Remember that scene in Mean Girls when Cady goes up to the table of African Americans and says “jambo?” Well, from my experience, she should have realized that she was in a suburban Illinois high school and just said “Hello.”
Yeah, I laugh at Cady’s remark, but in truth, I’ve been on the receiving end of that interaction and I hate it when people think I’m foreign.
Adopted from Vietnam and raised in Seattle, I had always embraced my Asian-American identity with pride, knowing that I was lucky to have the best things from two cultures and to have a comfortable life in America. I seldom resented my Asian heritage because before coming to the University of Washington, I wasn’t regarded as someone of lesser intelligence just because my appearance wasn’t Caucasian.
When I finally got to UW, my pride in my heritage changed, as did my view of international students. It’s not because of any act that an international student committed towards me. It’s the way that I was degradingly treated–the way that people assumed I was international–that altered the idea of exchange students for me and what it means to be Asian American.
Walking through the Seattle campus, it’s evident that our Asian exchange student population is big, even though Caucasians still outnumber the American and international Asians and Pacific Islanders. They flock together a lot of the time, but then again so does any group of people that may have common interests or existing friend groups.
UW is definitely known for having a huge Asian student population and there’s always a flume of racial jokes that looms over the social life of the school. If you ask someone if they know a specific person, odds are that they do, because it’s said that “every Asian person has the same name.” Our avenue of college restaurants is mocked for being loaded with kimchee-related everything, and there’s evidently a teriyaki restaurant every other shop.
Over the years, I’ve had professors that have treated me like I can’t speak English (ironically, that’s my major). During my freshman year, a math quiz section leader grouped me with the Asian international students, assuming that English was my second language, and moreover, that people with an Asian appearance should be seated together. It was demeaning in a way to be placed somewhere because my English intelligence was thought to be subpar. The professor didn’t even know my potential in math yet, let alone that I speak perfect English.
When a UW dance lecturer called me out in front of my class to comment on my technique, she talked audibly slower than normal in order for me to “understand” her. The way she talked at a glacial pace was degrading, and hugely inconsiderate for her to assume that anyone with Asian features deserved to be considered less fluent in English.
Even in social situations, guys will shout things to me in Chinese or Japanese with a sneer, which makes me want to punch them, tell them to educate themselves on the different Asian countries and languages and that I speak English better than their mothers.
Aren’t I entitled to a simple “Hello?” We’re in America, after all.
Whether it has been a professor or just a rude student, there hasn’t been a breakthrough “That’s how I should deal with this” moment. To that dance teacher, I went for the passive aggressive comeback, responding to her feedback with a voice that moved at the same pace as she spoke to me. She gave me a sassy smirk and left me alone. I embodied the same approach with the math TA who grouped me with the Asian international students. I spoke in over articulated English to him and while the group was perfectly nice, I sulked because, oh yeah, I don’t speak Chinese or Korean. Usually, the finger and a walk away is all I can conjure up for the rude students who yell random Asian words at me.
Here and there, I’ve been in other social and classroom situations at UW that have brought out a sense of counter-racism in me. Sometimes I resent being Asian because I don’t want to be associated with international students. What they project onto international Asian students–slowed down speech or in what they think is Asian talk–isn’t anything that I want to have to deal with.
But honestly, no one at UW, exchange student or American-raised, should have to have racial assumptions voiced and thrown at them. I don’t deserve that; no one does. The thing I deserve is respect for who I am, rather than a supposition and a classification. I’m re-learning how to be proud to be Asian and American. I speak great English because that’s my first language. There’s no reason that people should treat me (or anyone for that matter) like my English intelligence is at a lower level than theirs right off the bat.
There you go, UW professors. How was my perfect English?