Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Boxes

As a foreigner living in China, one of the first questions you hear from people you've just met--Chinese and other foreigners--tends to be "Where are you from?"

And this isn't that secret-code-where-are-you-from question that many Asian Americans, mixed Americans (and probably plenty of other non-white folks in predominantly white countries, too) hear that really means "What are you?" or "What's your ethnic makeup?" The asker here is usually genuinely asking where you, yourself, is from.

And for some reason I have trouble answering that question. I always have. When I went off to East L.A. for college, I had trouble answering that question with "Malibu" for fear of the judgment. My standard answer eventually became "I grew up in the Valley but went to high school on the Westside." Not that the vagueness really hid much, or that saying one is from "the Valley" is really much less embarrassing than saying one is from "Malibu" when you're going to a school many of the students affectionately (or not-so, as the case may be) refer to as "Ghetto State." If it came out that the asker was actually inquiring into my ethnic background, I didn't have so much of a problem answering that.

Now, when people ask me, I'm able to simply say, "The States" or "L.A." without having to further specify, save for relatively rare occasions when I run into people who have lived or been to L.A. before. But now I'm finding it hard to answer that question for another reason. Most of the foreigners here, I sense, view me as simply another white foreigner. On the other hand, my dark hair and eyes seems to give many Chinese people the sense that I am not American. Lately, I've taken to answering the question with another question: "What do you think?" or simply, "Guess."

Rarely do people guess 美国人 (American). Oftentimes I hear French or German for whatever reason--but I've also heard things like Middle Eastern, Korean, Arabian--and sometimes people have even asked, "Are you Chinese or foreign?" or have said that I "look Chinese." But that's rare. The confusion, it seems, can sometimes be boiled down to a prevailing notion that Americans all have blond hair.

Once they're done guessing, I usually tell them I'm American ... and then quickly follow it up with "... but my mother's Chinese. I'm mixed." It's become automatic, this need to inform. Surely it's acceptance-seeking in this land where my ability to speak the language is still severely limited. My vaguely quasi-Asian appearances are the only thing I have to go on. Still, this seems to be a satisfying answer to many people, explaining both my "foreign" appearance and my dark features. The other week the guy at the bun shop down the street was like, "Yeah! I knew it!" when I said that. I didn't realize that the revelation of my ethnicity would make somebody so happy.

Other foreigners, on the other hand, when they find out I am half-Chinese tend to respond with disbelief. "You really don't look like it," I've been told. "Your parents are Chinese?" somebody asked me the other day, after I told him that I was ABC, "too." (He had brought up the term first, when we were talking about another ABC here, who, this person claimed, "didn't count as a foreigner.") His response suggested I didn't know what "ABC" meant.

Which puts me in the position of racial spy, meaning I'm privy to plenty of -ist remarks from white foreigners about Chinese people.

This is in sharp contrast, actually, to those encounters I had in college, when I was regularly asked "what I was" because to many of my schoolmates (the white population was under 10 percent), though I seemed ethnically ambiguous, I didn't look white, apparently.

At any rate, this semi-rant was inspired by an interview I just ran across with one of the candidates on America's Next Top Model, or whatever it's called. I only ever saw episodes from the first season of that show, but I do still have a soft spot for U.S. pop culture and read up on it from time to time (I did also recently buy and proceed to obsessively watch all three seasons of Project Runway). Apparently there was a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian model named April Wilkner on the second season of ANTM, and that was who the interview was with.

In it, she says, "Well, first, I just want to say that I’m very proud of my Japanese heritage, and I had no issue with being seen as half Japanese. My problem was that a lot of people were trying to put me in this box of being 100% Asian, and neglect the other half of who I am, and that’s what I kind of didn’t like. They were trying to put me in this box, and I just wanted to be myself, and that means all sides of me. I guess maybe they had a problem with me wanting to be myself, rather than just to fit into that little category they wanted to create for me, which was ‘The Asian Girl.' I am Asian, half-Asian."

I'm feeling I'm in a reverse situation. Nobody's ever called me Asian, meaning that just as April feels identifying as 'The Asian Girl' denies aspects of her identity, identifying myself as simply "American" (which here seems to equate with "Caucasian") seems to deny the Chineseness.

I've always felt it sort of odd to just throw that out, though (I'm from L.A.--but I'm half-Chinese ?) as if it's not relevant to the actual question, and/or it shouldn't be relevant to anything and/or it's a thinly disguised attempt at grabbing some ethnic cred, but ...

Traditionally, if you ask in Chinese about somebody's hometown, they'll often answer with their father's. This is a point I'm not extremely clear on, but I read about it somewhere, and it seemed to explain why on more than one occasion I've asked somebody where their hometown is they'll tell me a city; I'll later mention it, and they'll say, no, I never lived there, or something equally confusing. So maybe I'm not that far off by bringing up my mother's hometown.

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