Miss Manners Doesn’t Live Here
by Yi Shun Lai
For old hands like me, well-meaning bigots are easy to spot, if only because they never know they’re doing anything wrong.
I can see ’em coming from a mile away. They’re almost always slightly boozy. They close-talk, reeking of misguided knowledge, insecurity, and entitlement all at the same time. Even if they haven’t been drinking, they adopt the loose, grandiose gestures of those who are deep in their cups.
It’s easy to handle them. Smile, turtle my shoulders a bit, look out from beneath my bangs, and say, “That’s fantastic that you were able to visit. I’m not from Korea/Japan/Vietnam, but it’s easy to make that mistake. Don’t worry.” Or, if I’m feeling feisty: “Oh, wow, you were there a long time ago. Have you been back that way since? Things have changed a lot!” Depending on the commentary, I might opt for a closed-lipped smile and a demure, “Thank you! I always wanted curly hair, but I’m glad you think it’s pretty.” Stay enthusiastic, but don’t go bombastic. It’s important not to shatter their illusions, rock their worlds.
It’s too hard to deal with the potential consequences.
They stare, these veterans of Asiatic adventures. If they’re in their 60s, they have terrible war stories to tell of Vietnam and a real need to share them. If they’re in their 70s, the Korean War is top of mind. And lest you think the guys in their 80s are too old to wink at a girl, well, let’s just say that old memories die hard, and that the Oriental craze of the 1920s and 30s hadn’t yet lost its luster when we Americans went over the ponds to fight in World War II.
Say what? You want to know about the guys in their 20s and 30s? My own demographic? Oh, they stare, too. Some of them have this thing that we in the know refer to as “yellow fever.” No, not the kind with bloody noses and nausea. The kind where you get ogled across a bar for half an hour before having to field this winner of a line:
“Lemme guess, you’re a doctor.”
“No, you moron,” you say back, “I’m a writer.”
With luck, Moron will slink away into the darker recesses of the bar, never to be seen again.
But that’s never how it goes. It goes more like this:
Him: Lemme guess, you’re a doctor.
Her: Um. No.
Him: A chemist?
Him: You do something with technology?
Her: [One eyebrow goes up, the rest of her beer goes down.]
Him: C’mon, tell me.
Her: No, guess again, and try to stay away from stereotypes this time, okay?
Him: God! I was just trying to be nice.
Barkeep: Dude, she’s not interested. Can I get you something to drink?
Him: [muttering; stalks away] Fucking high and mighty Asians, think they’re so smart…
Ooh, here’s another fun one.
Setting: New York City, 23rd Street, 1:45 a.m.
A girl is walking, purposefully. She looks like she’s in a hurry, alert to her surroundings.
A car going in the same direction on the other side of the street pulls over and discharges someone. She makes note of it and quickens her pace, as a long-haired, lanky young man charges across the street and steps lightly onto the curb several paces behind her.
Him: Miss! Miss!
Her: [turning slightly] Yeah?
Him: Um. Um. [He stops, stammers.] Gosh, you’re pretty.
Her: Okay. Look, I’m late for a train. What can I help you with?
Him: I was just … I was just wondering … Um.
Her: Dude, I have to go.
Him: [blurting] CAN YOU TELL ME WHERE TO FIND A CHINESE MASSAGE PARLOR?
Her: Um. Not here. You need to go to Chinatown. [Points] That’s that way about a mile and a half.
Him: Oh. You’re sure you don’t know of anyone around here?
Her: No. I gotta go. Good luck.
Him: But I came all the way over from Jersey in a cab, and I got out here because I saw you.
So I say to my baba, “I think I’m going to consider eye surgery.”
He says, “That’s fantastic! You will look so pretty with European folds in your eyes! When do you think you want to do that? I have some plastic surgeon colleagues that can probably do it for you when you come home for the holidays.”
So then I say, “Um. Actually, I was talking about Lasik.”
There’s a pause, and then baba says, “But you’d be really cute with eyes like your white friends.”
“No, thanks, Dad.”
Oh, God! Those eyes! Bette Davises, those, the lavender-tipped Elizabeth Taylors — so close, just out of reach on the movie screen, or as near as my Danish friend across the table, for the price of a little outpatient surgery.
One day, when I was very young, young enough to still be surprised, I noticed my mother coming out of her room in the morning, tiny tabs of Scotch tape on her eyelids. “What’s that, Mama?”
“Beauty aids,” she said, and winks at me, only that causes one of the Scotch-tape bits to fall off, and she has to scramble to find it before it gets lost on her sweater. Her eyelid snaps back to its recognizable, thick single fold before she finds the tab. “You’ll understand when you get older.”
