In an era of second- and even third-generation immigrant families in the U.S., it keeps surprising me how some people are still stuck in the Middle Ages.
If you’re ethnically Asian but were born in Europe or North America and have never lived in Asia, you’ll know what I’m talking about. From uneducated remarks to downright insensitive and racist questions, we’ve experienced it all. Let’s see which of these you’ve come across before. And non-Asians, please take note and stop asking us these crazy questions. We’re getting tired. Thanks!
(I know some of these might seem unbelievable, but they’re all real-life examples of questions I’ve been asked — often multiple or even countless times).
1. “Where are you from?” followed by “No, I mean, where are you really/actually/originally from?”
To make this more cringeworthy, insert assumptions like “China? Korea?” This is like meeting a black person and asking, “Where are you originally from? Nigeria? Kenya?” Yeah, that doesn’t feel right, does it?
I get that you’re curious about why I said Luxembourg when I clearly have Asian features. That was my answer because I was born in Luxembourg and grew up there. So that’s where I consider myself to be from. Like, really actually from.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find the term “originally” in that context so annoying. How far back do you want me to go? In the end, we’re all “originally” from Africa. If I want to have some fun with you, I’ll keep repeating “I was born in Luxembourg” with a bewildered look on my face and watch you struggle to formulate the question you want to ask so badly.
There are so many better ways to ask about this. Like “Where are your parents from?” or “What is your Asian heritage?”
2. Were you adopted?
First of all, none of your business. If I had been adopted, do you think I’d tell you, a complete stranger, about it in the first few minutes after meeting you?
Second of all, why do Asians who grew up in a Western country get asked this so often? Is it because I don’t have an Asian accent when I speak your language so I couldn’t possibly have Asian parents? Weird.
3. Is _____ your real name?
Wait there while I pull out my ID to show you that Helene is my “official” first name. Many Asians who live in Western countries use a westernized name so that their actual one isn’t butchered on a regular basis. You’re welcome for all the embarrassment we’re saving you. My parents sacrificed a little bit of their culture and gave me a Western first name so that I would have it easier growing up in Europe and not face my name being misspelled and mispronounced all the time (it still happens with my last name, though).
So forgive me if I’m not thrilled about having to prove to you that that is indeed my legal name. I might start asking you whether your name is actually your real name.
4. Why don’t your eyes look like slits?
See these four women in the photos below?
They have differently shaped eyes, but they’re all ethnically Asian. You might have a stereotypical mental image of what an Asian person’s eyes look like, and it’s probably like those of the first woman, right? I understand that it’s difficult to differentiate between people of other ethnicities because you’re not used to distinguishing those particular facial features. My mum finds it hard to tell some Caucasian people apart, but she doesn’t go around asking them why they don’t have blond hair and blue eyes. Because that would be absurd.
5. Have you ever eaten dogs/cats/etc.?
No. Some Asians might, though, and who are you to judge, you other-animals-eating person?
By the way, eating animals that are considered pets in Western culture is only a small fraction of weird and “disgusting” foods from all over the world. Do you go around asking every French person you meet whether they eat frog legs? Or Scottish people whether they like sheep intestines? If you do, stop that! Food culture is different all over the world, and making people feel weird about that is rude.
6. Are you good at maths?
Such. A. Cliché. We Asian people have the reputation of being smart cookies. This might be due to the fact that a strict work ethic is so deeply ingrained in our culture, and it does have its disadvantages. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean every single Asian person is super intelligent or great at maths. I’m not bad at it, but not amazing either. Maybe ask me that as part of a job interview, but not when I know it’s just to confirm your assumptions about Asians. Generally people don’t ask another person about their math prowess within a half-hour of meeting them. That’s just weird.
7. Do your parents own a restaurant?
I wish. If they did, I could eat scrumptious Chinese food all the time. My dad is a now-retired architect and my mum a stay-at-home mum. Not what you expected? Too bad.
8. Do you play the piano?
OK, you got me. I do play the piano. Most of my Asian friends do. I guess I can let you have that one.
Maybe I’ll print a little card that reads: “Hi, I’m Helene. Yes, that’s my real name. My parents are from Malaysia, and I was born and grew up in Luxembourg. No, I’ve never eaten dog meat. I’m not great at maths, but I do play the piano. Yes, I speak Chinese, ni hao!”
Or you could just get to know me as someone who isn’t defined by their Asian exterior or ancestry. When we become friends, I’ll be happy to answer any and all the questions you have about being ethnically Asian. In the meantime, you can do the work yourself — read up on the questions you have instead of expecting me to answer them for you.
This article originally appeared on helenechoo.com and is reprinted here with permission.