It was a breezy day of Spring Equinox when a gentleman approached me on the busy streets of New York City and told me that I’m beautiful.
He told me that I’m a beautiful Oriental, to be precise.
I took it while gushing a little because not only have I low confidence in my looks; I wasn’t wearing makeup that day, I had recently sprouted a constellation of acne by the bridge of my nose, and I was wearing my dumpy puffy coat.
He introduced himself (I forgot his name already) and asked for my name. Unlike the typically harried and cranky New Yorker that I am, I decided to engage and at least offer acknowledgement for his time.
“My name is Laura,” I replied.
“Oh Laura. I thought you would have a more Oriental name.”
Pause. Rewind. What the hell does this random jerkwad on the street mean by that?
In a split second my confused benevolence did a 360 and warped into cold anger.
This wasn’t a genuine, warm-hearted compliment – it was yet again, another instance of racial microaggression that subtly weaves like a poisonous vine through my daily interactions.
In case you don’t know, microaggression is “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
It goes hand in hand with other backhanded comments like “No, where are you REALLY from” when I tell people that I’m American (American Korean to be precise)” or when non-Asian catcallers shout their horrid rendition of Chinese (“NEH HOW!!!!”) at me for no apparent reason other than to address the fact that I’m Asian.
It’s not very different from Black people being told that “they don’t act or talk Black”, or when people act like curious voyeurs and ask to touch their hair. It’s certainly no different from the seemingly innocuous comment, “Oh, I know someone from Indonesia! She’s very nice,” in response to being told that someone is Indonesian. It further engenders romanticism, foreign-ism, and alienation of other cultures, that people of other color are vastly “different” and must be scrutinized under a different light.
It’s not much better to say that you don’t “see color” either. The popular phrase now is, “I don’t care if you’re pink, yellow, or green, we are all one race.” Yeah we get it, racial issues are uncomfortable to discuss, especially if you are not of color, and somehow the compromise for that devolved into colorblindness, which is, according to Psychology Today, “a racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity.”
So colorblindness means that my undeniably Korean roots are ignored and dismissed to fit into the comfortable construct of those who are afraid to tackle racism head on. That means that the Black folks who can’t wear hoodies without the risk of unnecessary police harassment, the Hispanic folks who are quickly rejected on job applications for being a Lopez, Gonzalez, etc., the South Asian folks who are told that they “would be prettier if they weren’t so dark”, the Muslim women heckled for wearing hijabs – their struggles are undermined as individual conflicts and not as part of a larger picture of racial suppression, discrimination, and underprivilege.
You don’t hear white Americans (the historical Anglo Saxon sense of the word, not Russian whites for example) being told that they don’t “act white”, being asked where they are “really from”, or told that they know someone else who is white. They don’t have random assholes on the street shouting in garbled Gaelic or French at them just for being white.
Because there is a notion that they belong here and that we – people of color – don’t.
I grew up in a small Korean community in Queens, but I’m American. My first language was Korean, but I quickly forgot most of my native language and achieved an almost masterful proficiency in English. I grew up crushin’ on the Backstreet Boys, collecting Spice Girls lollipops, listening to P!nk and Linkin Park, watching Cartoon Network, and having multicultural friends. So everything about my life just screams American Korean.
Sometimes, people even think I’m illiterate or that I don’t know English. Tourists with their backpacks and subway maps would frequently shout at me over the heads of busy New Yorkers: “HEY! YOU SPEAKA ENGLISH?!” And I would walk away coldly in silence, because a writer who tutored writing at a competitive state college would obviously not speak English because I’m an “Oriental” right?
To an outsider who is not of color, I am an Oriental. An Asian. A chink. In their eyes, I have no personality, dreams, talents, or achievements beyond what is dictated by the color of my skin.
Funny how people endorse dual realities (“doublespeak” in the Orwellian universe), flip flopping from one to another, to conveniently fit the general self concept and security. When discussing underprivilege and other large overarching issues, they are regarded by people of privilege as a problem with the individual (“he’s too lazy to apply for a job”, “she’s too stupid to do better”, ”he’s asking for trouble by wearing that.”) But when addressing the problem of the individual (i.e. illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, etc.) it becomes a marker of a problematic heritage or color (“Black people are lazy.”, “Muslims are evil terrorists.”, “Asians can’t learn English.”).
Well listen up, you lazy and bigoted social fiends – I’m Korean, I’m American, I’m of color, I don’t have all the privileges offered to folks of no color, and I’m proud to claim all. Whatever doublespeak you utilize, or microaggressive insults you hurl at me, you can’t take away my pride in my identity – which is like a multifaceted diamond with no singular face.
So yes, Mr. Ignorant on the NYC street where you stopped me and told me I’m beautiful, beautiful Oriental in fact, I embrace it. Not your ignorance or your bigotry, but the fact that I’m an Oriental and I’m proud.
So thank you, thank you for your compliment.