By Anthony James, Staff Writer
I leaned against the wall in the dorm hallway. It was back in my college days, and I was spending time between classes expounding on light topics with a few fellow students. It is not important that these particular friends were white, but where the conversation headed it became relevant. The discussion topic was a local Asian eatery. One of the students joked that even though he had never been there, you'd "better not bring [your cat] near there 'cause they'll steal it and eat it." I don't quite remember how I replied, but I remember not confronting them on the offensiveness of their comments. As with comments I've heard from others, pressing some sort of political correctness wasn't worth my time. These particular students would never think of themselves as racist or insensitive. We had a common friend who was Vietnamese American, but you would never hear them say what I heard in front of him. Needless, I didn't communicate with either classmate much after that event, and as far as I know, neither knew that I am biracial, born part Chinese and part Norwegian-American.
Upon first glance most people think I am white. My skin is pale, my features appear Caucasian. When I am with Asians, they give me a particular look upon learning of my background, because they know other half-Asians, but even their biracial friends possess what they deem "more Asian" features. I've been called a liar, sometimes even forced to show my driver's license, which has my middle name, which is in pinyin. Just last week I was talking to a friend
who happened to be Chinese and got this remark: "You certainly got more looks from your white mother and than your Chinese Dad." Did I? Granted, she's never met my father, and I think I know my own father more than her. From my perspective, I see features coming from both equally, but others tend to disagree.
The situation is not much better when I encounter Caucasians. Sometimes I get called out; some say I embody my own hypocrisy by labeling others as "Caucasian" when many white folks have many different ethnicities. It is hard to argue this point, but many biracials haven’t been told, as I have, that they have lost all of their Chinese or Norwegian-American features and instead look more like something from the either end of the ocean. I am told this a lot: "You're mixed? I'm mixed too, Irish and German." While there are cultural differences between European ethnicities, comparing mixed European heritage to biracial heritage can be insulting given the fact that taboos against race-mixing are still prevalent in society, no matter how subtle.
Another question I've received is also a little cringe-worthy: "Oh, when did your mother immigrate?" It's usually a harmless inquiry and I let it slide, but the assumption is often rooted in the stereotype that Asian men have no chance dating white women, and any mixed Asian/Caucasian relationships are a product of a lonely, socially inept white male traversing across the Pacific to find a beautiful exotic partner willing to do anything to gain U.S. citizenship. As with many stereotypes, both generalities contain some truth, so it usually is safe to make that assumption.
To either side of my extended family the initial relationship between my father and my mother was not "normal," even though in the collegiate community (where they met) interracial dating was not usually seen as taboo. My father is Chinese, immigrating when he was a young boy and living most of his school years in South Minneapolis. My mother is a full-blooded Scandinavian Minnesotan with bright blonde-blonde hair and green eyes. While such a pairing doesn't induce outcries, I've seen it firsthand.
Asian men dating white women may not have had such an intense social implication as black men dating white women has, but there was a time in U.S. history where the Yellow Peril was a common trend. East Asian men, typically remaining from working on the railroads, were seen as a threat to the standards of living of the white population. Race-mixing was seen as a threat to pure bloodlines. Policies were enacted to neutralize the imagined threat. Local law dictated that the evil Asian man was conspiring to topple Western civilization. By the time my parents were born such traditions were outdated and practically dead, but remnants of the "traditional" thought sometimes linger.
Mixed-race individuals tread an awkward line put in place by those who seek to define others based on ethnicity. I know mixed-race individuals who say they are black, white or that they are Latino. President Obama, though an African and Caucasian mix, chooses one. Though by that standard I could address myself as an Asian American, I wouldn't imagine doing so. No one asks me what it is like to be Asian American, they ask what it’s like to be mixed. There is accuracy in the connotation: I didn't experience being an Asian standing in the dorm hall while my friends knowingly made racial jokes. I don't get the same looks that people give my Asian friends; I don't experience the same generalizations given to Chinese or Asians. I am an Asian American incognito, I am biracial. Expressing life as being biracial
As my life may or may not fall under the pretense in which those would signify the life of a mixed person there are Chinese and Caucasians who continually choose to dictate my ethnicity to me. I wouldn't say my own experiences have been relatively intense, but I’ve spoken with others who've been angered by the names they've had to accept: Banana, Oreo, other foodstuffs. Though minimal, experiencing any conversation about race usually ends up little about how I view my ethnicity but rather how others view it. All biracials share common ground, but not in the same sense that Chinese, Indians and Irish share. When I meet another half-Asian-half- white, I am not astonished on how their face looks more or less Asian than mine. I don't ridicule them on how non-biracial they are, and I don't feel the need to pressure them into accepting some paradigm on their identity. This is neither saying Asian Americans never face such
ludicrousness, or that my own experiences of others trying to understand my race has been detrimental to my life thus far, but I've learned to make the distinction that allows me realize that we don't have to hide who are.
When I was a child, I never really saw race. My cousins, though full blooded Chinese, did not seem "different" to me. Only upon our differences being pointed out by others did I notice that my own upbringing and traditions might not be the same as those around me. Little things at first: that many suburban Minnesotan white kids didn't know how to hold chopsticks or that they didn’t eat beef intestine regularly; that many of my Chinese friends didn't know what lutefisk tasted like or how to toast in Norwegian. There was no eureka moment, but as my childhood transitioned to early adulthood I've come to appreciate that although my own identity might not carry one country, culture, or set of traditions, that it is an identity nevertheless.