Monday, January 11, 2016

Where are you really from?

I am an American citizen and it's not because I took the citizenship test. I was born in Queens, NY. My parents were born in Korea. They decided to move to America shortly after getting married to pursue a "better" life and to give their future children opportunities they didn't have as they were growing up.

I thank my parents everyday that I had the luxury to be born an American citizen and grow up with the privilege of an amazing free public school education that got me into an Ivy League college which in turn earned me an amazing job with a steady income and excellent benefits. My job helped me pay off my student loans, it bought me a car, and I have a beautiful iPad and iPhone and MacBook Air (which is what I'm using to type this up). It's a pretty sweet life and basically, I've accomplished everything my parents dreamed for me.
And yet, sometimes I get extremely bitter about my life here.

Despite its reputation as a melting pot and a place for dreams to come true, America is full of people who look at me and see someone who doesn't belong. How do I know? Because I get stopped by complete strangers on the street and asked, "Where are you from?" more than I get smiled at. And when I answer, "New Jersey," they say, "No, but where are you really from? China? Japan?" It's so stupid and unnecessary.

To add insult to injury, I've been told that I "barely have an accent" and I've been asked, "Oh, you go by Rachel? That's cool. But what's your real name?" Well gee thanks! It's great that I barely have an accent because English is basically my first language and I don't know what you mean by "real name" because it says 'Rachel' on my birth certificate. They probably assume my "real name" is 'Ching Chong' and I just go by 'Rachel' because it's easier to pronounce.
Some may think that it's just a harmless question and give the excuse that people are curious but I disagree. It's harmful because it's an unnecessary question that implies that the interviewee is an alien. Like I said before, it's a question that says, "You don't belong here." It's an unproductive use of time because this ignorant person's life will not change at all once they find out that my parents are Korean. Think about it; what will this information actually do for this person? Will it enrich their lives? No. What will it do? The answer is nothing. It will do nothing and that is my biggest problem. I mean, do you go around asking random strangers on the street if they use deodorant? No, because it doesn't enhance your life at all. It's unproductive and it's pointless and it's rude.

Intent is irrelevant. The result and consequences of your actions are what matter. So, even if you didn't mean to be offensive, if someone is offended, then you are in the wrong. I mean, if you didn't mean to punch someone but you end up punching someone, does it matter that you didn't mean to? No, it doesn't. The punchee still has a bumps and bruises as a result of the punching, even though you "didn't mean to."
Now, I'm not saying you cannot ask these sorts of questions ever. Obviously, if you are friends with someone and you are trying to get to know them a little better, then by all means, interview them hardcore! But, I (not-so-secretly) judge those who ask me for my background because my last name is Kim. Seriously, unless you are brain-dead or your mom is also your cousin, I think you should know that Kim is the most Korean last name ever. And if you feel compelled to ask, "North or South Korea?" I think you should go get sterilized because I don't want you breeding and producing equally brainless offspring.
{image via Pinterest}
As a kid, I experienced people pulling their eyes sideways to look "squinty and Asian," which is disgusting but forgivable because children are little idiots who still have lots to learn. But even more disgustingly, I have experienced this as an adult in a professional setting. It wasn't an action that was necessarily directed towards me and it certainly wasn't intended to offend me but this person was mocking an entire race of people and it was gross. Luckily for me, there was another intelligent person in the room to tell this person to stop his inappropriateness because I was too uncomfortable to say anything myself. But how messed up is that? Because of these ignorant attitudes (that I have been exposed to my entire life) and the constant questioning of whether or not I belong here, I've become a person who is uncomfortable and unwilling to speak up against someone in the wrong. I have fear built up inside of me preventing me from living a prejudice-free life.

Sadly, it's not just a problem at home. The main reason I wanted to write down my thoughts on this topic is because I've experienced this on my travels abroad much more violently than I do here. On my first ever trip to London, a gentleman yelled, "Konichiwa!" at my two friends and me after we'd purchased admission tickets from him in perfect American-English. Seriously, WTF? It was my first international racist assault so I was too taken aback to come up with a retort and my friends were also too polite to say anything. And then during my next trip, which was a month-long jaunt to Europe, I was bombarded with, "Chinoise!" (Chinese!) in Paris, "Giapponese!" (Japanese!) in Rome, and "Are you ladies from insert East Asian country here?" whilst in the UK and Ireland with people actively stopping us (physically with their hands) to speak to us and find out what our deals were. It was laughably stupid but also incredibly scary. Were we some sort of circus freaks on display for everyone to gawp at and question? I mean, it's not like we were visiting some indigenous, undiscovered tribes in the Amazon who had never seen people with our skin color before. We were in developed, cultured countries which is what made it worse and scarier.
After that month of verbal assaults, I came back to the States and had a lot of time to reflect. I read through my journal - which recounted several horrible racist incidents - and I grew a bit tougher. Since then, on trips abroad I've been quick to yell back, "I'M AMERICAN, THANKS," in my most crisply enunciated voice. And, if it's been a long day of annoying losers, my reply will escalate to, "F@CK YOU. I'M AMERICAN, YOU A$$HOLE!" to any stranger who deigns to project any racist, stereotypical remark at me. And as horrible as I may feel about maybe giving Americans an even worse reputation of being potty-mouthed and rude, I find extreme satisfaction when I see a look of shock (probably shock that I speak English) and even more satisfaction when I get an apology.

I know the content of this post is a lot heavier than the fun and light-hearted (re: superficial) trips and DIYs that I typically publish. But, I think that my feelings were worth mentioning. This is the ugliest part of traveling I've experienced. And I haven't shared it yet because I don't want to project myself as some sort of withering wisp of a person who gets offended by everything nor do I want to give locations a bad reputation because one person's experience isn't definitive. However, it's not like it's going to disappear if I pretend it doesn't exist so I just thought I'd put it out there.

And to anyone in the same boat, hopefully my ranting will give you encouragement that you're not the only one. And to the more ignorant folk, perhaps this will give you some insight.
Things will be different someday, right?

xoxo.

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