I was cleaning out my computer, and found something I wrote senior year of college:
Our relationship was unique, and I knew that. People were both amused and shocked by us because of the number of traditional boundaries we crossed—I ordered while he obeyed, I was the openly bisexual with the wandering eye while his devotion never shook, not once—but I forgot the most obvious boundary we crossed, the one that people could tell by looking at us, until I would speak with my mother or we would go hiking in rural areas.
As we exited the hiking trail next to the swimming area, children were happily splashing in the water as their parents lounged at the sides, keeping watch along with the lifeguard. But one by one, their heads turned, and by the time we crossed the beach, all eyes were on us. Their stares trailed us into the parking lot, and only after we pulled out of the parking lot did it stop. My boyfriend was unnerved. “What are they staring at us for?”
“I think your blinding paleness threw them for a loop,” I joked. He punched me playfully, and for the rest of the ride I did not think twice about what had happened. For him, however, it was different: it was the first time he had been treated as an exhibit at the zoo, whereas not only had I become accustomed to it while growing up in the rural areas of the Midwest and the South, but when it came to racial discrimination, that had been the least of my worries. Later that day, as I was preparing dinner, he asked me again. “Why were those people staring at us?”
“It’s because we’re foreigners,” I explained. “Or rather, I’m the foreigner, and it’s weird to see an American and a foreigner together.”
He gave me a look. “But you were born in America. I was born in Russia. Why would you be the foreigner?”
“Because I’m Asian, honey, and they probably don’t see too many Chinese people wandering around. They can’t tell by looking at you that you’re a foreigner. You’re just another white guy.”
“But that’s so stupid of them to assume that,” he argued. “Why would they do that? Asian people have been integral to the domestic history of America since the 1800s.”
“But until you open your mouth and speak with that accent of yours, I’m still more foreign than you are just because it’s so easy to see how I’m different,” I tried to explain to him. “Asian people have always been considered foreigners no matter how long our history is here.”
“But that’s so stupid, why would they do that?” he continued. “They went to school, right? They had to have learned that Asians have been in America for a long time.”
My roommate, who had been mulling around and pulling together her own dinner, paused in her actions. “Honey, it doesn’t matter what actually happened in history. To the vast majority of people in this country, an Asian face is automatically a foreign one. Old people—and by that, what I really mean is people of all ages, but primarily old people—still call me ‘oriental’ and comment on how small and pretty my ‘almond-shaped’ eyes are even though my eyes are larger and rounder than theirs. Perception is reality.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. Why would they assume that I’m not a foreigner?” he kept asking. “Are you sure that your opinions aren’t skewed by your childhood experiences?”
“You’re white, so they assume that you’re American,” I kept telling him, but he kept asking the same questions as before and I grew more and more frustrated. How do you explain white privilege to someone who has had it their entire life and has never seen or felt the effects from the lack of such privilege? My roommate eventually intervened, saying “I have to agree with her. Most people, if all they knew was what they saw, would say that you’re the American and that she’s the foreigner. They wouldn’t know until you opened your mouth and started talking. If I saw the two of you and were told that one of you had been born outside of the US, I would’ve guessed her.”
“That’s so stupid,” he reiterated, but he accepted her statements—she was, after all, a white American who had grown up in rural America. My childhood had been colored by the racism I had faced because of my yellow skin, and my judgment of the opinions of the majority could not be accurate.
Explaining the quandary of racial identity and its effects on my choices was something I was constantly asked to do, but I could never do it properly. Much to my mother’s chagrin, my romantic ties always fell outside of the Asian and Asian-American community. My boyfriends were all of a whiter persuasion, and in retrospect, I was attracted to their privileged upbringings that were seemingly removed from the politics of race and the concerns that came with being a person of color. In a wealthy, predominantly white community, people like me were minorities but not true minorities because we were not underrepresented in the higher socioeconomic echelons. Their gift of breezing past cultural differences, for better or worse, allowed me to reinvent my identity with each relationship; after all, everyone had told me that only in America are you not judged by the merits of your ancestors and only judged by your own. With each boy I brought home, my mother’s frustration grew. “Why do you keep bringing white boys home?” she would yell at me. “What about those nice Chinese boys? You go to a school where there’s so many of them!”
“And yes, you’re tall, but you’re not so tall that there aren’t any Chinese boys who are taller than you!” she would continue. “Why is it that you insist on copying your sister?”
My sister married a lanky man originally from the Czech Republic. He was from a decent family, but for some reason, my parents never mentioned that their eldest daughter was getting married to family friends except for a couple who attended the wedding. They were a compatible pair: she was always in a rush, and his patience never ended. They were well-educated young professionals who placed great value on looks and took pride in their status in life. In a city where many people were something-American and most immigrants were only a few years removed from their native lands and spoke languages other than Standard Written English, under his guidance my sister identified more and more with whiteness. More and more she looked down upon those without her privilege, and less and less she identified with her roots. I tried to explain that I was not copying my sister—if anything, I was striving to be her opposite—but my mother could only focus on the few similarities between me and my sister.
Our conversation about relationships never moved past the superficial, because how could it? How do you explain to your immigrant parents the issues of identity, that you are both here and nowhere? You are simultaneously American and your native roots but neither at the same time. People are only willing to see one at a time, and they judge you based upon the social reference. In American circles, I am Chinese, but in Chinese circles, I am American. To some, I am nothing like their mothers and what is deemed as socially acceptable and attractive, and to others, I am an exotic object whose profanity is a front for my true, submissive nature.
I was always careful to choose those who would not objectify me and who would appreciate my intellectual input, but there was always a disconnect I could not bridge. My first boyfriend would feign interest in some distant object or event whenever I brought up the issue of race and its effects; my second told me that he would never understand, so it would be pointless for me to talk to him about it; my third, bless his heart, tried to understand, but his blunt manner of questioning my experiences only succeeded to frustrate me without educating him. Whenever I asked why my relationships never succeeded on an intellectual plane, my white male friends would tell me that my interests lay too far from the concerns of the majority, and my Asian and Asian-American male friends would tell me that I had too many unnerving opinions on race, identity, and oppression by the patriarchal society.
I once tried to explain to my mother that the reason for the lack of Chinese boyfriends had little to do with my appearance and more to do with my personality and strong feminist beliefs, which were incompatible with most boys my age, and due to a sheer numbers and probability game, I had stumbled upon more white boys who were accepting of me than Chinese boys. She judged my explanation as a poor excuse for my lack of trying to impress Chinese boys.
“Tell your daughter that she should find a good Chinese boy to bring home,” my mother told my father as our argument went nowhere.
“As long as you don’t bring home a Japanese boy or a Republican, I don’t care,” my father responded, not even bothering to look away from his newspaper.