, in turn, ensures that we are poorly socialized and ostracized by our classmates, so we do kung fu (usually in a cave) to cope with our loneliness. After honing our kung fu skills to master gravity, flying from rooftop to rooftop, we recognize the banality of on-the-ground transportation. Thus, we never properly learn how to drive.
Obviously, these are mostly harmless stereotypes. But the uglier stereotypes of Asians–that we are cheap, bigoted, and cold-hearted–are not necessarily true either.
This winter, our family took a trip to Taiwan to visit my grandparents. In Taiwan, the first thing we did was go to Costco, to buy a gift for a family friend’s engagement party… which is being cost-effective, not cheap. In Costco, we passed by a huge display of Black Man’s Toothpaste, the best-selling brand in Taiwan… which is reverential, not racist. When we arrived at the hotel for the engagement party, we were greeted by a beautiful ice sculpture, which prompted my dad to say, confused, “What does L-O-V-E mean?” …which means that Asians have daddy issues too, just like everyone else.
For some reason, men love Asian women. All types of men… but mostly white guys. As an Asian woman, I often wonder why. Perhaps it’s the allure of an exotic beauty. Or the promise of attractive, half-Asian children. Or it’s the fact that our feet are the size of normal people’s hands.
Today, it’s no longer just white guys who do the picking. Asian women actively pursue non-Asian men too. Every woman wants to find a Maury Povich to their Connie Chung. This leaves me feeling bad for Asian men, who are often left with just their engineering prowess and no one to wrap their skinny arms around.
At the same time, it’s not all roses for Asian women either. We have to deal with the freaks, the pervs, the tools, and the fetishists. We have to answer questions like “Where are you really from?” which inevitably just makes the guy sound like he’s marking countries off a map. And we also have to appease our parents and grandparents, because if we’re not married with kids by 30, our eggs will shrivel up and the bloodline will die with us.
I’m just glad that I have a brother.
TOTAL WORLD DOMINATION
Even with all the stereotypes, the William Hung references, and the occasional ignorant Pizza Hut employee, there are advantages to being Asian in America. Since people can’t tell Asians apart, we can sneak into bars with other Asians’ IDs, find a stunt double to sit in for us at work, and get away with murder (good luck picking the perp in that all-Asian lineup). Asian kids rarely get kidnapped (high-profile, baby kidnapping is mainly a Caucasian sport), and we don’t have to worry that much about identity theft–Unless another Asian has jacked our credit cards, the cashier would probably find something suspicious: “But you don’t look like the type who’d have three consecutive vowels in your last name…” Thus, being Asian affords us peace of mind.
Of course, the one downside to being Asian is that it gets tiring to keep up the peace signs/bunny ears for every photograph we take. But in spite of that, Asians in America have come a long way, and we haven’t peaked yet. So watch out for us, because we’re taking over. After all, with our squinty eyes, straight hair, and aversion to sunlight, we’re pretty similar to vampires… and vampires are really “in” now.