“Hey! You! What are you!?”
In case you’re wondering, the exclamation points are no accident. The kids who yelled this at me did so from the opposite side of the school’s central corridor. I mean, who does that? I’ll tell you who: kids who are secure in their own racial identity.
(Also, kids who could tell by the downcast eyes and awkward gait that I was a nerd trying to be invisible. People like me were beacons, drawing in the cool kids from every corner of the Earth looking to establish their dominance by treading on the scoliosis-sloped backs of people such as myself.)
As much as I hated being asked that question, for most of my life I had a really difficult time formulating an answer that sounded the least bit credible. Once, a black co-worker asked that question and I replied that I was half African American and half Korean. She very curtly replied, “No, you’re black.” To be honest, I felt a kind of warmth come over me for the rest of the day. I never felt black enough to call myself black. Maybe that’s why I said, “African American”. That term; it’s so technical as to be neutered of any sense of meaning or power.
Black. Done. Ruthless efficiency personified. It’s a challenge almost as much as a label. But no, that’s not me.
Another time: “Hey, we better watch out or they’re gonna hit us with their kung-fu.” Temporarily moving past the fact that kung-fu isn’t from Korea, I thought to myself, “Okay, so if people are going to label me as Asian, can I claim that?” But no, that didn’t seem right either.
I’ve been called Hawaiian, Filipino, Mexican, Indian, you name it. If they’re brown-skinned, I’ve been mistaken for one. Here in Abbotsford where there’s a large Punjabi community, an old Indo-Canadian woman stared at me for what seemed an eternity across the hospital ER waiting room. Eventually she got up, hobbled over to my wife, sat down next to her, and asked, “Hindu?”
Sometimes I feel like a walking Jeopardy answer.