Race carded

I’ve always found interesting the means by which strangers begin interaction with one another. It can be a head nod on the street between two men in passing, an “excuse me” because you dropped your metro card, or launching into a question without any sort of pleasantry, but everyone has their polite or rude way of opening communication with people they don’t know. Each has its own level of appropriateness depending on the situation, and lately I’m noticing one that isn’t appropriate in any situation.

Last night, after bidding adieu to some fantastic company, I got on the elevator in my building. Boarding before me was a Chinese food delivery man. We pressed the buttons for our respective floors, his before mine, and took our places against the wall for the brief ride. As the elevator began to move, he asked me a question.

“Where you from?”

This question can mean a lot of things depending on who’s asking, and what’s been said before they ask. Since this man was of Asian descent, and we’d spoken no words previously, I presumed he wanted to know what my nationality was. More specifically, I presumed he wanted to know my Asian nationality.

“I’m half black and half Korean” I told him, after a brief pause.

“Half Korean” he stated in confirmation, leaving out the first part, as the elevator came to a stop.

“Have a good night” I said, exiting the elevator.

This was not the first such conversation I’ve been a part of over the past few days. Just the other day a woman in a deli engaged me as I came to the register with the same opening question, prompting the same response. I assessed her originally to be Chinese, but a couple of days later at the same place she greeted me (or at least I think she greeted me) in Korean. I stopped and raised my eyebrows in confusion.

“You said you were Korean” she stated, with the voice inflection of a question.

“Yes. Half. I only lived there for a few months, so I don’t know any Korean.” (well, except for how to count to 10 from taking Taekwondo, and the words bulgogi and kim chee)

“Your mother Korean or your father?”

“My mother.”

I’m not at all touchy about talking about my racial background, or the fact that I was adopted and therefore never fully submerged in Korean culture, but I would find it far from appropriate to begin interacting with someone to whom I am a stranger with questions about their race. While I wasn’t irritated enough to verbally wag my finger in any of those situations, I was slightly put off by the situation. That said, I think for someone of Asian heritage in a mostly non-Asian nation, asking or guessing someone’s Asian background is a bit like someone from Texas living in Chicago, picking up on someone else’s Texas-sounding accent, and asking them where they’re from. Offensive? Not really, but definitely not the way to start a conversation.
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Apropos of nothing, I will be seeing you all tonight. Well, those of you attending the happy hour. The rest of you will have to settle for seeing me in your dreams.

Race carded

7 Responses

  1. Well, and America is a melting pot. Totally reasonable you would not speak Korean. I don’t speak French and several times people have attempted such after seeing my last name.

    See, that I don’t get. Should someone throw an Irish accent at someone with a Mc or O’ last name? Speak Italian to someone with a Di last name?

  2. Well, I get that a lot…but like this. I can understand why it can be bothersome. I think that some people, who emigrated to the US feel the need to be overly nationalistic and feel the need to measure other people’s ‘pride’.

    Being Turkish, I don’t run into this alot…but the question I get a lot is “Why wouldn’t you want to go back and live there?”

    Why do you CARE?

    If they’re looking for South Korean pride in me, they’re probably looking in the wrong place… Then again, I do have some South Korea soccer gear.

  3. Very annoying. I think black/Korean is a pretty badass combo, myself.

    No kidding. They don’t make us like they used to.

  4. You know how you have an idea of what someone looks like in your head after talking to them on the phone/ email but then you meet them in real life and they look nothing like what you thought they would?

    Yeah. I’m RIGHT there. Only without actually meeting you. Totally weird.

    (And I know that was off topic, but I don’t care.) ;)

    Have fun tonight! Next blogger HH..I’ll be there! I want to meet the infamous LiLu, too!

    Haha… I’m not sure what to say for myself on that one.

  5. My freshman roommate was a quarter Japanese and three-quarters white, but somehow she looked like, well, anything – people used to guess that she was Hawaiian, Italian, Hispanic, Philippino, whatever — but instead of asking her directly, they’d ask me, her roommate, as though that somehow made it kinder. She & I had a few good laughs about it, & after awhile, I started telling people she was the one thing she absolutely didn’t look — black. Talk about a few good laughs. People got so confused… but everyone was too PC to question it.

  6. People always assume I am swarthy because of the mustache.

  7. You know how there’s this cliche about Asians sitting around studying the esthetics of the crack in the green tea cup and life’s imperfections while writing Haiku to the sound of a sparrow’s footprint in the rain?

    Have you ever drunk Chinese liquor?

    Have you ever been trapped on a bus going to Atlantic City?

    Where you from? Man. You got off easy. I’m surprised he didn’t have you narrowing it down to some village over a mountain pass.

    And you want cliche? “Chinese food delivery man.” Creep. At least he could have offered you an egg roll.

    Wait…I feel one coming on….

    “The mud elephant, wading through the sea, leaves no tracks.”

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