A few days ago, jogging on Columbus Avenue en route to the Reservoir for a morning run, an elderly woman waved at me to stop. Out of breath and wary, I slowed down to hear her. She had twisted a tendon and needed help to walk to the Dagostino’s–a good deed that would set me backwards a few blocks on a chilly morning and force me to engage with a stranger in close proximity. She clutched my arm and hobbled forward, expressing joy that Biden was president and then, stopped her labored tread to say “It’s terrible what they are doing to the Orientals.” I took no offense as she had intended to be supportive and found the exchange sweet. Though I knew she was referring to the Atlanta attacker, NYC subway slasher and that extreme ilk, I considered the “they” she referred to as a broader group than those lone assailants. For is there an existing Asian-American who is shocked by these violent outbursts? So much of our lives involve hurdling “innocuous” racism by coworkers, strangers, love interests and resigning to our station or quietly grumbling to friends; we understand racism against us is more benign and tolerable than racism against African-Americans and others.
It feels tone-deaf/absurdist to write a blog about Korean-American identity and not discuss racism but I’ve managed to avoid it to date. I’ve always felt certain the kind of racism I’ve faced is dopey, docile stuff like being called shy by people who have never interacted meaningfully with me or being ignored. When I describe ludicrous interactions I’ve had with people to my non-minority friends, they say “these kind of things always seem to happen to you,” and they giggle. I never thought these odd exchanges were tied to race, but I’m starting to think they are indeed. Once I got into a cab and gave my directions to the driver. He nodded and drove a block or so. We stopped at a crosswalk and a white woman rushed to my door and attempted to jiggle the handle. I heard the driver, turn towards her and unlock the door–to my befuddlement. The woman, one leg in the cab, finally looked at me, shocked and peeved that I existed. The two of them had overlooked me! If that was an isolated incident, I’d chalk that up as a fluke but that strange invisibility is real. A friend of mine who is Asian has claimed she thinks people bump into her on the street more than others. Another says people cancel her private voice lessons last minute and she’s convinced it’s her race.
When we are noticed, the attention is often unwelcome. Hence the title of this post. For most of us Asian-Americans, “phile-screening” for prospective partners/dates has been a familiar rite of passage. If a non-Asian guy you meet has dated more than one Asian woman in his past, he’s red flagged. Studied/taught in Asia? Points off. Say things like “Asian women have great legs and hair”? Toast. All women are catcalled and bothered and some find this flattering. But to be an Asian woman means strangers on the street yelling “Asian women are hot!” in a hostile way or subjecting you to weirder stuff; I think of the time a well-dressed white man stopped me on the streets of downtown Cleveland and did a whole “wax on, wax off” circular hand motion complete with an unflattering squat, courtesy of the Karate Kid, and then walked away. Or more recently as I briefly wrote about in “Dr Phile,”an earlier post, my physician described me in the past as a “young, hot innocent Korean woman” or something to that effect as I sat in his office–a sorry, unwelcome moment.
I”ve been caught off guard by work colleagues and “friends” with their offensive racial theories; once at work, my colleague dropped by to make small talk and offered this gem: “(Name of spouse) and I were talking about all the pretty Asian girls who date nerdy rich men and I brought you up because you’re not a gold-digger and (husband) said “she’s the exception because she’s Korean but adopted.” And to each of these small offenses, I have been cordial and may have laughed along to avoid conflict.
Actually, I’ve spent a great part of my life, curiously quiet. Though inside, I’ve always had plenty of opinions, I labeled myself to my friends’ amusement in college “mute girl” because I rarely spoke in class. That carried over to my career to some extent as an attorney who was, particularly as a young woman, seldom vocal at meetings. I remember one time being agitated/firm with opposing counsel on a phone call. A white male colleague whose office abutted mine passed by afterwards to tell me he was impressed/surprised that I could be tough as if he expected me to always speak in shadowy whispers or cheerful exclamation.
Of course when people anticipate you are quiet, it takes more effort to be otherwise. So these relatively minor infractions and stereotypes do affect us, make us believe we are meak and inconsequential. But Hark, old age and years of collected grievances have cured me of my reticence! Best not utter nonsensical/stereotypical things in my presence now. Want to imitate a Chinese bus boy in front of me or free associate with me about your offensive racial theories, I dare you! I will EDUCATE you. Best be warned. And I won’t be laughing.