If you’re Asian American, the chances are, you’ve heard this question more than once. You probably smiled, more to cover up your horror at the questioner’s ignorance than to put them at ease. Or, if you’re like me, your eyes almost roll out of your head, because you know the questioner is expecting an answer different from, say, “Texas.” Maybe the questioner is actually being sincere, and this does happen, albeit rarely. I raised my guard once, only to have the questioner tell me he asked because I don’t sound like a New Yorker. Thank you, I guess?
In the wake of last week’s all-too-believable report about the President, a ton of old suppressed slights resurfaced as if they just happened yesterday. My Twitter rant about it begins here. This expectation for Asian Americans to be white people’s model minority, to docilely accept what I have without seeming so uppity as to demand a meritocratic parity with my colleagues, has and will continue to gall me until my dying day.
There very likely isn’t a single AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) who hasn’t had this asked of them, hasn’t gritted their teeth upon hearing this, hasn’t thought, “my God, what else do I have to prove that I’m just as American as a white person who was born here?”
As a child in New York City, a town where your ethnicity often dictates your very identity, you grow up with this question. You get so damn tired of the question because of the frequency with which it’s asked. In elementary school, before we moved to Texas, my standard answer was always, “Manhattan,” because The City always had sway over racist bullies in Staten Island. No, where are you really from? New York Hospital, I’d say, knowing full well that the answer would earn me a punch that I might or might not be able to dodge. These bullies would grow into men with the tricolors of Ireland and Italy on their car bumpers without ever having visited their ancestral country, while I never made a big deal about my three trips to Korea during my childhood.
“Where are you from, Private Kim?” This, from a staff sergeant in charge of a live fire range at Fort Drum, in the frozen tundra of the North Country. “New York City, Sergeant.” Not good enough for this guy, who interrupted the safety brief – you know, the kind of boring but important “don’t do this or you’ll get blown up” warning everyone receives before being cleared onto the range with live ammunition. “Naw, Kim, I bet you got some friends or relatives in the ROK (Republic of Korea) Army, dontcha?” What the actual F? We were freezing our asses off, waiting for this guy to do the one thing the Army probably trusted him to do without screwing up too badly, while he reminisced about ROK soldiers he’d known with my surname. Great, that’s only about a third of the ROK Army. “You’re not a KATUSA on some kind of exchange tour, are you?” By this point, I just wanted to puke the MRE I’d just eaten. Korean Augmentations to the US Army are Korean soldiers assigned to American units; their role is a mix of translator and cultural guide at almost every echelon. My platoon sergeant, a crusty veteran of Grenada and Panama, finally told him to shut up and do his job, or he’d plant a size 13 boot sideways up his fourth point of contact.
I want to avoid blaming that staff sergeant, because he was only one of many noncommissioned officers who straight up asked me: why was I an infantryman, not working with computers or intelligence; why did I enlist as a private, not join the Army as an officer after receiving a degree from an expensive university, like so many other Asian Americans; when did I come to the United States; why didn’t you request assignment to Korea so that “you could be closer to your own people;” I could probably kick ass in a bar fight because I know kung fu. And that’s just a sampling of the tamer things I was told, signaling that I could never be accepted in their eyes as a fellow American. Forget American soldier – they could not bring themselves to see me as a fellow American. The same went for the good ol’ boys at Fort Polk who wondered why the visiting unit (to which I was assigned) had so many gooks; let’s just say we had words, and I have a scar on the third knuckle of my right hand as a permanent reminder.
“You can’t be from here, Orientals don’t work in wine.” Thanks for showing your true colors, Prominent TV Chef I Once Worked With. Yes, Chef, I’m here, in a restaurant that serves dry-aged steaks and updated American classics – not sides of fried rice – and improving a list that just received Wine Spectator‘s Award of Excellence. Even now, over 15 years later, I continue to see that my two decades of experience working with wine can never quite trump some self professed wine professionals who happen to not be Asian American. Guess what those folks look like? Not like me.
“Your English is so good!” Thanks, it happens to be my first language, and my Spanish is better than my Korean. “Let me guess: Chinese/Japanese/Chinese/Filipino?” Try New Yorker, but thanks for playing. And please, for the love of every god in the known world, don’t try to impress me by greeting me in what you think might be my native tongue. Where would you like me to be from, in order to satisfy your preconceived notions of me upon meeting me for the first time? Where should I be from, if not New York and Texas? Do I ask you when your European forebears landed at Ellis Island? Demand to see the passenger manifest from the steamer that brought them from Limerick or Bremen?
Where am I from? I’m from about ten miles from here. If we can start with that baseline, I’d be thrilled, but I ain’t holding my breath.