Life Without a “Primary” Race
On the bright side, it leads to some great comedic material.
By Emily Suvannasankha, University of Central Florida
You know, it’s not every day I have a recent casual racism anecdote to share, but oh, dear friend, you’re in luck today.
A few days ago, I went to Disney Springs with my roommate and her brother. And in the middle of being serenaded by a masterful player of the Australian didgeridoo, an old white lady turned to me to ask if I would take a picture of her group (of old white ladies).
But then she gave me a rather less-than-subtle look up and down, took in my ink-black bangs and ghostly pallor, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Do you speak English?”
I just eyed her and nodded, trying not to succumb to the same hysterical guffawing that had my companions sputtering like broken faucets behind me. And then, as if the situation couldn’t possibly get any more absurd, the well-meaning bumbler turned to double-check with the (clearly white) siblings accompanying me: “Does she speak English?”
I have to wonder whether the lady noticed my roommate and her brother’s total inability to keep a straight face as they gave me their White Person Seal of Approval. Apparently a guy can’t be a Florida native from 30 minutes away without having a redheaded Midwesterner sign off on their English language skills. Hilarious.
As much as I actually enjoy fielding the comical racist faux pas of ignorant people, that story pretty much sums up my experience as a mixed kid. My mom is white, my dad is Asian and I’m a racially ambiguous amalgam who apparently resembles a clueless foreign tourist in my own home country. According to the lamentable sufferers of Foot-in-Mouth syndrome, that is.
Anyway, welcome to the Land of Ethnic Blending, located at the intersection of Cracker Island and Teriyaki Town. Specialties include ill-informed questioning of my origins, twice-daily identity crises and not a few racial wisecracks. By the time you leave, you’ll be dreaming up Asian jokes with the best of ‘em (read: me) and wishing you were a halfie allowed to spout them.
1. “What Are You?”
After nearly 19 years of explaining my mixed heritage to strangers, this question somehow never gets old. Granted, in my case, it’s usually more of a bewildered “What is that?” as the poor chump’s eyeballs get caught in the tangle of Ns and As that is my Thai last name. But the sentiment is comparable—I’m obviously something (subtext: “that is not white”). No self-respecting slice of Wonder Bread has a name as disturbingly un-pronounceable as Suvannasankha.
(By the way, say it however you like. Hell, start from the middle. Say it backwards. Add the other half of the alphabet that’s not in there. Seriously, I’ve heard it all. If you can invent a new way to butcher those syllables, I’ll be highly impressed.)
Another question I get a lot: “Do you speak Thai?” Often followed up by, “Have you been to Thailand?”
The answer to both of these age-old queries is a resounding “no.” They’re fair questions, as most young Asian people are still second-generation immigrants, meaning at least one parent is foreign-born. But as a third-generation half-Asian whose upbringing was more suburban hickville than Chinatown, I know exactly one word in Thai that does not exist in my name. And I had to look it up in Google Translate.
Go ahead, revoke my Asian card. Considering I don’t like rice—the ultimate offense to my homeland—it’s a wonder I’m still a club member at all.
Speaking of rice, you haven’t experienced the full heights of woeful racial blunders until you’ve stood in a strip mall pizza place as an employee mishears you and asks, “What was that? You want rice? We sell pizza here, ma’am. We don’t have rice.”
Needless to say, I won’t be returning to that fine establishment. I feel they might offer me chopsticks next.
2. Identity Crises Galore
The befuddlement that comes from attempting to check only one box on a form that says “Mark your race” is a special kind of exasperating. Or worse, I once got a form that said, “Check all that apply,” but then asked me to specify my primary race. Primary. Race. Last I checked, that’s not quite how genetics work.
But that command to “pick one” does exemplify my lifelong identity dichotomy rather well. The whole disaster can be distilled to one hilarious truth: Asian people think I’m white, and white people think I’m Asian.
Generally, showing up to Asian organization at my college (in flats, naturally—otherwise I’m towering over everyone like some kind of pasty giant) involves at least one person squinting at me and wondering aloud, “Are you Asian? Er—part Asian?” But ask any of my white friends throughout the ages and they’ll all insist, “Of course she’s Asian! Look at her!”
Rather than mope, though, I choose to embrace my apparent exclusion from any distinct racial group. It allows me the freedom to go between the two worlds, wearing both labels equally instead of neither fully. So to hell with picking one! I pick both. (And hey, good news—my DNA agrees.)
In fact, people often get my ethnicity so wrong that it doesn’t even matter what I think I am. I cannot even begin to detail how many times I’ve attended a Japan-related function and someone has taken me for a foreign exchange student, striking up a conversation with me in Japanese right off the bat. Things get especially interesting when I simultaneously answer them in the hallowed language and correct them on my non-Japanese-ness.
And on top of everything, here’s something to really boggle your mind: Am I less of a minority for being half white, or more of a minority for being mixed?
Sit on that one for a while. If you’re a fellow packet of Half & Half, it’ll make you question the nature of your whole existence, guaranteed.
3. The Glorious Joking Privileges
By my estimation, I’m just nonwhite enough for a license to indulge in as much Asian humor as I want without risk of old grannies fainting at my indelicacy. And oh boy, do I take advantage. On the daily. The comedic freedom is my favorite part of being a swirled cone, by far.
Case in point: I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads, “Caution: Asian Driver.” No kidding. And lemme tell ya, it’s well-justified—although the sticker does make altercations with the authorities that much more awkward, if also more amusing.
Anyone who’s known me for more than ten minutes knows that I don’t shy away from punning about my heritage. In fact, the opposite is true; I encourage all spectators to join in on the fun! Young, old, white, black, ethnically enigmatic—in my experience, everyone could use a good laugh at my all-too-willing expense. (A running theme in my life, it seems.)
My openness to batting around racial banter comes down to this: I’d rather joke about myself head-on and let others know they’re safe to set fire to their filters than tiptoe around one of the most noticeable things about me. And perhaps best of all, this outlook makes for a kickass sense of personal durability. Unless you’re truly a raging racist threatening to ship me back to China without an ounce of kidding in your body, it’s impossible to offend me.
By the way, the best Asian jokester of all? My grandmother. She gave me my middle name, Nuan, which means “fair-skinned” or “ivory” in Thai. Based on my dad’s rather chocolatey complexion, I probably should have turned out quite a bit less supernaturally pale than I did, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether my middle name is a wry elbow nudge to my half-whiteness. Personally, I like to think so—the affinity for ethnic hoopla must run in the family.
In conclusion: Being half Asian is a mess, you guys. The whole debacle is a ridiculous circus with me as the main act, where people yell guesses at my ancestry and bombard me with flying bottles of soy sauce.
And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Clear racial identity is overrated!
Call me a masochist, but I like the feeling of a cold shot of soy in the morning. Bracing, it is.
Even if it is to my skull.