It all started in the dinner line at DRA bistro. I’d already been served risotto, and was waiting for my side dishes. A guy joined the queue to order lemon chicken. The bistro staff who served him repeated, “Lemon chicken,” in a quasi-French accent. She then turned to me and idly said, “I don’t know what ‘lemon chicken’ is in Chinese. Do you know?”
By that point, I was busy eyeing the roast courgette, so when I looked up, I was startled to see she was looking at me.
I was born and raised in New York, and my parents are from Thailand. Their parents are Chinese, but my mom and dad consider themselves Thai. So I identify as American-with-Thai-parents.
Automatically, I smiled widely at the DRA bistro lady and said, “Oh, I’m not Chinese.”
And she said, “Well, that’s no good then.”
As I moved down the queue, I experienced mild shock. In my year of living in St Andrews, I had never experienced blatant racial assumptions to my face. In fact, I’ve always appreciated that no one ever seemed confused when I told them I was from New York, or asked the infamous, “but where are you from originally?”
Some of you might be wondering what’s wrong with that: if I look Asian, isn’t it safe to assume that I’m not “originally” from America, a predominantly white country? And, regarding the incident in the DRA bistro, what’s wrong with being Chinese?
If you think I’m being ridiculous with these questions, both are things I’ve been asked before, to my face. I shouldn’t have to say such obvious things, but here we go – there’s nothing wrong with being an immigrant, and there’s nothing wrong with being Chinese.
What’s actually wrong, however, is questioning my nationality, as if I’m not “actually” American. My nationality is something I get to decide, not you. Yes, there’s more to my story than “just” being from New York. But New York is my home, and for a stranger to doubt that based on something as arbitrary as my race is infuriating.
There is also something wrong with assuming that because I’m East Asian, I’m Chinese. There are more countries in Asia than just China – or Japan, or Korea, or (if an ignorant idiot is particularly worldly) the Philippines.
I realize that nearly everyone who asks these questions or makes these assumptions does not mean them maliciously. That’s why my gut instinct is to smile and politely correct them, as I did with the lady in the DRA bistro. I know that once I show that I’m offended, they’ll get defensive, and things will escalate.
That is why I’m writing this – to raises awareness. Unwitting racism may be less serious than the witting kind, but it is still serious. Seemingly harmless questions and expectations can be dehumanizing: they make me feel like I’m being seen as a stereotype, not an actual person.
Please, stop assuming things about me based solely on my race. You do not know me. I’m tired of dealing with surprise and confusion when I correct the generalizations imposed on me.
Illustration: Genevieve Borrowdale-Cox