Dear Complete Stranger with Apparent Knowledge of All Things Japanese,
When I first entered your shop I was hoping to be left alone to peruse on my own. When you came up to me and asked my ethnicity I initially didn’t think anything of it. Being a person of Asian descent I have been asked this question countless times, and usually with no follow-up. It’s just a twinge of curiosity. I mean, how can you really know someone if you don’t know where their ancestors were from? That’s what you were thinking, right?
In this particular situation, I would like to address my issues with your problematic statements.
First, you asked me where I was from.
“I’m from California,” I replied, continuing to browse.
“Really?” you said back, an eyebrow raised.
“Yeah really. From the suburbs near Los Angeles,” I continued.
Then you said it.
“No you’re not.”
I had to ask you to repeat your words. After you did, I asked you why not. You answered:
Okay, so not every Asian in America is from Asia. Asian immigration to America is nothing new. Didn’t you learn about the Japanese internment camps or Chinese Exclusion Act in school? You didn’t? Oh, right.
“Yeah, my ethnicity is Japanese,” I said. “But from pretty far back.”
“Huh?” you replied, staring at me for what seemed like forever. Then you continued. “You don’t look Japanese,” your voice turning a bit more malicious. “Your skin is dark, and Japanese people are pale.”
Alright, so how are you, a random guy who I assume has never been out of the country, such an expert on the Japanese population? Is it because you know so many Japanese people, like those actors or models that are so popular now? Oh, wait.
“Well,” you started again in that same ludicrous tone of voice, “your eyes are too big for a Japanese.” You even widened your eyes when you mentioned this and spoke slowly like I didn’t understand English. “Big eyes,” you repeated, as if describing the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.”
This confused me. You said that I wasn’t from America because I am Asian. Then you said I am not Japanese because I am tan and have big eyes? What do “big eyes” even mean? Also, if I’m not from Japan then where am I from?
I guess you were unaware of your own ignorance because you continued to soldier on.
“Say something in Japanese,” you demanded.
“I don’t know Japanese,” I said. “Why would I?”
“How do you talk to your parents?” you asked.
“English,” I said.
Your face was red at this point, about to burst. I was this enigma in front of you, an Asian face with no Asian tongue. I know it’s too much to fathom, but there are a lot of us out there.
Now, I’d like to ask you some questions. If my ethnicity isn’t Japanese, then what am I? If I am Asian and not American, then what am I? And who makes you the expert on my ethnicity anyways?
An authentic 5th generation Japanese American