What Do You See When You Look At Me?

There have been a few instances in my life when I’ve found myself in a conversation about physical appearance. “What would you change about yourself if you could change one attribute?” My answer is always the same: my skin color.

I say this not because I’m not proud of my race (I think my ethnic background and cultural upbringing have given me a singularly diverse perspective) or because I find fault in how I look (I’m very much aware of how stunning I am, despite a mild case of eczema and being a few shades toastier than my parents would like). I say this because, as much as it pains me to admit, I wish I were white.

Let me explain.

I once brought one of my best friends who’s a blonde-haired, brown-eyed Latin Jew to a friend’s birthday party. The group was almost entirely Asian and the bar we were at was heavily populated by Asians. I distinctly remember apologetically disclaiming, “Sorry it’s all Asians here. If you’re not comfortable, we don’t have to stay.” My whole life, I’ve made an effort to distance myself from self-segregating Asians. I took deliberate measures to not be labeled one of them. So, when I uttered the apology, I was simultaneously comforted that the statement reinforced the image I’d cultivated for myself as “an Asian who fit in” and disconcerted by a faint flickering of shame that I considered it a small victory to not be seen as an Asian who only hung out with Asians. Why did it matter?!

It mattered because it represented something bigger: the constant internal grappling with identity-driven self-esteem and an ever-present sense of otherness. For me, it’s been an unrelenting balancing act of embracing my race, wearing it as a badge of pride, and trying desperately to shed my skin so I could be seen for the Me that’s underneath — a straight-shooting born and bred New Yorker with a deep appreciation for puns, pizza, and probity.

My family and I have made assimilation such a central part of our existence in white, suburban America that it’s pretty perverse how I’ve come to take the statement, “You’re the whitest Asian I know,” to be a compliment. Never mind the implication of being a self-hating Asian. Disregard my questionable value judgments of other Asians. Set aside the unnamed conflicting feelings about racial identity. We did it, mom and dad! They think I’m one of them!

A few days later, the friend who accompanied me to the birthday party brought up how it was, in fact, kind of weird for her to be surrounded by so many Asians. I responded, “That’s how it feels to be a minority in this country.” Initially, she didn’t understand. She was a minority, too, and that wasn’t her experience.

“It’s different,” I said. “People don’t see you as a minority.” She was indignant. Of course she was a minority. She was both a Latina who spoke Spanish with her parents at home and a Jew who’s had to deal with anti-Semitism. I felt both intensely exasperated and dejected. Here was my beautiful, kind, Ivy League-educated, open-minded, well intentioned, liberal friend who didn’t comprehend the experience because she’s never lived it. If she of all people didn’t get it, who would? Who could?

I laid it out. “Of course you’re a minority in the technical definition of minority. But you’re not physically a minority. When people look at you, they don’t see ‘Latina’ or ‘Jew.’ They don’t immediately think ‘minority.’ When people look at me, my most prominent identifying feature is being Asian. I would love for people to look at me and not immediately call up all the assumptions and preconceptions that come with a racial label. I would love for someone to meet me and think ‘great smile’ or ‘killer style.’”

Therein lies the issue that most minorities deal with.

We are identified first by how we look. It doesn’t matter where we’re educated, what neighborhood we live in, how we spend our free time; we will always first be seen by the color of our skin. That’s why New York Times editor Michael Luo’s open letter resonates. That’s why his daughter’s plaintive question, “Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China,” is so heartbreaking. Because, every time I forget what I look like and go about living my life as Me, I’m reminded by well-meaning friends who use the phrase “token Asian” or by the man who stopped me on the Upper East Side and prefaced his question with “Do you speak English?”

When I think about who I am, I don’t define myself first as Asian. I am first and foremost an American. I define myself by my personal set of values, by actions I’ve taken, by the culmination of my experiences, by the people I surround myself with.

Of course, race is still very much a part of my identity. I just don’t consider it a primary identifying characteristic. At least that’s what I choose to believe most of the time. But it doesn’t take much — a question such as “what kind of Asian are you?” or “where are you really from?” — to remind me that we are still far, very far from being post-racial.