Opinion

It’s time for a new kind of American story | Reporter's Notebook

A woman once came up to me and — with little more than a “hello” — asked me if I spoke Tagalog. I told her I’m not Filipino, so the answer was “no.” Without missing a beat, the woman began speaking either in Mandarin or Cantonese (not being Chinese, I wasn’t sure which dialect). I told her I’m not Chinese, either, so she asked if I was Korean. Again, I told her “no.” I knew this could go on for a long time, so I cut to the chase and told her my parents emigrated from Cambodia.

This spurred her on to discuss Cambodian culture and all I could do was sit there quietly and politely (not to mention, awkwardly) and wait for the one-sided conversation to end.

I can’t help but compare this incident with the time I spent with a few students and staff members from The Overlake School last week when I interviewed them about a recent trip they took to Cambodia as part of a global service project.

My time with them was an actual conversation as it was an exchange of thoughts that got me excited as I listened to them share their experiences and observations about something so close to home for me.

Contrarily, with the woman, it was more like she was just speaking at me, rather than with me.

Now I’d like to say this encounter occurred during less-enlightened times — say, the 1990s — but this was recent. And when I say recent, I mean last month. I’d also like to say this was an isolated event, but this was definitely not the first time a stranger has treated me like their own personal cultural guessing game. And it definitely won’t be the last.

It’s just a part of life for any person of Asian descent in this country. It doesn’t matter if you were born in the United States (like me), recently immigrated, were adopted or are of mixed race.

At one point or another, you will have the “What are you/where are you from/no, where are you really from?” conversation.

Now, I understand most people are just curious and mean no harm. Nothing wrong with that. But those types of conversations — especially with strangers — never fail to highlight the fact that in the United States, the “American” in  Asian American is often forgotten.

Not surprising when it’s more common to see Asian characters on the screen playing minor roles and speaking heavily accented English than it is to see us as a regular part of the American landscape.

It’s OK for pop singer Katy Perry to perform in full-geisha garb at the 2013 American Music Awards on a stage full of similarly dressed white dancers — without a single Asian person in sight — but South Korean singer-rapper PSY’s performance at the same show the year before is followed by racist comments throughout social media stressing that it’s the “American” Music Awards. Never mind that other performers, nominees and winners from that year included Canadians Carly Rae Jepsen and Drake, Adele and The Wanted from Great Britain and a Barbadian Rhianna.

This constant feeling of “otherness” is why I am excited about a new show that got the green light from ABC earlier this month. “Fresh off the Boat” is a sitcom set to air next year and is based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name. It follows a 12-year-old, hip-hop-loving Eddie and his Taiwanese American family in the 1990s after they move from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to the mostly white suburbs of Orlando.

This will be the first time in 20 years that a network station will feature an Asian American family, and all I have to say is it’s about time. And quite serendipitous timing as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month — a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States — is this month.

Growing up Asian American in the 1990s, it was so rare to find people who looked like us on the big and silver screens that when my sister asked if there were enough Asian American actors to make up the family for “Fresh off the Boat,” I couldn’t really laugh. It was a pretty legitimate question.

I’ve read Huang’s book and if the show stays true to the material, American viewers will get to see what it’s like to navigate pre-adolescence being not “American” enough for your peers at school and not in touch with your cultural heritage enough to make your parents happy.

And while I enjoyed the glory days of 1990s’ TGIF as much as the next kid, I would have loved seeing an Asian American girl accompanying one of her parents to an ESL class as the adult students sat through the same lessons about parts of speech as she had in her second-grade class; or an Asian American boy acting as a translator between his mother and just about anyone they encountered outside their home.

I would have felt validated to see experiences I could relate to on TV and non-Asian viewers would have caught a glimpse into some of the things Asian Americans deal with when they immigrate to a country that is so different from their own.

 

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