When I got older, I noticed that all of her side of the family has curly hair; those long, enviable noses; gorgeous, wide-set, European eyes with the lovely double-fold. I got still older, and was let in on a family secret. Both Mom’s and Dad’s families had come over from China to Taiwan in the 1500s. There were some Portuguese and some Dutch in Taiwan by then, and, well, it’s possible that some handsome Euros took a shine to some pretty Orientals, and then, shazam! Curly hair and lovely long noses, European eyes, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the family before then.
Only Mom didn’t get those. She got the by-then recessive-gene’d snub nose, the small eyes. So did Dad. And so did I. We’re the most Asian-looking of the entire extended family. But I still think my baba was the handsomest of his family, and my mama the most beautiful of hers.
My first really memorable experience with public school went like this: This kid sees me sitting with my new friend, Dana, who was nice enough to take me under her wing, and even without Mrs. Felsch saying she should. So Dana’s sitting with me at lunch, and I’m eating my fish sticks or whatever, and the kid eyeballs me and says, out of the blue, “Big eyes!”
I’m eleven. I already know my eyes aren’t big, and somehow, the concept of sarcasm has worked its way into the elementary-school lingua franca. I say the first thing that comes to my head. “Big mouth!” The kid gasps. Everyone around him laughs.
If you call it like it is, nothing can really hurt you.
In a college classroom in idyllic southern California, a heated conversation is taking place. It’s a class on creative journalism being taught by a well-known Hispanic writer, and one of the girls is talking to another about self-image.
“My friends see me as Amelia first, and Asian last, or maybe never,” she says.
The girl with whom she is talking is stunned quiet. She feels a flush seep up and out from the inside, quickly turning to green envy. She thinks the envy is because Amelia is so strong in her conviction that race doesn’t matter.
Almost two decades later, the girl realizes that she was envious because Amelia, Amelia Smith, that Amelia Smith girl is the closeted kind of Asian, the kind with an Asian mother who gave up her Asian last name. Amelia Smith has huge eyes with epicanthic folds and a fine aquiline nose and brown hair. She’s never had problems pronouncing her ars and els, and people don’t do a double-take when she opens her mouth and perfectly non-accented English comes out. Her skin is olive brown, not tinged with yellow. She was born on American soil, and she speaks two languages: English, not even Engrish, and Spanish. Spanish!
Amelia Smith is about as Asian as an American Indian. Of course her friends see her as Asian last, or maybe never. Asian last, my ass. Never Asian, more like.
What Amelia Smith (not her real name) doesn’t know, and will never know, is what it’s like to wear your heritage out, every single day. It’s like wearing a huge tattoo on your forehead that, intermittently and audibly, barks what your favorite food is. Do you really think folks won’t look twice if you have a huge neon sign attached to you that says “CALAMARI!!” blinking every second, in pink and green? Yeah, that’s what it’s like to be ethnic. Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Pakistani.
By the way, if you’re Caucasian and you go to Asia, folks will make you feel like we feel, all the time. They will make remarks about the amount of milk you must have consumed when you were a kid; about the way you grew up; they will assume that, because you have blonde hair, you must spend every day surfing. They will think you have a television in every room of your house and that you live for air conditioning. They will believe you live on fast food and own five billion pairs of blue jeans. They will think you have an inordinately large gland in your body that’s there to leak patriotism. No, it doesn’t actually matter which country you’re from. If you’re colored any sort of variation on peach or pink, and you go to Asia, this will happen to you.
You have to be okay with the guys and their ogling and their silly remarks. You have to be okay because it comes from a place unique to their understanding of what it means to be Asian. They are struggling to find common ground with us, to introduce themselves to us by way of telling me what they think they already know about us. This is totally okay, because it comes only from what they don’t know, much like many preconceptions.
It isn’t any different from, say, assuming that lobsters aren’t meant to be eaten because they have those scary-looking claws, or that Stilton cheese shouldn’t go anywhere near your mouth because it reeks. If you haven’t had much experience, well, you just wouldn’t know, would you?
The only way around it is to spend time with them. Time will help them to see you as human first, and ethnic last, or maybe never. You can’t very well spend time with someone if you’re pissed off at them all the time, can you?
The guys with yellow fever are typically quiet and lean, whippets rather than yellow labs. They like math, or science-y things, and an inordinately large number of them enjoy role-playing games or strategy games. They like sushi. They are from bookish families.
See? We can stereotype, too. After all, it’s only human.
Image via DailyArtMuse