In the spring of 2011, I enrolled for a semester at the Yonsei Foreign Language School in Seoul to improve my Korean. Yonsei is in the Sinchon district, the northwestern quadrant of the city where many other universities like Ewha and Hongik are. The area is a hub of student life and I was thrilled for a chance to join in. Before, the only “nightlife” I’d ever had in Korea was dinner with relatives.
One afternoon, I made plans to have lunch with a classmate. As I waited for her in the lobby of her dorm, a female stranger approached me. From her appearance and the fact that she spoke to me in English, I guessed she wasn’t Korean. Maybe Filipina or Thai. She asked me for directions, but I didn’t know anything because I’d just started classes there. She apologized and said she asked me because I looked “so Korean.”
I’ve always wondered what made me seem “so Korean” to a foreigner. There were plenty of foreign East Asian students there, from Japan and China. I could’ve been any one of those.
More importantly, why was I, for once, so happy to hear her say that?
The Trump Era ages in dog years, so most people have probably already forgotten an incident that happened less than a month ago. It involved Trump asking a Korean intelligence analyst where she was from. Her answers of New York and Manhattan weren’t exactly what he was looking for. What he really wanted to know was her ethnicity. Publications and social media expressed outrage.
“So, where are you from?”
It’s a question that haunts Asian Americans. We deep-scan the question, sniffing for any trace of a suggestion that we can’t possibly just be American. It’s easier when the question is clearly xenophobic, like “No, where are you really from?” But the more open-ended and possibly veiled version can cause all sorts of anxiety. Many of us have rehearsed no-nonsense comebacks to triumphantly unleash on that inevitable day when some smug Yankee dares to suggest that New York or Texas is not where we’re really from.
Knowing Trump, it’s safe to assume the worst intentions behind his, shall we say, curiosity. But the Asian American anger at this question isn’t just limited to when it comes from the Trumps of the world. The very utterance of the question itself is the problem, and some Asian Americans express an irritation that their Asian ethnicity is acknowledged at all. Some may have privacy gripes, akin to being annoyed when stranger asks about their occupation. And some may be 5th-generation with genuinely distant ties to their ancestry, while others may be in very white-dominant areas where being too different is threatening.
But if you’re a 2nd-generation Asian American living in a diverse area and is comfortable with typical small talk, why get so mad at this question? There is an emotional logic behind such anger. Too often, the qualifier “Asian” imposes restrictions that are either negative at worst or condescending at best. Many 2nd-generation Asian Americans have grown up adhering to an assimilationist liberalism that has interpreted MLK’s “content of their character” statement to mean that race, especially for Asians, is ultimately something to be overcome with personal merit. So a stranger’s immediate recognition of this racial difference is taken almost as a personal failing.
This conundrum is not unique to Asian Americans. Even white people have experienced it. For example, in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, the protagonist Willie becomes annoyed, even angry, when his grandmother talks to him in Hungarian instead of English. He’s initially disdainful of his “FOB” cousin Eva who has come straight outta Budapest. And to him, paprika is the kimchi or Chinese herbal medicine that Asian American kids feel apologetic about when they have friends come over.
But of course, this isn’t exactly the same because Asians cannot pass for anything other than Asian, no matter what we wear or how we change our speech and names.
There was once a time when I preferred it when people referred to me as “Canadian”, as opposed to “Korean.” When people asked me where I was from, I’d simply say the name of the Canadian city where I was born and raised. I’d then remain silent, almost daring the question-asker to keep probing further. But through time and wisdom, I’ve realized just how many troubling assumptions were behind this feeling.
The thing is that most Asians in the West, no matter where we were born and raised, are just a generation or two removed from our ancestral homelands. Many of our parents spent their most formative years in those countries and by virtue of being their children, we too have been imbued with those experiences. Many of us grew up speaking an Asian language as our first language, even if we lost our fluency as time went on. Many of us have travelled thousands of miles back and forth to see relatives in distant lands. What does it say about ourselves and our society if we are so motivated to ignore and suppress those connections?
Thus, the ethnic caste system in America is revealed. If you had British or French parents, would you be so quick to disavow any perceived Britishness or Frenchness? Or would you play up those distinctions, to take advantage of the social capital they afford you?
In his open letter published in The New York Times, Michael Luo offered this reprehensible counter-attack to someone who told him that he didn’t belong: “I was born here!” But it shouldn’t matter where Luo, and others like him, were born. This popular defense meekly accepts that there indeed is some merit to chasing FOB Asians out of the country, and only when expelled from a uterus on American soil do Asians deserve protection. Furthermore, the white nativist disdain for jus soli means that the law of birthright citizenship can’t protect you from mobs or mob government.
Yes, there are some malicious people who believe that Asians cannot truly belong in America, Canada, or the West. But why be so obsequious to them that you’d seek acceptance on their terms? The white nationalist crowd will not care one bit if we were born in Taiwan or Tennessee anyway. Asian Americans should refuse to participate in this game of more-American-than-thou with other Asians, where the native-born are better than the foreign-born, and where the more assimilated are superior to the less so.
The truth is that to most of us, our Asian heritage is still so closely tied to us that it shouldn’t be a taboo topic. If the one who wants to know more about our background commits the slight faux-pas of nosiness, then the Asian who takes offense commits the greater crime of inauthenticity. Asianness is not some kind of disability that requires polite society to turn a well-mannered blind eye.
I’ve found a nice answer to whenever someone asks me where I’m from. First, I tell them where I was born and raised. That is a simple fact that has played an important part in shaping who I am. Then, I also tell them where my family is from, because that is also a simple fact that has played a crucial role in my life.
So Asians will probably not be seen as “all-American” anytime in the foreseeable future. That is a good thing. Lots of people spend fortunes to go on expensive trips to faraway lands to drape themselves with something other than plain old “American.” Why aspire to that?
That day at Yonsei University made me happy because I didn’t feel defensive over how others perceived me anymore. The whole basis of asking where someone is from is to get a better sense of who they are. When you feel as though you have to suppress such a vital part of that self — such as where your parents are from, what language they speak to you in, and which countries you’ve frequently visited — you’re putting on a false performance.
So where are you from? American Town X? Just there? Hmm. Seems kind of boring. No offense.