[Photo credit: Trisha Arora. This image is from the Asian American Student series, “So where are you really from?” The goal is to challenge the stereotype of the “perpetual foreigner” that impacts Asian/Asian Americans in the United States.]
A couple of days ago, I read the NYT article, “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back To China” by Michael Luo.
In the ensuing days, Luo started collecting stories of similar experiences of racial discrimination from Asian Americans in the U.S. He is using #thisis2016 on Twitter.
I immediately identified with Luo’s piece. Being assumed to be a foreigner is so commonplace that I have developed a “spidey sense” when it comes to preparing myself for these comments. I am also prepared for the inevitable responses by others that I should not make a big deal about these types of comments; that they are small microaggressions or just comments made by people who are not educated or don’t know better.
I reject those opinions. These comments in total suggest that I’m not a real American based on my ethnicity, race, or presumed citizenship status. Without knowing anything about me, these comments let me know the other person assumes I am “foreign.”
As Luo writes,
This was not my first encounter, of course, with racist insults. Ask any Asian-American, and they’ll readily summon memories of schoolyard taunts, or disturbing encounters on the street or at the grocery store. When I posted on Twitter about what happened, an avalanche of people replied back to me with their own experiences.
Here are some of the examples from my own life (some shared on Twitter):
- On a recent flight, was asked by a man, “Where are you from?” When I asked why he wanted to know, he responded, “Because I thought maybe you were from a foreign country.”
- When I refused to provide my name for a retail store’s marketing database, the salesman said, “Okay, how about if I just put your name as Suzy Wong?”
- My son and I were once followed by a woman who kept muttering, “You f-ing chinks!” over and over.
- My husband and I were in a neighborhood park when a father and son (about 10 years old or so, in a neighborhood baseball uniform) walked by. The dad said to my husband, who is white, “You must have clean laundry.”
- I had a teacher who once scribbled some things on the chalkboard and said “This is what Chinese looks like. Well, not really, but you get the idea.”
- Once, at a child welfare training, the speaker asked me, “So what are some of the things child welfare workers should know about when interacting with your people?” He was referring to the Hmong population in the state; I am Korean.
- In the category of Too Many Times to Count (part 1): “Your english is so good!” or, “you don’t have an accent!” (usually said in surprise)
- In the category of Too Many Times to Count (part 2): “No, where are you REALLY from?” If I insist I’m from the U.S. they say, “I mean, like, your parents?”
- In the category of Too Many Times to Count (part 3): “Learn how to drive/walk/_____ you chink!”
- In the category of Too Many Times to Count (part 4): White men who greet me with, “Ni Hao,” “Konichiwa,” or bow with their hands folded together.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. Most of these I file under”everyday racism” and go on with my day. Some of the people who say these things say them because they are curious about me; others are intentionally trying to let me know they don’t like me because of my race and ethnicity. All of these comments tell me that to the speaker, I am not a “real” American.