I had a fellow Chinese friend, a strong but gentle giant who hated playing Texas high school football. One of his grievances was the coach nicknamed him Chopsticks.
Now, if you find that funny in 2021… I would say you are absolutely correct. It’s OK if you’re white; set aside that selective guilt and appreciate this gem. Chopsticks is indeed hysterical, especially if you can picture my indignant buddy. Some humor doesn’t age well. Some transcends time and zeitgeist.
Five months ago, I attempted an honest assessment, sort of an anti-anti-Asian-awareness post to balance the latest electronic social awakening. I felt, and still feel, people neglect to take into account their overconsumption of information when constructing their reality. I got baited into a vaccine discussion the other day and came away with the reaffirmation you really can find whatever you want on the internet and build your own universe like a Chipotle burrito. (I don’t hate on vaccine haters, but do you think conspiracy theories might be slightly related to human wiring to tell stories when there’s a lack of certainty, knowledge or experience?)
I repeat, I don’t believe Asians in America are besieged at the moment, and that’s not because the hashtags from this spring worked their magic. I believe things are getting better for us over time, not worse, and it’s not even close. Chopsticks-gate would cancel an entire program in this new decade.
As I promised when sharing that post though, I want to offer my perspective on some things that are different for Asians in this G.O.A.T. country that might not be obvious. Now that the capricious news cycle has moved on to Chappelle v. They/Them and my people got our Marvel movie, it seems like a good time to try for a levelheaded reflection.
Driving is different. When I make a mistake or do something inconsiderate, which is rare, I consider switching lanes to avoid others seeing me. I might turn my head or lean away from the window or even straight up shield my face. This is purely because I don’t want to reinforce the stereotype of bad Asian drivers.
Call it shame, insecurity, self-consciousness — I just don’t want to be seen. Even when no one’s at fault, I feel compelled to err on the side of being overly polite. Just this morning when turning onto our main street, I creeped forward and blocked the sidewalk, as is necessary to see past the parked cars.
I was aware of a man with his dog 15 feet away, but made the judgment they were going to leisurely linger. Nonetheless, I desperately tried to make eye contact and waved three times before turning, and then looked in the rearview mirror to see if he did indeed linger or had wanted to cross.
Another time while creeping forward, I could have hit some guy on a bicycle whizzing by in the wrong direction. My hand instinctively shot up with an apologetic wave, as if it were my fault he had a death wish.
Whenever I pass another driver doing something buck wild or an accident on the road, I hope for no Asian representation. I wonder if Black people have a similar, more poignant reaction when a police mug shot flashes on the news. Or if brown people feel the same way when there’s a terrorist attack. Shoot, my lineage from China branched off to Taiwan 70 years ago, yet I am still hoping, begging that Covid didn’t come from a lab in Wuhan.
Our dumpster at the end of the street is often overflowed with trash bags and furniture piled on the ground around it. One time I tossed a small Nijiya grocery bag on top of the pile in the dumpster, and it landed precariously. I took the extraordinary measure of tiptoeing through garbage and reaching into the dumpster to stuff it into a crevice, not wanting it to fall outside. When you see litter on the ground with a Japanese supermarket label, there is a connotation.
These are things not every Asian person thinks about, but certainly no white person thinks about. You can just… drive. And toss a trash bag. And not worry about other white people’s behavior. When you see a Klan rally or mass shooter on TV, there is a comfortable separation, no shame or fear of being thought of in the same bucket.
Heterogeneity is easier to apply to white America, and that goes for me too. If five white drivers cut me off this week, I think, man, five a-hole drivers. If they happen to be five of any other race, there is an additional adjective no matter how hard I try to push it out of my mind.
People categorize people, generally with no ill intention. The brain has to organize information somehow. A former boss once had a Southwest Wanna Get Away moment while trying to get my attention. He must have been distracted and stammered through the names of three or four Asian employees before landing on mine.
He seemed slightly embarrassed, but I compassionately didn’t skip a beat. This was not offensive at all to me. But it was telling. I know how I’m seen in America, subconsciously or otherwise. I know I represent my race in a lot of situations.
When I was in high school, Yao Ming was drafted No. 1 in the NBA. One of my close white friends, still close today, couldn’t fathom why I was ready to cheer for this big stiff no matter what just because he was Asian. He was borderline offended.
