After a longer-than-expected visit to the post office, I left the teller and was busy putting my new Harry Potter stamps in my bag as I pushed open the hefty door. Just then, I heard someone say to me, "Ni hao ma?"
I looked curiously at the older Caucasian gentleman who was about to board his bike. I scanned my mental files to figure out if I knew him. Nothing was ringing a bell.
He grinned a knowing smile and said again, "Ni hao ma?"
I didn't quite know how to react to this total stranger. His pronunciation showed he didn't actually know the language. Sure, I had an elementary school-level Mandarin vocabulary and could reply. But it's clear that's not what he wanted. So I inquired.
"How do you know I speak Chinese?" I asked.
The overly confident man looked bemused. He didn't have an immediate answer, so I did what I do when there's an awkward silence, I kept talking: "Some people might actually think that's rude."
His expression changed. He gazed at me like I was a target, started trembling with anger, and bellowed in a deep echoing voice: "I. AM. RUDE!"
I could feel strangers from all sides turn in my direction, ready to jump in if he attacked.
Fortunately, he muttered something to himself, hopped on his bike, and rode away.
I got in my car and sat there, shocked and shaking. And I didn't mention the incident to anyone for a week.
Here we are in 2015 in the metropolitan New York City area of Hoboken, N.J., which has a 7.1 percent Asian population, and there are still times when people see us first by the color of our skin. It's not exactly racism. It's not exactly stereotyping. But what exactly is it? Honestly, I'm never exactly sure how to react.
I was born in the Midwest, raised on the west coast, and now live on the east coast. Minus Saturday mornings at Chinese School, I grew up as "American" as can be. Sure there were times where odd foreign platters were served at dinner and other times when we honored certain traditions or superstitions I hadn't heard of, but those were just tiny moments.
Well, then there was the time my family went to Atlanta to watch the 1996 Olympics and a young boy accidentally bumped into my dad at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. My dad instinctively said, "Excuse me?" and the child looked up at him bewildered and replied, "You speak English?"
As a teenager at the time, that stuck with me and reminded me that maybe I was different. But that aside, nothing else had an adverse affect on me. As I got older, I began to embrace my Taiwanese roots more (especially the food!) and recently have started taking more frequent trips there to understand the country my parents immigrated from.
Despite that self-education, as I operate through daily life, I don't exactly think about my race, until someone points it out.
The most typical reminder always starts with a "Where are you from?"
"California," I answer.
"No, where are you from?"
"Oh, well, actually I was born in Chicago."
"I mean, where is your family from?"
I'm never sure where to take this conversation, but I'd say it comes up, give or take, once a month.
Sometimes I give in and say, "Oh, they're from Taiwan," as the inquirer breathes a sigh of relief. Other times, I go with "They're in California," and see where they take that.
And still other times, I let them guess. Of all the instances I've had people play this game, after rattling off everything from Japan and Korea to the Philippines and Vietnam, only one person has guessed Taiwan. (My favorite response was after I told them the answer, one person said, "I love Thai food!" That led to another awkward conversation about how not all Asian countries starting with a T are the same.)
On the other side of the equation, I find my own attention piqued when I see Asian-Americans represented in pop culture organically. Growing up, it so rarely happened (but thank you Full House for Harry Takayama!) that I was insanely thrilled as a teen when ABC launched the Margaret Cho-led All-American Girl in 1994. In fact, that's where my journalism career started. My first published entertainment story was a review on the sitcom for my school paper. I just couldn't believe how the show normalized the family so much that it wasn't purely about the stereotypes. As a high school student, that struck me.
But our country must not have been ready for this in the 1990s, especially on network television.
It's taken a shocking 20 years for a second chance, with Fresh Off the Boat premiering Wednesday night on ABC. The show centers around a Taiwanese-American family moving from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to suburban Florida, and is based on chef Eddie Huang's memoir of the same name. Although the title couldn't be more opposite of All-American Girl, the show treats diversity the same way. It's about a fish-out-of-water family, which happens to be Asian.
In the last two decades, I'd like to think we've become more accepting, but based on some of the early reactions, it appears as if some have already been judging the show by its cover -- with a few critics in a press conference focusing on the Asian-ess of the show more than its content, quality, and actual storyline.
We've all felt like outsiders at times -- and that's what the sitcom is about. It's a relatable tale of those struggles and the comedy that comes along with it. If we can accept how hard it is for Twilight's vampire family to fit into society, I'd hope that this time around, we can do the same with a real-life group of people, especially a population which is growing so quickly in the U.S.
There really isn't a way to answer how much we judge people by their skin these days. But this show will be an interesting indicator. And I don't know how I'll feel about the show either yet, but I do know that it has intrigued me enough to share these musings -- really only the second time I've written about being Asian-American -- especially after the post office incident a few weeks back.
I'm anxious to see how the general audience accepts a sitcom about an Asian-American family in this social media age. I'm anxious to see if it will change the way people look at one another in everyday life. And I'm anxious to see if it will change the thinking of a certain self-professed "rude" man living in 2015 America.