In retrospect, being a member of a small racial minority is both like sticking out like a sore thumb and being invisible at the same time.
Actually, it wasn’t an issue for me at all while growing up in New York state. It just didn’t seem to matter. But all that changed when we moved to Texas, back in the ‘70’s. I know parts of Texas are very different now but at that time when we were living in Houston, there just were no Asians living there. My freshman high school class had 1000 students, 6 of us were Asian. The ones that arrived later were primarily recent immigrants. Thus I/we stuck out like a sore thumb, not to be mistaken for a rose among the thorns. I didn’t look like anyone else, I didn’t act or think like anyone else. I didn’t talk like the people that looked most like me. This was an adolescent’s worst nightmare.
The Texans of the era responded to me with a sort of friendly-unfriendliness: “WHERE. ARE. YOU. FROM?” (loudly and slowly).
Me: “From Houston”
Them: “NO. BEFORE. THAT.”
Me: “New York?”
Them: “NO. ORIGINALLY.”
Me: “I was born in Georgia.”
Them: “Oh….. well you speak really good English” (not so loudly or slowly by this point).
Me (to myself): “Fortunately for me because I don’t speak Chinese.”
This conversation happened more than you might suppose. Once a week, probably.
Or I love this one too:
Them: “WHAT. IS. YOUR. NAME?”
Me: “Sue.” (I was “Sue” then.)
Them: “SOO? DID I SAY THAT CORRECTLY?”
Some days I felt that even the friendly-unfriendly queries were better than just being ignored. When I wasn’t an ethnic curiosity, I was just invisible. Waiters would take my order and my money, eventually, but service above and beyond that was not readily available to me, but usually there for my table mate. I couldn’t get a refill, a cup of coffee, a correction of my meal, an extra napkin to save my life. Usually I’d be saying “excuse me!” to the waiter’s back, after he checked to make sure my companion had all she needed. The same was true at butcher and deli counters. If it didn’t have a pull-number system I was only served after everyone else there had been taken care of, and even then sometimes I had to remind them that I was still there. The net effect was that I believed that others’ needs were more important than mine, that I didn’t deserve attention or equal consideration. Since I had no confidence, that extra time did give me an opportunity to eloquently formulate the wording of my request, “Uhh. I’d. Like. A. Pound. Of. Salami. Pleasethankyou.”
Everything changed for me when I moved to San Francisco for school. There I was ignored. Just like everyone else, hallelujah! It was an actual epiphany to realize what it was like to be just like, and treated just like, everyone else. I didn’t have to wonder if I was getting treated a certain way because of my race. I finally started to meet some men who didn’t think I was just a cute kewpie doll-geisha-anomaly. I learned to speak up at deli counters and cash registers all over the city, and even told other customers who tried to cut ahead of me where they should go (to the back of the line, of course). I would have never done that in my Texas days. I felt my confidence grow in leaps and bounds, and I don’t take that confidence for granted since I haven’t always had it.
Living now in Virginia I had worried that my kids would also feel marginalized because of race. It’s not clear to me they even recognized they were different while growing up. One son asked if we were Jewish. Another didn’t even have words to describe people of different races. Later, as their self-awareness grew, they stated that it’s cool to be Asian. I agree. I really love the Asian accents now, whereas when I was a hormonal teenager I just found the accents annoying. Now I’m the embarrassed one because I can’t speak the native language of my parents. If I hadn’t spent so much time rejecting my heritage back then, then maybe I could’ve benefited more from it.
I guess the only regret I have now about being a minority now is that it’s difficult to cultivate my heritage when there are so few Chinese people in the community. I would like to attend a great big Chinese New Year’s celebration each year. I want someone to commiserate with about how annoying/wonderful Chinese parents are or how awful the Asian restaurants are around here. I want a friend who has a supply of dried scallops or fermented black beans in their pantry in case of an emergency. I would love to try to learn Mandarin again and have someone to practice with who won’t laugh at my miserable accent.
Regret aside, now, I wouldn’t trade being Asian for anything. I love my heritage and the cultural influence it has had on me, particularly the emphasis on food, family, education and more food. I love playing Chinese Mother and plying my visitors with an array of treats and home cooking until they’re about to burst. I treasure my mom’s dresses she made when she was still in China. I like looking distinctive as it gives me an edge when I wish to be remembered or be noticed (downside: I have to be on my best behavior). People also think I’m more intelligent than I really am (because we’re all so smart). Plus, Asian women age well, particularly useful right about now. It helps I don’t get the Where Are You From questions anymore. And now when people stare at me, I just assume it’s because of my radiant smile.
Question: All these years I have never formulated a proper response to Where Are You From? What should I have said?