Where You Are Really From Depends on How I Ask


I recently wrote about the perpetual foreigner syndrome. I comment on the affliction often, but I experience it even more. I tried to explain in the blog what is wrong with folks accosting an Asian American: "Where are you really from?"

For my friends, I provide the following addendum. As much as it is exasperating, probably mutually, to encounter yet again people who deny that I can be a real American, implicitly if not explicitly, I also appreciate the ambiguity of identity. There is a complementary encounter, which cannot help but make me melancholy. You see, every now and then, an Asian immigrant asks the same question; or it seems to be, the same words.

After I declare that I am from Detroit, they, too, follow up with another inquiry. They would like to travel back a generation of nationality.

This happened, for example, after I recently ran a half-marathon in Oakland, California. I was hungry for a hamburger. We crave comfort foods, because we like to be enveloped by the memory of childhood. My brothers and I used to call for the same dishes our neighbors and schoolmates had and presumably enjoyed, after my mother would labor to produce an authentic, five-course Chinese dinner. It was a struggle of assimilation, a contest that occurred night after night over the steamed whole fish.

As with many such moments, I realized my mistake too late. We imagined that consuming a hamburger would lead to acceptance. While nothing healthy was gained by the hamburger, much nourishment was lost with the fish. Food is culture.

Try as we might, we cannot deny our appetite for nostalgia. I drove around neighborhoods that were not prospering, until I saw a vintage sign advertising "Giant Burgers To Go." The forlorn establishment was operated by two Asian Americans -- I would speculate, as we all do in meeting strangers, that they were immigrants, husband and wife.

Inside, at lunchtime, the few chairs remained stacked on the tables. They did not anticipate guests would linger.

As I waited for the meal to be prepared, I chatted with the proprietors. The man was interested in my genealogy.

He wanted to reciprocate. He volunteered that he and the woman, they were from Mongolia. She was silent but looked me over as she cooked.

I was saddened, not by them but for them. Their gesture, beckoning to me, is not the same as the recurring incidents in which Asian Americans are interrogated about their ancestry, as if with the expectation they will act out an exotic ethnicity. The exchange is affecting, because it is motivated by the desire to share. With a smile, they offer to me and for themselves, all of us together, an antidote to loneliness.

In an instant, we write a narrative for others. The Mongolian couple doubtless is isolated. There is almost a critical mass of Mongolian immigrants to constitute a community here. The San Francisco Bay Area is said to have a few thousand persons of Mongolian extraction. They are mainly newer arrivals. They are a minority among minorities though. There are reports of conflict with other Asian groups. They have sacrificed as I have never done.

That being so I wonder how many attempts the man must have to make, before he receives the success of recognition -- the joy of a customer who recalls the same cuisine, similar rituals, any bit of language or iota of tradition that forms the abiding bonds among people. The Asian immigrant wishes to locate himself among other Asian Americans, not only physically within America. Equality means belonging with others in meaningful relationships, not just being protected according to the formal rules of the law.

The above anecdote highlights a crucial distinction. We prefer to treat race as abstract. We would rather avert our gaze from the tragedy of the past and turn away from the messiness of the present. White and black, in such a formulation, are pure mirror images.

An advantage of being neither black nor white, the role into which Asian Americans have been cast, is perceiving that the two sides of the color line are not identical. There is abundant gray. The contested spaces are vital albeit unequal.

The disparity is reflected in the demand from the majority to know where we are really from, versus the desire by other minorities to know where are really from. Linguists inform us that almost all of what we communicate is context, not content. In our cynical era, we have become sensitive to how anything can be uttered ironically. The inability to comprehend such implications is socially disabling.

Race is not unusual in this regard. In ordinary situations, the very same words can have quite different meaning depending on the circumstances. Once, a long time ago when it could happen, the clerk behind the counter at the airport gate spontaneously upgraded me to first class. I had connected and run through the terminal and barely made it, and I likely looked haggard and harried.

"I love you," I exclaimed to her, as I grabbed the new boarding pass and dashed onto the jetway. She laughed. I am sure she understood, as did I, and my wife would too, that my declaration was not the same what I would say to my wife.

In the dystopian alternate reality television show, The Man in the High Castle, depicting America after Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany have won World War II, a Japanese official requests the insight of an American antiques dealer who would like to serve as an interpreter of the conquered colony. Without guile, the diplomat confides his confusion. Why is it, he would like to know, that the man on the street is heard greeting his friend as "you bastard," when the term is not positive. As a corollary, the same fellow warns off a passerby with "hey pal" in a sense that is manifestly negative.

The tone can make a remark its opposite. An American is fluent in the nuances.

The person who is suspicious about the Asian American, whether he deserves the passport he carries thanks to birthright, should not be confused with the Asian American who wants to establish affinity, to confirm the possibility of integration. The one restricts the American Dream to themselves; the other maintains the hope it is universal.

Yet the process of assimilation is not painless. That is nobody's interest to advertise. The traditional conception presents a profound choice: an individual is required to forsake his community; alternatives are rarely articulated. It is said that there are only two stories we know to tell: the adventure of the man who leaves his birthplace, and the account of the newcomer who rides into town.

Maybe that is why the Mongolian entrepreneur reaches out when he sees a face that might be kin, however distant. He wishes for what all human beings yearn for, an attachment to others that is mutual.

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