I have jet black hair, slanted eyes, and tan skin – I can’t mask being Asian. When striking up a conversation, be it with a classmate, carpool mate, or fellow church-goer, we trade intros and questions: “How are you?” “How was your day?” “What is your major?” And then I get the inevitable, “Where are you from?”
When I say, “Born in Florida, raised in Houston,” I usually notice the astonishment, then disappointment. That triggers the probing: “Okay, but where are your parents from?” or, more boldly, “Where are you really from?” as if my previous answer wasn’t enough. Translation: “What kind of Asian are you?” It’s like asking a breathing human being, “So, what kind of vase are you? Made in China? Made in Taiwan?”
Sometimes, the question strikes abruptly towards an assumed answer: “Do you speak Japanese/Chinese/Korean?” Just like that. Ever since grade school, I’ve received those inquires from strangers I don’t even know for more than a minute. Once, a man called out, “Mei hao!” Not even a, “Where are you from?” Just an assumption of my national origins, and the fact that I would understand.
I’m not Japanese. I’m not Chinese. I’m not Korean. When they discover, gasp, I’m not any of those things, sometimes they confess they relied on, not just my appearance, but my accent. My accent is not something I picked up overseas. I picked it up listening to my mother and grandmother. And suddenly, I get so self-conscious about the way my words leave my throat. Suddenly, the burden is on me to speak more American, to speak less exotic to avoid questions.
Even if the probing person does happen to get my national origins correct, it’s still quite vexing. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m an exotic vase to them. You got lucky when you straight-away inquired, “You speak Vietnamese?” So what? You still made a guessing game out of my ethnicity. Guessing right doesn’t get you a prize. I’m still reduced to your foreigner monkey, someone who gets asked things like, “Well, have you ever been to Vietnam? Like, for soul-searching?” This is only the beginning of the questions about Vietnam.
Let me be clear: I’m not your travel guidebook. No, I don’t know that place, Vietnam, some place you’re curious about because you want to travel beyond the borders of America. Go Google “Vietnam travel” if you want travel tips – don’t assume I’ve been there or grew up there. And no, I honestly don’t have that much interest visiting Vietnam or “soul-searching my heritage.” I’m not the travel fantasy you’re projecting on me.
It’s frustrating to explain yourself, over and over again. I shouldn’t have the burden of explaining the racial identity politics and general invalidation of Asian-American’s… well, American status. I’m not from some faraway place. I belong to America.
Would the words, “I was born in America (or this city/state)” satisfy you just fine? I come from America, from Houston, Texas. Leave it at that. If you’re my friend, and I’m in a storytelling mood, I’ll tell you about my family history as refugees fleeing the gunfire of the Vietnam War. But it’s my family story to tell. Let me initiate it, the informing, if we’ve invested a close enough relationship beyond an exchange of a few words. Until then, swallow those assumptions, and we’ll talk about the weather instead.
Caroline Cao is a freelance writer for Gurl.com.