100% Chinese, 100% American
My child was born in a hospital 30 minutes from where we live. She will grow up in an English speaking household where we eat meals like spaghetti, mac’n’cheese, burritos, sushi, and stir fries. When we have time, we take her to a Babygarten class at our local library where we sing songs and play games. She has a large repertoire of nursery rhymes like Itsy Bitsy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We read her books like Good Night Moon and Brown Bear Brown Bear. She wears clothes from Cirqo and Children’s Place and shoes made by Stride Rite. We take her to local parks, aquariums, and museums. She loves Elmo and Peppa Pig. Her childhood and family life are as unremarkable as can be.
Despite all these things, her future will be punctuated by four innocent little words: Where are you from?
Why? Because both my husband and I are 100% ethnically Chinese. He has two ethnically Chinese parents, I have two ethnically Chinese parents. He was born and raised in the same town my daughter is born and will be raised in. I have lived in various parts of America for 75% of my life. We both speak perfect English. We are American.
But no matter where we go, even when we’re in our home town, people ask us “Where are you from?”
A couple incidences spring to mind when I think about those four words. I was once at a house party where a white girl addressed me specifically in the middle of a group conversation. “What flavor Asian are you?” She asked. No, lady, I just met you and you don’t get to say that to me. That, among some other clever quips, was what I wanted to say. “Why don’t you get to know me as a person first,” was how I actually responded, “And then I will tell you.” I thought it would be enough to get my point across but I missed my target completely. She thought it was hilarious and followed me for the rest of the night insisting I tell her my ethnic identity. “Are you Korean? Vietnamese? Japanese? Why won’t you tell me? Are you mixed? You’re really pretty, are you from Taiwan?”
A few of the others at the party approached me privately later to tell me how sorry they were to see me treated that way. Great. Thanks, but go away. Not one of them told that girl to leave me alone, to stop treating me like a souvenir. They stood by and watched, chuckled uncomfortably to themselves, and allowed her to keep pestering me.
What happened to my husband is even more mind boggling. In the middle of a business presentation, the presenter brought up some experience she had while living in Japan. She spoke out loud a couple words of poorly pronounced Japanese, looked straight at my husband, and waited for him to respond. She hesitated when he stared back silently at her. “Chinese….?” She asked. “If you really want to know,” he said, “Come talk to me after your presentation.” She never did. Only one person came up to him after the presentation to say how ignorant and obtuse the presenter was, and it was a Black lady.
These two incidences are only a sampling of the kinds of microaggressions that my husband and I have had to face growing up and living as Asian Americans in America. I have been singled out by bartenders who want to know where I’m from because they’re Just So Interested in Everyone but noone else at the bar got the kind of questioning I did. I’ve been asked at work by customers whom I am being paid to be nice to why “some people” are so sensitive. I know with a certainty built on years of personal experience that with every new person I meet, it’s only a matter of time before I hear Those Four Words.
What can I do to prepare my child for these infinite mosquito bites that will eat away at her the way they do to me?
I speak out, even when it’s hard. I tell anyone who will listen that you don’t get to treat us like foreigners when this is our home. I’m not going to stop until “Where are you from?” only ever means “Where did you live before here?” and not “How can I categorize you?” For a lot of people I meet, it’s too late. Their bias is too deeply ingrained for me to reach. Their children, however, are listening. If we are very, very lucky, my daughter will grow up around fewer racists than I did.