As I sat with my family, eating our cooked to order combinations, I replayed the interaction between the teen and me. What began as a friendly small talk conversation between strangers, turned into a game of “Guess the Asian.”
“Is the squid any good?”
I turn towards the teenager standing next to me in the hibachi line. If I were good at guessing the ages of teenagers who are taller than my 5 foot self, I’d guess this young lady to be 14 or 15 in age. Her dark brown skin was smooth and blemish free. Her brown hair neatly twisted in multiple braids. Compared to many teens her age, she dressed modestly in a t-shirt and leggings. Looking at this girl next to me, I could easily see my 9-year-old as a fresh-faced, polite 14-year-old.
I smiled and shrugged. “I like it,” I replied.
“What does it taste like?” She asked.
Searching for the right words, I looked at the man standing behind the flat top grill. His muscular forearms were in constant motion as his hands scraped and tossed each pile of sizzling food. Even through the sneeze guard I could feel the intense heat of the grill. The exhaust fan above sucked the smoke and steam away, but left behind the mouth-watering scents of soy sauce and garlic.
“Well, it sorta tastes like all the hibachi food,” I responded unhelpfully.
Which is true, due to the nature of how the food was cooked. Much like the omelette station at brunch, the hibachi grill line was always long at the Chinese buffet. Who can resist the thrill of loading up your plate with sliced onions, bell peppers, broccoli, mushrooms with your choice of rice or egg noodles; then topped with your choice of freshly sliced beef, chicken, shrimp, and yes, squid? Any combination you could create would be cooked right in front of your eyes! Hibachi grills have become commonplace at those giant smorgasbords called Chinese buffets. Though the dishes at our Chinese buffet is nothing like the food the Chinese eat, the bottomless trays breaded, fried meats embodies American excess. It’s also one of the few restaurants where my kids are offered healthy food choices, including plenty of green vegetables. We frequent these American Chinese buffets on nights I’m too exhausted (or too lazy) to cook dinner or clean dishes.
The teen’s face wrinkled in minor disgust. I could tell that she has already made up her mind about the squid before I responded.
I turned back to my daughter who was carefully watching her combination of rice, broccoli and chicken being tossed. She was fascinated by how the cook flipped the each customer’s combination with little regard for pieces that flew into the wrong pile.
“Are you Chinese?” The teen next to me piped up again, her voice lilting expectantly.
“No.” I sighed inwardly. My friendly demeanor vanished. Here we go again, I thought to myself. I waited, refusing to add commentary to my one worded response. I knew what was coming next.
After an awkward pause when she realized that I wouldn’t give her the answer she wanted, she tried again. “Are you Japanese?”
“No.” Without looking at the teen, I responded in a curt, but polite way to discourage the current line of interrogation. I turned towards my daughter and began chatting about her school day.
“Are you Vietnamese?” she blurted, as if she finally figured me out. Or as if she was going down a list of types of Asians. It reminded me of high school. Always choose “C” when you don’t know the answer, I remember a friend advising me about my SATs.
I opened my mouth to offer another polite but curt “No.” But no sound came out. I guess “C” was the correct answer. My mind raced. I looked at my daughter, whose dark brown eyes never left her food on the flat top. Even after a long humid day, her black curly hair still hung in ringlets around her brown face.
Confident that my daughter couldn’t hear me, I kept my eyes on my daughter and said, “Ah, nope.” I popped that p in nope.
Holy crap, I just lied about my ethnicity!
I lied about my ethnicity in front of my half Vietnamese, half black but 100% American daughter. I breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t hear me lie and a bigger one when the cook handed over her plate of steaming food. Without looking at the teen, I guided my daughter back to our table.
As I sat with my family, eating our cooked to order combinations, I replayed the interaction between the teen and me. What began as a friendly small talk conversation between strangers, turned into a game of “Guess the Asian.” Of course, that’s the politically correct way to call it. I’m sure in many people’s minds, it’s “Guess the nationality.” Sometimes after guessing incorrectly, the stranger responds with, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me! I can figure it out!”
I don’t understand why it became so important to this girl that she’s able to determine my ethnicity. If I thought that telling her my cultural background would convince her to eat squid, I might have reconsidered it. However, I don’t think that merely being Vietnamese meant that I’m an expert on eating squid. Her question came out if the blue.
Why did I lie? I almost said “Yes.” What was I trying to prove by lying to someone I’d never see again?
Many people don’t understand why it bothers me (and other Asian Americans) to be asked “What’s your nationality?” Nationality, by definition means of or belonging to a nation. When someone asks me this question, it inherently implies that I don’t belong in the United States. I look different, so that must mean I’m not American. Forget that Chinese Americans built this country’s railroads and that Japanese Americans fought against the Axis powers in World War II. When we’re asked this question by paled skinned people and by browned skinned people over and over your whole life, it doesn’t feel like mere curiosity. It feels that this belief prevails in America. It doesn’t matter if the intent is conscious or subconscious. Soon we feel as if anyone who doesn’t look like us thinks we don’t belong in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Even if we were born on the same soil as them and know no other life than this American one.
Every time I’m asked this question, it chips away a question mark sized hole into my hold of belonging to this country, the one of my birth. Every time I’m asked this question, I have to prove again that I belong. To prove that I’m not foreign.
My ethnicity isn’t a game. You don’t win any prizes for guessing correctly. If doesn’t make you smarter because now you can tell if someone is Chinese from Korean from Laotian. Bob Barker won’t yell “You win a new car!” while balloons and confetti rain on you.
Save the conversation about ethnicity until you’re with friends. Wait until it comes up naturally during your discussion, and ask questions–if they fit the flow of the conversation. I promise you’ll learn even more about me and my family’s background this way. I might even give you the secret to making the perfect bowl of pho.
If you play “Guess the Asian” with me, neither of us wins.
Thien-Kim wishes she got paid to nanny her own children. She blogs about the fusion of Asian, African American, and southern culture in parenting and food at I’m Not the Nanny. She is the head book nerd at From Left to Write, a virtual book club community for bloggers, and is launching Bawdy Bookworms, a subscription box meets book club for smart women who read sexy stories.