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Day 133 – Look Like Me (Being American in Asia)

July 14, 2010

Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam – Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I’ve had The Conversation a million times over the last 30 odd years. It varies some, but the basics go like this:

Stranger: What’s your name?

Me: Mervyn.

Stranger: What?

Me: Mervyn.

Stranger: Marvin?

Me: No, MER-vyn.

Stranger: Merlin?

Me: No, Mer-VYN.

Stranger: Oooooohhhhh. Okay.

[Whereupon Stranger spends the rest of our time together referring to me as “Marvin.”]

I have a confusing name. Most of the time I can laugh my way through the script. It’s like I’m the love child of Neo, Obi Wan, and that scary chick from Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner version)–I know exactly what’s going to come out of the other person’s mouth. In that way, The Conversation is fun.

Sometimes, though, I can’t be bothered and I’ll short circuit the interaction with: “Marvin. Yup, that’s my name.”

At places like In-n-Out, where they insist on using first names, I’ll just say mine is Steve or Eric or Mark. Neither the girl behind the counter nor I care about my true identity. We just need a placeholder that tells me my food’s done. “Dog Ball Hugger” would suffice if it weren’t just as perplexing as “Mervyn.”

I expect the repeated déjà vu all over again déjà vu of The Conversation. I accept it. I’ve spent 30 years learning to deal with it.

So imagine my horror when, over the last four months, I discovered I was destined live Another Coversation over and over again, only one much  longer and more disorienting.

It all starts with the simple question: “Where are you from?”

It’s a question I’ve learned to dread.

If I answer I’m from the “U.S.” or “California” (The Truth) it causes Babel-levels of confusion. People look at me funny–Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Everywhere-I’ve-Been. The idea that an Asian can be an American is a strange. (NOTE: This never happens in the Philippines because, there, everyone has a relative living in the U.S. Everyone. If you say you’re from “America” the response will most likely be, “Oh, I have a cousin living in San Diego.” That’s a gleefully short conversation.)

The World thinks Americans are cheese-eating White people. I break the stereotype–my hair is black and I’m lactose intolerant. To Asian-Asians, I am difficult to compute.

That stereotype, however, is only a little bitty thing compared to a much larger issue: I look Thai/Cambodian/Vietnamese/Chinese.

Actually, let’s be a bit more accurate. It’s not so much that I look TCVC, it’s that there are TCVC people that look like me.

I know what you’re thinking, “But you don’t look TCVC at all. (Or, to be a bit more accurate, TCVC people don’t look like you!)”

Let’s think about this for a second. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China are all right next to each other. When the borders were drawn (rather arbitrarily), people were trapped on all sides of the line. The Hmong people, for example, straddle Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and have ventured into China. That means there are Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, and Cambodians that all look vaguely Hmong (or perhaps, Hmong that look vaguely Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, and Cambodian).

What’s true for the Hmong is true for all the Asian races. For example, centuries ago Chinese emigrated to every other Southeast Asian country. Today, none of these “Chinese” speak any of the Chinese languages. Few would identify themselves as “Chinese.” They have, however, spread their seed throughout TCVC and beyond. That means there are a lot of Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, or Vietnamese people with a bit of a Chinky look.

The point is that for millennia people have been mixing and moving around Asia without regard for today’s national boundaries which means that within any of the TCVC countries (and Malaysia/Indonesia/Burma, too) there are lots of people who look alike.

“Not so fast!” you say. “Here in America/Britain/other non-Asian country, I can tell exactly where someone’s from. Vietnamese look very different from Cambodians who look totally different from Thai.”

Okay. I’ll give you that, but only sort of. What you’re experiencing, I suspect, is an artificial racial look. It’s an accident of history, not an ethnic reality.

Just think about who you’re seeing. You’re seeing TCVC who have decided to, been able to, or been forced to immigrate to your country. You are not seeing a representative sample. You are only seeing a peculiar slice of that country’s population.

Vietnam and China provide good examples. The Vietnamese that migrated to the far reaches of the globe are almost all from what was formerly Southern Vietnam. They fled the conquering north after the Vietnam-American War. It should be no surprise that Southern Vietnamese have a similar look. The West has, therefore, experienced (mostly) only one kind of Vietnamese look.

Same goes for the Chinese who immigrated to the U.S. If you based your view of China on the Chinese population in California, you’d probably assume most of China was Cantonese.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most Chinese are Han. Cantonese is a minority group from the country’s south. It just so happens, though, that Cantonese people are some of the more adventurous of the Chinese cultures and are more willing to emigrate. The Cantonese people have a different look than the Han or the Sichuan or the Uyghur. Regardless of whether Han, Sichuan, or Uyghur look like what you find in the U.S., they all “look Chinese” because they’re all actually Chinese. You won’t convince a Chinese person otherwise.

