I think I ran into more than my fair share of people who try to be nice, but come off as insensitive, ignorant or both, and it has to do with my Asian heritage.
Once, in DC, an African-American girl told me that my “eyes were slanted in the perfect angle.” She wasn’t trying to be rude. From her facial expression, she was genuinely trying to compliment me. Of course, there are better ways to comment about someone’s eyes than it being slanted in the perfect way, especially if the complimented happens to be Asians.
Then, of course everyone thinks we’re all Chinese. I always find that funny. And because I’m tall, there were actually people who called me Yao Ming.
I always find it entertaining when people try to find out what I am. I guess it became impolite to ask an Asian what their heritage is, but personally, I think it is more impolite when they try to go in circles to figure out what my nationality is. I can’t help but play along. Here’s an actual conversation at a mall in DC:
“So, where are you from?” (note: when someone asks me this, 8 out of 10 times, they’re trying to ask me where in Asia is my family from)
“Right now, I’m actually in DC going to seminary. But I’m really from Hawaii.”
“Oh. That’s nice, Hawaii. So is that, like, your hometown? Did you live anywhere before that?”
“Oh. Yea. My family used to live in Santa Barbara before we move to Hawaii.”
“Yea, Santa Barbara is nice. Would you consider that your hometown?”
“Well, I guess I’d consider my hometown as Columbia, South Carolina. I grew up there.”
“Oh. Okay. Do you have something that is considered a native language? Like do you speak another language?”
“I speak English. Maybe a little bit of Spanish.”
“Spanish, huh? Is that all you know how to speak?”
“Oh, I speak a little Chinese.”
“Oh! So you’re Chinese?”
“Oh. So where is your family from?”
I know that was real mean and insensitive on my part. But it was entertaining. I eventually told him I was Korean, and he started to talk to me a little in broken Korean.
But it’s always entertaining how people interact with me.