To get to my favorite movie theater in Hong Kong, I had to walk through the thick of touristy Tsim Sha Tsui and down the congested shopping street of Nathan Road.
When it was just me, rushing on foot from my apartment to meet my husband or a friend after work, I could make it in 10 minutes flat.
But when I was with my husband, our trek was always considerably slower. It wasn’t because he was bigger or slower or knew fewer shortcuts than I did, it was because he was a white guy.
On the main drag of Nathan Road, a shop hawker would step into my husband’s path every few feet, asking him to buy a suit “while on holiday” or “look at some jewelry for his girlfriend” or “try some authentic Chinese or Indian food.” Very often, the hawkers wouldn’t take no for an answer, falling in step with my husband, relentlessly quoting specials and prices.
Once in exasperation, after my husband was late for an appointment because he’d had to go through “the gauntlet” as I called it, he asked, “Why don’t they recognize me? I’ve told them ‘no’ so many times! You’d think they’d remember me!”
Though I sympathized with my husband’s frustrations ― “sidewalk rage” in a city as crowded as Hong Kong is real ― a part of me was amused.
“They all look the same.”
“I can’t tell them apart.”
Sound familiar, dear?
The hawkers didn’t recognize my husband because to them he was just another white guy.
As a white man born and raised in America, my husband has spent his whole life being seen as his own distinct person ― one of a majority with the benefit of “face before race.” But I haven’t spent my life with that kind of distinction.
I’m an Asian-American woman who immigrated to America from Hong Kong as a child and was raised as a minority. My race tended to be my primary distinction. Instead of Louise, “the girl who just moved to Texas and wants to be a movie star and prefers books about ghosts or horses,” I was “Which Asian is she?”
I remember the exact moment when I realized I was “an Asian” and not just “Louise.” One summer in Texas, a random boy at the swimming pool insisted on bowing to me all day and saying “Ah-so!” or “Konnichiwa!” every time I crossed his path. Another Asian-American girl at the pool hid from him at her mother’s side.
Then there was the time I was called up to the front of the assembly by my middle school English teacher, to be congratulated for winning a writing award, only to realize halfway through her list of my accomplishments that she actually meant the other tall, gangly Asian girl in my class. I accepted the award anyway.
But in Hong Kong it was different.
My first month in Hong Kong, I went to a friend’s sketch comedy show. The audience was a pretty representative Hong Kong group ― bilingual Chinese, South Asian people, a few white Brits, Australians or Americans, and people who were of mixed race.
At one point, a performer asked a question to the audience and asked for a show of hands. I raised my hand, as did a white woman a couple of tables away. When the performer called on me, he said something like, “Yes, the really enthusiastic woman in the glasses.”
When he next called on the other woman he said, “And yes, this white lady over here.”
It was such a small thing, completely thoughtless on his part probably, but it was such a pleasure for me. In a room full of people who were also Asian, my race was unremarkable.
Living in Asia gave me a small understanding of what it might be like to be white in America.
That privilege of moving through society as one of the majority was sometimes subtle and sometimes significant.
The way the food stand owner ever-so-slightly relaxed with me after the white woman moved on. The way nobody surveilled me when I went into the little village convenience stores in Yuen Long and lingered over the cheap wine selection, petting the shop cats. The way my government ID was never checked at the occasional checkpoint the way my white friends’ were.
If we spoke, my heavily accented Cantonese might have felt like a bait-and-switch to locals in Hong Kong, and the fact that I spoke Japanese like a toddler was baffling to locals in Japan. But before I opened my mouth, the assumption was that I was “one of them.”
In America, that isn’t always the case ― even after I open my mouth and speak perfect, vaguely Southern, twanged English, y’all.
As a Chinese-American I existed somewhat between worlds, but in Hong Kong (and in Japan, where I lived previously), my main identifier wasn’t my race. When people pointed me out in a crowd for some reason, I was just “the woman in the red shirt” or “the woman in the red shirt hoarding the cheese platter” or “the woman in the red shirt hoarding the cheese platter and advancing upon the dumpling tower.” It was an entirely different way to be both seen and unseen.
By the time we moved back to the U.S. mainland after seven years off it ― three in Hawaii, almost four in Japan and Hong Kong ― I had come to enjoy the privilege.
Now, back in America, the weight of being “not white” feels heavier than ever.
My first weeks in New York, I found myself trying to function under constant low-level panic. Part of this was just that moving always makes my anxiety spike. But the other side of that panic, I realized, was that suddenly everyone went from looking like me to mostly not looking like me. I am a minority again, and I’m out of shape.
When I share this observation with well-meaning friends and acquaintances who ask me if I am excited to be back home in the U.S., people are surprised. “Oh my God, I never thought of that,” they say.
While I appreciate people listening and offering support, I want to scream, “It must be nice!”
It must be nice to not wonder a thousand different things when a stranger looks you up and down in public.
Do they have an Asian fetish? Are they surprised to see an Asian person at this place? Do they hate Asian people? Do they hate non-white people? Do they hate immigrants? Do they hate women? Do they hate women immigrants? Am I going to be told to “Go back to China!” again? Am I in danger?
Part of living as a minority in America is having an almost sixth sense about when someone is going to be terrible. It’s the tone of the voice, little tidbits of “those people” lingo that slip into conversation, the varying degrees of surprise concerning something about me that defies stereotype (“You’re so expressive for an Asian!”).
There are gradations of terrible people, and I used to have a clear idea of who I could handle, who was just misguided and could be open to learning, who was flat-out dumb, and who was obstinately racist and not worth my time. These classifications kept me sane and helped me survive.
But my gauge is broken. My “minority muscles” have atrophied, I find myself on hyper alert, wary of people in a way I’ve never been before. It’s exhausting; it’s no way to live.
And I know there’s a balance ― I’ve lived that balance before ― I just can’t seem to find it right now.
While I should feel like I belong, I don’t, not quite. The reality at any given moment may be that nobody is noticing me, nobody is noticing my race, nobody cares ― but there’s always the possibility that they do. The main difference in living life in the minority is there is always the possibility someone will have a problem with me just because of the way I look, because of the man I’m married to, because of where my birth certificate is from.
But fear and anger are not places I want to live in. It’s a part of who I am as an Asian-American woman, but it can’t be all of me. That’s a win I’m not willing to give to the other team.
So when I heard someone refer to me as “that Chinese girl” the other day when I got in their way on the sidewalk, I allowed myself to feel the sting of the moment, the mourning for the life I left, and then moved on.
I may be a minority, an Asian-American woman living in a turbulent America ― at times struggling to live in a turbulent America ― but I know I’m also that cheese-hoarding, glasses-wearing, overly enthusiastic woman waving her hand in the air, unafraid to be seen.
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