All that’s compounded by the fact that immigrants will immigrate to places that already have people like them. If you’re Asian and your cousin moves to San Francisco and you later decide to immigrate, you’ll probably take your family to San Francisco where your relative can help you adjust to the strange land. If your relations follow, they’ll probably make the same decision. Suddenly, the place is populated with your family and your family’s homeland neighbors and friends. These people will tend to look a lot like you. This homogeneity will skew how your adopted homeland sees your home country. You might even start breeding with each other and, over time, exaggerate your countrymen’s shared features.

This all means that trying to determine a racial look based on what you see in the West is a fool’s game. It’s like trying to determine what a fish looks like based on what you see on one scuba dive—the sample size is skewed by where you are. Look at the Asian country as a whole and you realize its “look” is much more diverse and complicated.  (This, of course, doesn’t apply to Koreans because having the physically largest heads of all Asians makes them exceedingly simple to positively identify.)

Which brings us back to me (inevitably). I’m Filipino, the mutt of the Asian races. We’re spread out over hundreds of islands over thousands of miles. Portions of us have been conquered by nearly every surrounding nation and beyond. That means you can find Filipinos that look like nearly every Asian race. My family, for example, probably has some Chinese, Indo, and Spanish in our blood. I know for sure my mom’s side is part Irish.

That means my eyes are big, but not so big that I’m not Asian. That my skin gets dark, but not so dark as to be African. That my hair is Asian straight and black and not blonde. In short, I have nothing that puts me squarely in a particular TCVC look yet I have nothing that puts me outside a look either. I am what you expect me to be, which is whatever nationality of the country I happen to be in.

In the end, I’ve had to explain to people I’m from America, but not from TCVC. That I am “same same” but “different.” That I don’t speak the language because my parents are Filipino, not because I’ve abandoned my TCVC culture. Best of all I’ve had to explain all this using hand signals, pidgin English, and smatterings of TCVC language. One variety of the script:

Stranger: Where you from?

Me: “U.S.”

Stranger: Uhhhh. . .[confused look]

Me: [smiling, waiting for inevitable next question]

Stranger: You [Country I’m in: Thai/Cambodia/Vietnamese/Chinese]?

Me: No. My parents are from the Philippines.

Strangers: Parents?

Me: Mother. Father. Philippines.

Stranger: Ah, Chinese.

Me: No no no. Phi-lip-pines. Philippines.

Stranger: Yes, Chinese.

Me: Yes, Philippines. [smiling]

Stranger: [calling to friends: “I think this arrogant prick is from [Country I happen to be in] but lives in the U.S. and has forsaken our culture. He doesn’t even have the decency to understand our beautiful mother language. I will now smile at him with a mixture of sadness, pity, and disgust.”]

[smile]

Yes.

Me: Yes. Philippines. [smile]

[Whereupon Stranger spends the rest of our time together wondering why I am not filled with more shame.]

When I am having this Other Conversation, I try to remind myself that it’s evidence that we’re all a lot more alike than we are different. That the fact that this local is confusing me for the child of a native means that most of what separates us is–like colonial borders–arbitrary. That this Other Conversation shows that, at the end of the day, there’s no race other than the human one.

And sometimes just smile, point to my ear, and pretend that I’m deaf.

GALLERY: Click through to see a couple pictures of Hanoi traffic at night.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 12:01 am

    I always kind of scoffed (if only inwardly) when told that “race” was a social construct – after all, there is data showing that American blacks react differently to some medicines than whites or hispanics, as well as other “racial differences” that seem significant.

    Then I read “What It Means to Be 98% Chimp” and it all became clear…there *is* no such thing as “race” in the sense that it is commonly understood! One of the most surprising things for me in that book was the revelation that the genetic diversity WITHIN Africa is greater than the diversity between Europeans and Africans….! Get your head around THAT!

    Anyhow, your post reminded me of the book, and I highly recommend it.

    • July 21, 2010 7:47 am

      I’ve heard “98% chimp” tidbit back in psych undergrad. It’s a fun one to through around at parties. I’ll have to check that book out of the library when I get back.

      Race is a tricky thing. There are certainly genetic differences, but to assume you can pick those out based on sight is probably part of the fool’s game. You might find this RadioLab podcast on “Race” interesting. It takes a scientific look at the concept of racial classification. Since it’s RadioLab, it’s of course informative and fascinating, which should serve as a nice antidote to the sweeping generalizations and dribble usually found here.

  2. sally permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:32 am

    Koreans have the largest heads? I’m not sure whether you actually mean it or whether you put it in there to TRY to take a swipe at me. I scoff at your pitiful attempt to make fun of us.

  3. Josh permalink
    July 21, 2010 9:58 pm

    you shouldn’t come back . . . the blog is really hitting its stride.

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