And it does sound like a form of racism, to base favoritism solely on race. I can’t completely defend it, but I can say my buddy doesn’t know what it feels like to watch stand-up comedy and brace for the first mock Asian accent or small penis joke. He doesn’t have a childhood memory of excitedly dragging his dad to the theater to watch “Lethal Weapon 4”, only to have to process his disgust with the scenes of Chinese refugees being smuggled in a boat.
He doesn’t know the dilemma when someone tells a weak Asian joke. Fake a laugh to make the group feel more comfortable. Or don’t laugh and appear offended, oversensitive and Communist. There have been probably dozens of times when I served up a self-deprecating Asian comment in certain social situations just to preempt awkwardness.
None of this stuff is a big deal or detriment to my quality of life. I bring it up to contribute to the conversation if the goal really is more understanding versus virtue signaling.
There is an extra layer of thought that comes with being a minority, whether you’re a Black executive walking into a board meeting, woman engineer speaking up in scrum, or gay lineman in Coach Gruden’s locker room.
I don’t know if this falls under the privilege buzzword, but I believe — and am open to disagreement on this — white people have a little less to think about. It’s just a bit simpler to be white.
Let’s break down an example that happened this month. My cousin had a Covid-delayed wedding reception at a brewery in Fort Worth, Texas. As my extended family was walking through the parking lot, a smattering of folks were leaving after the Texas-OU game and probably more than a few beers.
After our groups mostly passed each other, my wife and I heard a high-pitched “Nee-how”, a jab at the Chinese word for “Hello” and likely intended to ridicule the accent.
It was too dumb to be offensive, but we turned and saw only the backs of a few innocent-looking couples. It appeared the culprit had already rounded the corner and wanted no part of a confrontation. I would chalk it up to drunken shenanigans rather than anything mean-spirited.
This kind of stuff, by the way, does not happen much in my bubble. I can’t even recall another time offhand, and it should be noted when we walked through the packed brewery in our wedding clothes to get to the patio reception, the all-white crowd of Fort Worth strangers gave us a spirited ovation.
Suppose, for a little thought experiment, the Nee-how guy said it to my face or in my vicinity. I would be irritated not so much at the comment, but at the burden of reaction. I got my wife holding my 2-year-old son, a bunch of elderly aunts and uncles, younger cousins who grew up with me as their ringleader.
It would be on me to decide how this should go. I mean, bare minimum, I would have to come up with some sharp retort on the spot, and it’s not always easy to say something witty about something stupid. I’ll take Trump over any Nobel laureate in a debate.
Ideally I would be funny and clever, but who am I, Ali Wong? Do I puff out my chest and get aggressive? Do I swing on him if he says more? Do I walk away as the bigger man but feel emasculated in front of my family? But what if I overreact and look like an insecure buffoon?
This predicament of course would not be exclusive to Asian Americans. The guy could just as easily say or do something asinine not related to race. I’m guessing most heckling and harassment fall in that equal-opportunity category.
But if we’re keeping tally, Asians are eligible for both the racial and nonracial taunting — that is, the same amount of potential crap white people deal with, plus a little more. Because if we crossed paths at the brewery and I said “Yee-haw whiteboy”, it just wouldn’t be the same.
So I bring these things up not to join the hand-wringing, sky-is-falling-on-Asians chorus (if it’s still singing, not sure which way the wind is blowing in Wokeland right now). Epithets and attacks dominate headlines and deserve attention. But as I wrote before, I doubt they’re happening more to Asians now than in the 90s, even if it feels like a logical narrative after a few viral videos in the Covid era.
Social media algorithms skip over the vast, silent majority of people across skin colors. These people might say some things on either side of an issue, but at the end of the day they care about their kids, health, careers, bills, getting laid, and other daily wants and inconveniences.
I read somewhere (sorry I couldn’t find where to cite, but I think it’s an idea repeated enough to be public domain) that people aren’t for you or against you. They’re just thinking about themselves.
To me, this is a more interesting if not productive focus for those who want to care about anti-Asian problems, as opposed to sensationalizing every crime or anecdote. Just try to think about the things Asians think about.
Writer’s note: If you spend any amount of your finite time reading the absurdities in this blog, we are either friends or highly compatible strangers. Thus I feel close enough to ask for your email address below. The only email you will ever get from me is one blog post per month until I die or you click Unsubscribe. Thank you.