The train to Weimar isn’t full, but I stand in the aisle because there are no empty seats next to my friends and we’re in the midst of a giggly conversation.
We speak in hushed English, lest we perpetuate the stereotype of the loud and obnoxious Americans. I glance around the car and notice a gang of four kids, probably my age, smirking and staring in our direction.
They probably think I’m an idiot. Is it the fact that I’m standing in the aisle in a car that’s only half-full or is it the monstrous zit that’s forming on my nose? I wonder. The embarrassment is minute and I begin to shrug it off until one of them says something loud enough to betray their furtive giggling.
“Konichiwa! ” he snickers.
I turn to them with a raised eyebrow. They look at me with those smug grins still plastered onto their faces. I’m not even Japanese. If they’re going to make fun of me, they should at least get the right ethnicity.
“Ich komme aus Amerika,” I sneer, and I walk into a different car.
I’m Asian and nobody wants me to forget it. If the wannabe-gangster walking past me down the street doesn’t mutter “ching chong” under his breath when he walks by me, if some drunk doesn’t shout “hey, Chiney” as I walk home at 3 AM, if my friends don’t tell me that I’m a bad driver for a reason, I might not remember what I am.
Other times, people mean well enough but still toe the line between curiosity and offensiveness.
“Wow! Your dad must’ve been in the service!” an older gentleman once remarked upon seeing me.
These conversations about my racial heritage always begin the same way.
“Where are you from?” asks a curious stranger.
“I’m from Seattle,” I reveal. If I’m lucky, that line of questioning ends there and they ask instead if I’ve ever been to Forks or if I live near Bill Gates. Usually, I’m not that fortunate and I’ve learned to expect the next question before it comes.
“No, where are you really from?”
I answer facetiously, “Damn, you got me. I’m not really from Seattle. I’m from Kent. It’s a suburb of Seattle but no one outside South King County knows where that is so I lie about it.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean, where is it that your parents are from? It’s just that you look, well, Asian.”
Of course I know what they meant. They want to know what exactly I am. Well, if I look Asian, it’s because I am Asian. To be more specific, I’m Filipino, and if you want to get more precise, my family uprooted to the states when I was seven. In theory, people aren’t wrong when they ask me where I came from originally. Technically, I’m not from Seattle. If we were to argue semantics, I really did come from somewhere else. So why do I cringe when someone asks me where I’m from or what I am?
In a deli in Maastricht, I ask, in English, the woman behind the counter about cheese. She points at a block of feta and I nod. As she slices pieces for me, she looks at me and grins, “China?”
I grimace and shake my head. This contradiction doesn’t register with her. She repeats the question and I smile without answering. The counterwoman won’t stop beaming at me.
“That’s all I want. Thanks,” I say politely. She hands me a plastic bag and I stalk away.
I am perfectly content with my Asian background, but it has no relevance when I’m buying a brick of cheese. My heritage is a part of my identity in the same ways that being left-handed and enjoying baking are also parts of my identity. It is not a source of shame nor is it something that I advertise at every opportunity. The problem lies in the constant “other-ing” wherein onlookers look at me and see a novelty rather than a multi-faceted person.
At a party, someone asks where I live. The address is Dutch and still unaware of when vowels should be long or short, I mangle the pronunciation of “Adelbert van Scharnlaan.”
The questioner chuckles, “I don’t know what you said. It sounded really Asian.”
I ask what kind of Asian he means. He grins at me, not sure how to answer.
I continue, “There’s more than one kind of Asian so which one did you mean?”
After a long silence, I add, “Most people think I say everything with an American accent.”
Anything I do becomes a Rorschach test of Asian behavior. I barely passed driver’s education because the instructor made me nervous. The unlucky boy partnered with me for the freeway drive raised an eyebrow and cracked a joke about me perpetuating stereotypes. In high school, I got good grades and it was attributed to innate Asian intelligence instead of sleepless nights hunched over textbooks. The assumption is that I am how I am because of my race and not because I’m an individual with specific neuroses and behaviors.
Math is my worst subject. I don’t know karate. I use chopsticks to stab at my food because I can’t get them to work otherwise. I’m not an ambassador for my people. My habits are not indicative of the habits of others who happen to share the same race as me or look similar to me.
When I was 14, I considered bleaching my black hair and coloring the peroxide-fried mess a chestnut brown. My best friend discouraged me, protesting that if I did, I wouldn’t look Asian anymore. That was the point. It was the year I got my American citizenship and seven years after I arrived in the States. I wanted to look like I belonged in the place I was growing up.
At 1 AM, I sit on a curb and wait for an empty cab to drive by. A guy sits next to me and asks me where I’m from. He doesn’t want to know what my name is or why I’m sitting on a desolate sidewalk in the middle of the night. Before I can mention the Emerald City, his friend bellows, “Hey, I know Chinese! Ni hao! Ni hao!”
Cold and frustrated, I scream, “Screw you! I’m from Washington!”
He laughs and asks me where I’m really from. I repeat the previous answer. He explains what he meant and I say I got it the first time.
“Seattle,” I reiterate. “Take it or leave it.”