I don’t know why I was in Center City Philadelphia on that particular day. But I do recall it being an especially beautiful spring day and that I was waiting for a bus to take me back to campus. I wasn’t really in a rush, so instead of jumping at every bus appearing over the horizon, I took the time to soak in the sun and let my mind wander as I stood in the bus stall. I remember closing my eyes, and thinking, “Nothing can ruin this day.” I probably also had the conviction that I would skip all my classes that day, which added a pinch of euphoria to my emotional state.
That’s when a man’s voice jolted me out of my serene stupor. “Excuse me,” he said from behind me. “I hope I’m not bothering you, but are you Korean?”
I was mildly irritated that he interrupted my moment of bliss, but his voice sounded gentle and pleasant enough. I turned around, and I replied, “Yes, I am.” He was a tall, white man who was probably in his early sixties. He also had a full head of greying hair, and he looked like a genuinely nice guy, almost grandfatherly, but with the energy of a giddy school boy in a toy store.
“That’s great!” he exclaimed. “Were you born here?”
“No,” I replied feigning a smile just to try to keep up with his enthusiasm. “I was born in Korea, and I came to the states when I was three.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that. You don’t have an accent at all. You speak English very well.” I noticed despite my “speaking English very well,” he still slowed his speech down so I could understand every word.
I could tell this guy was being sincere and well-meaning, so the blatant ignorance didn’t rub me as it would have had it been someone else. “Thanks,” I replied.
After that, I remember us getting on the bus together. We exchanged names and engaged in some small talk about what I was studying and what he knew about Korea. Thankfully, my stop came sooner than later. Clearly, I was now in a rush.
We said our farewells, but just as I was about to step off the bus, the man shouted out, “Hey! If no one has already said this to you, welcome to America!” When I looked back to acknowledge that I heard him, I saw his big, toothy, enthusiastic smile. I conjured up another forced smile, and nodded. (Honestly, I don’t remember smelling any alcohol on him.)
Walking the rest of the way back to my dorm, I felt strangely violated. Because he was so friendly and genuine, I didn’t feel like I had permission to be upset at him. But that made me all the more bothered about the situation. Here is this guy bringing attention to my racial identity by complimenting me on my English and by welcoming me to the United States of America as if I was some poor, lonely alien who’d been neglected by the owners of this country. Not that I was ashamed of being Korean or looking the way I look. That wasn’t it at all, at least not at this point in my life. I just wanted to have a simple bus ride back to campus. I mean, come on. Welcome to America!? Seriously?
Most of my Asian friends have experienced something like what I described above. One pastor friend of mine shared with me an encounter he had with one of the most famous pastors in America. (Let’s call this famous pastor, Peter.) During a meeting with a bunch of pastors, Peter turns to my friend, and says, “Andy*, of all the Asian pastors I’ve ever met, you speak by far the best English!” My friend says it’s the greatest compliment he’s ever received, and he’s not being sarcastic. I think he was just in so much awe of Peter, any recognition of my friend’s existence would have been construed as a massive compliment.
Anyway, some of my Asian friends get livid when they remember or hear of such encounters. Others just write it off saying it’ll get better with time and education and awareness. But we all agree about one thing: Why can’t we just walk around, ride a bus, go shopping, talk with white folks without having to have our Korean ethnicity and heritage examined and trumpeted? Again, we’re not ashamed of it, but it’d be nice to just be at times. I’ve never said to a Caucasian, “Wow, you don’t have an Irish/European/etc. accent? What country were your ancestors from?”
I laughed about it in the end, and went on with my day, but I think there’s a reason this memory is so well-etched into my memory.
Unfortunately, this type of thing still happens often today. But when my friends lash out, they get even more upset because then they get stereotyped as angry Asians. They find this double-bind extremely troubling as it shows that even subtle and seemingly benign “racism” can turn ugly almost instantly and that there is still a massive lack of understanding. Personally, I’m not as uptight about it because I have come to see that typically the intentions are not ill. That, of course, doesn’t excuse it, but I try to be an optimist about it, especially because my “non-Asian” friends give me so much hope. (Personally, I hate to use “non-Asian” when referring to my friends, as they are simply my friends. But for the purposes of clarity and distinction, I’ll be using that descriptor in this series of posts.)
*Name has been changed.