Jul 12, 2012|
Not sure if y’all remember the older iteration of the website alllooksame.com but it basically played on the Western stereotype that all Asians look similar. Visiting the site you were shown a picture of an Asian and needed to guess if he or she was Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Even though I’m Asian (half but that still counts, I looked it up) I found the quiz difficult. To my white friends, it was damn near impossible. They would get the weird looking Japanese dude with bleached hair right but afterwards it was like throwing darts blindfolded.
Living in Hong Kong has acutely tuned my “what Asian are you” detector and I can figure out where anyone’s from with the exception of Laotian people (seriously, what do people from Laos look like???). Unfortunately, this has been a trade-off in which I seem to have more difficulty distinguishing people in the States. When I hop off the plane at JFK, I always have the same two thoughts: 1) everyone here is fat; and 2) there are a lot of black people. I hope that’s not wrong to think; it’s just what pops into my mind.
Growing up in Boston, there were lots of Caucasian, Asian, Black, and Hispanic people in my life: in Hong Kong I almost only see White or Asian. My thinking has insidiously changed from “It’s strange there are almost no black people in Hong Kong,” to “It’s strange to see a lot of black people.” I wonder what it does to someone’s perceptions when there is a lack of racial and cultural diversity around them. Well, for starters, it can make it very embarrassing when they go somewhere more diverse.
Here’s what happened to me.
Last week I was back in the States visiting my family. It was great to see everyone and I decided to show my love for them in a good Chinese way: by buying them all iPhones. I scoped out the Verizon store in the morning and was helped by a kind African American woman named Michelle. The employees work on commission, so I assured her I’d have her help when I returned that afternoon to choose colors.
Flash forward six hours: my sister and I enter the Verizon store. The guy at the door asks if anyone was helping us. I forget Michelle’s name because I’m terrible at names so I just say “I was helped by a nice African American woman,” rationale being that when I visited earlier there were four people there and only one black lady. He nods and returns a large black female employee, Yvonne, the store manager. Nope, not her.
“Was it the girl over there?” Yvonne asks, motioning, and I see Michelle helping a customer. “Yes, it’s her!” I say. She calls Michelle over who turns out not to be Michelle but another black woman named Sandra. At this point I’m a bit embarrassed. But thankfully I see Michelle. I say “Sorry, I had a brain explosion” but it’s definitely her. They call Michelle over but then I notice her nametag says Yasmina, her skin is much darker than Michelle’s, and her features look literally nothing like Michelle. Suffice it to say, she is probably not Michelle.
The three black women and I stand there for an awkward moment while my sister buries her face in her hands and I think of something to say, which is “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” At about the 56th “h” the actual Michelle appears from the back and everyone leaves because you can’t insult a customer who’s buying three iPhones, even if you think he’s either racist or blind.
Michelle asks what happened and I explain that I didn’t realize there were so many African American women working there and sorry I had forgotten her name. She looks at me quizzically and then says, “I’m Latina.” Oh.
Yalun Tu is a columnist for HK Magazine. You can reach him at email@example.com or @yaluntu on Twitter.