posted by Ms. Wu
Fellow Readers, greetings. When someone poses the question Where are you from? how do you answer? I for one always answer Shanghai followed with China for the rare few who are so smitten with my beauty that I must further reinforce a world geography lesson for the dirty and naughty schoolboy in all men.
However I have as of late observed that this question, harmless enough in a multicultural grab bag like this fine city, can create great duress and offense to certain people of the Asian appearance and persuasion. When a NALP (Non-Asian Looking Person) asks where I am from, I presume that the question is in fact an implicit inquiry of my ethnicity. The subtle stress on the words are and you in the question suggest that they are by no means interested in a domestic locale such as Brooklyn, and they certainly would be enormously disappointed should this pair of rose petal lips answer with a ghastly, Ohio. I have never assumed the worst in the NALP for noticing my physical difference (after all how could he not notice?), nor have I assumed that this NALP is discriminating and treating me with political in-correctness. For the life of me, I couldnt conjure another way of inquiring anothers ethnicity. One cant very well say, Your eyes sho look funny. Where are you folk from anyway? Or Whats that language you be speakin theres? Would the incensed Asian Looking Person (pun intended) be less indignant if the NALP had explicitly asked, What country are you from?
One particular encounter I will recount demonstrates the complexity and subtle political play involved in our innocuous question. An Asian looking man and I were having a lovely conversation and sharing typical immigrant stories of growing up as one of the few Asian families living in our town. You gentle, sophisticated Readers may find nothing remarkable or worth noting about this, but I must remind you, in the olden days before feng shui and Pearl River Imports became popular, wearing a Chinese-styled dress to school did not elicit compliments and positive attention. Since I could not tell whether my companion was of the Chinese, Korean, or Japanese descendent, I asked him the question.
Brooklyn, he answered matter-of-factly.
I meant where were you born? I persisted.
Brooklyn, he said again unblinking.
What ethnicity are you? I finally inquired. Correctly this time.
He was Chinese.
Aye, and there is the rub. National versus ethnic identity has created the ideology of being a dash-American. No one else in other countries identify himself as an Chinese-English, Chinese-French, or a Chinese-Kiwi. A Chinese-American, Japanese-American, or the all-encompassing Asian-American exists only in America where it suggests: A) I am not FOB (fresh off the boat), B) Dont ask me questions about feng shui or what my Chinese name is, or C) Watch what you say around me.
Although I do think that having a strong sense of ones national identity is important, I do not think that this sense can be defined through nomenclature nor through employing a language of denial. Belonging, entitlement, and the right-to-be-here are ideologies that can not be shaped by attaching a dash after ones ethnic root. Does anyone really care what comes after dash? I do not.
But it appears to matter a great deal to many. Then again, these are probably the people who think Amy Tan is the best thing to happen to Chinese-Americans.
Til Next Time,
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We (i.e. the creators of AllLookSame.com) developed a series of iPhone apps for preschool kids. (My wife developed the characters and I did the coding.) Our own 4-year old daughter has been enjoying them. They are now available on Apple's App Store. You can search for "bitskis" on your iPhone, or visit the official website at bitskis.com.
It's great for parents when they are traveling with kids (in a car, doctor's office, waiting for food at a restaurant, etc..). If you have kids and own an iPhone, please check it out. It's $2.