Thursday, October 4, 2007

Where Are You Really From?

I just saw this video on YouTube that I must comment on. Actually, it goes well with something I just read, as well...or, rather, some of the points that, if I remember correctly, were made in this blog post. As always, when I'm sitting here reading blogs and searching for cultural insight on the net, there's "homework" that's getting neglected. Still, I had to stop and discuss this here.

About 6:30 mins into the video, the guy starts talking about how Asians get asked where they are from and expressed his dislike for this question. He mentions this in relation to this book he was reading for class by Frank Wu, which is actually a book that about a week or two ago I was looking at ordering online. Many Asians interpret this question as their being seen as the "perpetual foreigner." And this is actually exactly what I was thinking of when I wrote in my post about my attraction to Asians and Latinos that Asians don't appreciate being thought of as different.

Now, to tell another side of the story...this is definitely something I've done before. And it's the response I've gotten from the Asians I've asked--or have witnessed from Asians when they've been asked by others, even including other Asians--that has taught me 1) not to ask that question again, in any form, and 2) many Asians in the US just want to be thought of as and approached as Americans. My thing was...when I've asked this question, I think it was always while I was in high school. So I was asking something like "Where are you from?" most likely and really meant "what is your ethnicity?" but at that age didn't really have the words for that. (Edit: And a lot of people who don't really know the difference between things such as race, ethnicity, nationality...nor what any of those aside from race mean...still don't have the words for that. I do think when people ask "where are you from?" they mean "what is your ethnicity?")

And every Asian I've ever asked't want to answer the question and wouldn't just give me a straight answer. Even in high school. One was obviously irritated that I wanted to know and asked why I wanted to know. Another one was like, "Where do you think I'm from?" Interestingly enough, the Asian who was irritated that I was asking her about her background was actually with me in wanting to know what this second Asian's background was and was trying to figure it out, as well.

See, I don't think the question is generally asked to single Asians out or imply they aren't really Americans, although I have no doubt that Asians aren't really thought of as Americans. I just don't totally think raising the question is an example of how the rest of us tend not to think of Asians as "real" Americans. Whenever I've wanted to know an Asian's ethnicity, it wasn't an example. I just think it's interesting that there are so many people from different backgrounds here and would rather not be one of those people who calls all Asians "Chinese." I know there are different ethnicities among Asians, and I simply like to know about people's backgrounds--and not just with Asians. I don't mean to make it seem like I'm exoticizing Asians. The thing is I wouldn't come right out and ask most white people what their ethnic mix is, because I know most white people don't value anything but whiteness and American-ness. If you asked them, they'd think you were crazy. Furthermore, there's a better chance that a white person wouldn't even know what their ethnic mix is.

When I realized that many Asians would also think you are crazy, though, and that some value American-ness over being Asian (not to say that all Asians who hate the question are like this), that didn't take away the desire to know, nor the attempts to figure out "what they are." And I'm not saying all this to make it seem like they are objects or spectacles to me, because from some of the books I've been reading on Asians and mixed-race people...this is how they take questions such as "where are you from?" and "what are you?" even though I've never taken these questions when directed at me in these ways. The following is going to sound ridiculous, but I'm telling it just to illustrate how much we all care about race and categories and knowing.

When I realized Asians didn't like the question, I stopped asking it. Instead, I did what I do with white people. I learned what kind of names signal which ethnic group. I learned to match certain physical features with certain Asian ethnicities. If they didn't want to answer the question, that wasn't going to stop me. This hasn't changed, either. When I realized my friend and former boss Angel was part-Asian, I was dying--and I mean dying--to talk to her about it. We still haven't talked about it. And probably the first thing I really wanted to let come out of my mouth is "what are you?" or "what kind of Asian are you?" But I'd learned my lesson, so...with her being biracial and my not having ever heard her last name before...I did the only other thing I knew to do. I looked it up online. Yes, I really did do that. I really wanted to know just that bad.

And what for? I just...did. And I do the same thing with many "white" surnames. There's just some strange, inexplicable comfort I get from knowing "what" people are. And then I have also been fighting the desire to do something else that I also know is "wrong"--ask her questions about what it has been like growing up part-Asian, especially in the 70s and 80s. It's "wrong" because so many minorities don't like to "teach" or get tired of the expectation that they are supposed to be "teachers" when it comes to their backgrounds and cultures. Instead, I'm supposed to do the work myself to learn something...which is fine and understandable. But sometimes I just want to hear people's individual stories, too, and compare what a real person says to what a book says. And I honestly hate that there are boundaries about this kind of thing, especially since I don't care when people do any of these things to me. I actually enjoy it.

People have asked me where I'm from, which of my parents is white, how I identify culturally and how much I know about being French, how did my parents even meet, and so on. I know, as far as the "where are you from?" question, it's kind of different when a light-skinned black person is asked that. It's not as if anyone is seriously thinking I'm from Africa, although there are light blacks there. Essentially, even though blacks are not considered American, either, we don't have to wonder if we're being thought of as "perpetual foreigners" if that question is put to us. But, for me, the question still has always been asked with the assumption that I am from another country. One guy thought I was from an Asian Indian nation. Latinos have told me that I look Latina. One of my professors asked me after I said a French word with a French accent, and I told him that, yes, I am part-French but, no, I'm really from the states.

I remember when I first started law school. This Asian female approached me and started talking to me. We hadn't known each other for even 30 minutes before she started asking me questions about growing up black in the South. I thought--AWESOME!!!! I still think that woman is awesome! Those are the kinds of conversations I like to have with people, especially when we've just met--not the same boring getting-to-know-you questions. With Angel, I feel like, okay, I have to wait this out. I have to wait until we're better friends before we talk about these things. And I just think that's so boring. Especially since she's one of the few biracial people I've ever been friends with. Finding out she is biracial almost instantly brought up so many questions, not really because she's biracial or part-Asian and, therefore, a spectacle...but because, hell, I'm biracial. This could be a good bonding point for us, not to mention some very interesting conversations for us to have and an opportunity to learn something.

I just see this so differently than so many people. I think the questions I've mentioned here, questions that many people hate to be me, it's another way in which our society just closes down when it comes to race when talking about it could actually do a lot of good...and, in fact, sometimes the questions are asked in a good way to begin with. Instead, I'm in a position where I have to balance making sure that someone knows they are my friend and I like talking to them because they are awesome vs. their possibly thinking I'm interested in them because of race or am trying to objectify/alienate them in some way.

Then again, I'm someone who doesn't at all just want to be American or just thought of as American. I have never had the desire to just be "like everyone else." Maybe I always knew I never could be that. I'm just so happy to be different, and I don't understand why no one else seems to agree with me on that. Why do we always have to act as if everyone is the same? Rather, why do we always have to say everyone is the same and then do things that indicate that's not really what we think--such as, as the guy discusses in the first half of his video, segregate our friendships? Why can't we just be real about this?