Aware of My Race
I grew up in a small college town in Colorado, pretty much everyone was white of some kind. There was always a good population of Mexicans, but beyond that pretty much everyone was some kind of Caucasian. Being half Asian meant that I was always, to quote my good bud Eric, “the ethnic one”. But it never really affected my everyday life and people certainly never treated me any different due to my race. Really the only way I ever interacted with my race is through the occasional self-deprecating joke and that I ate rice with my KFC. I don’t really relate to my Asian side, it’s foreign, the culture is different. I’m an American through and through. I'm like a pale banana, yellowish on the outside, white on the inside. Day to day, it never even crossed my mind.
Here in Asia is a different story though. I feel aware of my race. Being tall and ambiguously brown attracts glances. It doesn't help that I dress like a foreigner, I sport bro tanks and loud t-shirts with all kinds of dumb shit on them. Not to mention that the moment I open my mouth and some broken, mispronounced butchering of whatever language they speak comes out, it’s a dead giveaway that generally inspires more confusion.
A fun game is to have people guess my other half. Some people guess Chinese, I get Singaporean a lot as well. Someone guessed Korean the other day, that was a new one. I’ve had Filipino thrown around. As a rule of thumb: Westerners say I look Asian and Asians say I look Western. In Vietnam when I told people that I’m the Asian looking one back home the room erupted with laughter. One time I got asked if I dye my hair black to look more Asian.
On the other hand, when I was working reception at a hostel in Japan, Westerners would tend to walk in, assume I was Japanese and start the awkward slow English dance only to be surprised that I do, in fact, speak English. I remember one Aussie dude said, “Hey man, your English is really good”. It was a tempting idea to just roll with it, pretend I was Japanese and construct an elaborate web of lies… I didn’t… we all have regrets. Another time in Vietnam I had just finished teaching a class and was sitting down at a desk when a new teacher walked in. I didn’t really say anything because I was busy with something, so he just started teaching. Eventually I got up to leave and he asked where I was going. I told him I was a teacher and he got weirdly indignant on me, asked me why I didn’t say anything. I guess he just thought I was a student.
Most people pick up that there’s a little sumthin sumthin going on but I’ve also been told by some people that I don’t look Asian at all. It’s all very confusing.
My main gripe is that I don’t know exactly how Asian I look and I sure would like to leverage that knowledge somehow. People here are definitely treated differently based on their race. We were trying to get to a local pool and one girl couldn’t get her Grab driver to take her there, he just kept taking her to the bourgie hotel pool for foreigners. I don't think it was malicious, he probably just thought she got the address wrong. In the US if your Uber driver did that it would be misconstrued as discrimination. Of course locals also have an easier time bargaining. Merchants will naturally mark up prices for tourists, it’s to be expected. But part of that also comes with knowing the language, but the point still stands.
I find I don’t attract as many glances as some of my more fair skinned colleagues. People notice first that I’m taller than everyone and second that I’m 50% less Asian than them. The glances also vary depending on where you are. If you’re in a tourist part of town no one will bat an eye. I prefer to avoid those types of places so I’m generally the sore thumb on the street when I’m awkwardly slumped over, squatting on a plastic stool with my gangly limbs soaring over the table. The bottom line is that outside of the tourist areas there are very few foreigners so people are bound to stare at the different looking one.
None of this bothers me. I don’t feel weird or ostracized or anything. Really it’s just a source of amusement and a good conversation starter. Although I do admit that it’s a little awkward when I walk into a room and everyone looks at me.
People also make fun of me for my name. Henry Jack Miller does not run parallel to my racial makeup. Thanks Mom and Dad.