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What we Asians want to be called isn't always what we call each other
By Phil Wang
March 13, 2006
San Diego--“You’re dating a Japanese girl? Chinese scum, eater of thousand year old eggs! How dare you! You should know better than that!”
Is this a scene taken out of context from a clichéd Chinese soap opera? Is this an overstated story of fiction, embellished to advance a simple plot line? Actually, the quote was overheard during a family dinner with a good friend of mine as said friend was chided for his choice to date outside his ethnic zone. The truth is that with any facet of Asian relations, Asians are both the victims and the perpetrators of a great deal of discriminatory behavior amongst themselves that borders on unhealthy elitism.
A stereotype of Asians: homogenous
(Photo Location: Chiba, Japan)
|San Diego is a unique city in that, unlike Los Angeles of Vancouver, it has an Asian population that does not exert a great cultural influence. For example, we have a Chinatown, otherwise known as Clairemont, Dim Sum that’s twice the price and half the quality of Monterey Park, and none of the trendy Asian clubs that can be found in Hollywood.|
To many San Diegans, even given their exposure to Asians, Asians are still perceived as a homogenous population of rice consuming, chopstick wielding, boba drinking black-haired individuals. Though the perception may arguably hold water, there is an undercurrent of bad blood that most non-Asians are not aware of.
During a recent sabbatical to Idaho, I sat down for a haircut, and in the middle of the conversation my balding barber asked me what I was.
“American, just like you.”
“No, where were you born?”
“No, Seattle, China.”
While you could argue that it was a very subtle case of racism, or at least ignorance, I’d say that many Asians bring those sorts of questions on themselves. I can’t count the number of times growing up in a predominantly white and Hispanic population I’d be questioned as to where in Asia my family, or I, was from, in spite of the obvious fact that I was American and spoke perfect English. This is because the label of being Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or any other Asian group permeates our collective sense of identity as much as age, gender and occupation. We use labels ourselves, so how can we preclude others from doing the same?
When two Asians come into contact for the first time in any type of social situation, their nationalities will always be divined sooner rather than later. Imagine, as a native American, carrying a badge that states that one’s parents are from England, or Ethiopia, or Argentina. The thought of such a prospect merits a chuckle because, for the most part, such facts are irrelevant, irrelevant to everybody except for Asians. We carry a figurative badge in our minds and will flash it to our peers anytime and anywhere.
The other day, over lunch at Café Japengo, I had a chat with a Thai buddy, Nick, and we addressed this very topic. It turns out that there is a hierarchical ranking system of Asians that most are aware of. It’s a vague sense of superiority and inferiority, possibly obtained through social inheritance, which has insidiously wormed its way into our subconsciousness.
Nick, having run the relationship gamut, stated that his parents have always preferred his Chinese girlfriends to his Korean girlfriends. I mentioned this to a Korean friend who vigorously disputed the notion, but did venture that her parents would be happier with a significant other of Japanese descent than one of Vietnamese descent. Being more integrated into the American mindset of equality and tolerance than older generations, none of us were able to postulate a suitable explanation for this system. So I went to my grandma.
With her vast encyclopedia of experience, she graciously offered me a list of adjectives.
Japanese: Ruthless, emotionless sharks bent on world domination.
Koreans: Lazy alcoholics who run liquor stores while drunk on Soju.
Vietnamese: Irresponsible dark-skinned mutts who run hair salons in the day and massage parlors at night.
Chinese: Determined, bright, responsible, intelligent leaders of the free world.
Now, you have to understand where my grandma is coming from. She lived through the military conflicts and the acrimony that has been documented in the history books. She has lived and breathed the racial tensions that are prevalent in continental Asia. In Asia, there is genuine dislike that runs through the diplomacy of certain nations. Case in point: a recent spat, which spurred numerous protests, between China and Japan regarding one publishing company’s take on Japan’s occupation of China and of Nanking.
In any case, later that evening, I gave my girlfriend a chance to respond to my grandmother’s pristine evaluation of the Chinese. She claimed that the Chinese are a people consisting of insensitive womanizers who somehow get away with having little personality and having a marked propensity towards being three-footed klutzes on the dance floor. I retorted that she was supposed to be reflecting on nationality and not on gender. She countered with a glare and thus the conversation was concluded.
As if all of this isn’t enough, there is a further divide between Asian-born Asians and American-born Asians: the concept of being a FOB (fresh off the boat) versus being whitewashed. However, that’s a story for another day. As Jeff Loor, 25, of Danville, California aptly commented, “In this country, Asians are a miniscule minority. Why can’t we stick together?” That is a question that runs into the realms of sociology and psychology for which there is no simple answer.
Perhaps we Asian Americans will learn to pass on a more harmonious mindset, as old wounds, forged in Asia, dull and heal.