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And I Thought Having a Black President Would Help

06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If I am not mistaken, it is 2009 and we in the United States elected -- and have sworn into office -- a black president.

But while I am walking down Broadway and 110th in Upper Manhattan, I hear a man's voice shout, "Tingy wei wei! Me want to drink tea!" I am stunned into silence, and keep walking. It is only a half a block later when I can even think. "Seriously?!" I utter aloud.

These instances have not been few or far between for me.

A group of children outside a convenience store in Philadelphia make "ching chong ching" noises while they put the base of their palms to their temples, pulling towards their ears, causing their eyelids to fan up. I am with a group of colleagues who are Asian and white. One of my colleagues approaches the children to them to tell them they should not do that.

A group of twenty-something guys in New Orleans yell to me and my first-generation friends, "Ching chong ching!" (You can imagine how comforting it is to discover the level of their creativity does not exceed that of small children.)

I am walking down the street on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and as I pass a bakery with outdoor seating, I hear, "Ni hao!" This time I halt automatically. This time I don't let it pass.

"What did you say?"

"Ni hao," says an extremely cocksure young man eating a baked good. His accompanying friend is sheepish.

"Why did you say that?" I ask.

"Because." (Again, something a five year-old might say.)

"Why?"

"Are you Korean?"

"No. I'm not. Why did you say that?"

"Because I thought you might be Korean."

"You thought I might be Korean, so you say hello to me...in Chinese?"

"Well, you're some kind of Asian, right?"

His friend butts in. "My friend is...not well. He just escaped from prison." He laughs uncomfortably and tries to prevent his friend from saying anything else stupid.

"I am just trying to understand why a person would say that," I say, realizing as I ask that almost nobody will admit why they might say something like that.

And here I thought we had made so much progress. But my apologies, I am mistaken. I must correct my opening sentence. I guess it's 2009 and only 53% of us in the United States elected a black president.