Alexander Teu: An awkward encounter
The following exchange happened recently while exiting a popular food market in western Nevada County with my family.
White male bagger with a friendly face: “Konnichiwa!”
Me: “Konnichiwa right back at you, but I am not Japanese.”
Friendly bagger: “Oh, are you Hawaiian?”
Me: “No, just California dark.”
We walk back to the car, in awkward silence. My wife, who’s always been more emotionally charged by these incidents, is perturbed.
The incident does not leave us, not for several hours or even the next day. After some lively debate with me and some friends, my wife, much more courageous and righteous than me, resolved to go back to the store and inform management of what happened, and why it was offensive, and how they could do better. Her visit went well enough, her views were expressed, and management was courteous. They promised to do better.
Should I have said something more at the time? In my mind, the friendly bagger was not being malicious, just ignorant at worst — likely just welcoming in intent. If simple ignorance was the cause, should I have made it a teaching point and matter-of-factly pointed out why it was inappropriate to say what he did?
And what, exactly, did he do wrong? It’s hard to put a finger on it because it was not violent or outwardly racist. This is subtle, so bear with me as I try.
He made me feel something other than American. I have lived in the United States since I was 4, mostly in New York City and California. I went to college in Michigan. I was a lawyer for about a dozen years and have worked in technology for the past 15 years. No matter what I do, for however long, I am forever the “foreigner.” Every time I hear questions like, “Where are you from?” I remember the news headline from the 1998 Winter Olympics:
“American beats Kwan.”
Michelle Kwan was arguably the most decorated skater in U.S. history but will mostly be remembered for failing to win the gold medal. I remember her grace and beauty on the ice. I remember bursting with pride watching her dazzle audiences. And I always remember that headline.
The friendly bagger made me feel like an exotic animal. I don’t speak with an accent. I am of average height and build, though transitioning quite nicely into dad bod. I am as average as one can get. Except for my almond shaped eyes and yellow skin, I guess.
I’m like a pregnant woman whose belly you feel entitled to rub. I’m the adorable puppy you must “aw” at. Sure, feel free to practice your Asian words on me. I know every language. I’m from everywhere and nowhere.
He made me feel silly for even bringing this up. Am I really complaining about this? I mostly do not have to worry about getting pulled over by the police for a traffic stop or broken taillight. If anything, Asians get reverse profiling, where we are seen as safe and compliant.
No, no, no, I’m not any of those things — or at least I don’t want you to assume that. I am a person, an individual, with a name and my own hurdles, hopes and dreams. I want you to see me as me, not as just another yellow face.
The friendly bagger made me feel like sticking my head in the sand. What’s the point of bringing it up? I am only going to be seen as an unreasonable, ungrateful Chinaman. It’s not going to change a thing. It may lead to a heated argument or even a physical altercation.
So I just don’t say much of anything, and simply walk away most of the time. But it always gnaws at me, for the words I wish I’d said. It can stick in my craw for hours and days.
No more. Speaking up every single time is the only way. I don’t want to have make the right call to decide whether this is the right time to bring it up. For encounters like what I’m describing here, I will speak my voice, with respect, with good cheer, and explain why these unsolicited comments bother me.
(For encounters where someone is being an overt racist, the approach might have to be different if personal safety is at stake. You’ll have to make the call on what to do when that happens. I hope it does not happen to you.)
So, what should the friendly bagger have said?
Alexander Teu lives in San Francisco.
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