About a month ago, I went to a Pittsburgh neighborhood festival and bumped into some grad school classmates.  Said classmates introduced me to a friend of theirs, whom I’ll now call S, and we all walked around together.  One classmate had driven, offered me a lift home, and we all made a pit stop for some Mexican food.  It was in the Mexican eatery that I realized that I felt uneasy around S.  While we didn’t have too much to talk about, S seemed like a perfectly nice guy.  It just so happens that S is also Asian American.

“Ugh, people probably think we’re together,” I thought.

Toi Derricotte, a professor of mine, wrote about the experience of being African American in predominantly white residential neighborhoods and in academia in her book The Black Notebooks.  In one anecdote, she recounts how she worked hard to establish a rapport with the manager of a neighborhood business.  The manager is white.  Most of the people in the neighborhood are white.  One day, a neighborhood friend of hers, who is black like her, comes into the shop as she’s there, and greets her warmly.  Instead of being happy to see her friend, Toi coolly brushes her off.  She doesn’t want to be associated with her friend in the store.  She doesn’t want the manager, who only just recently warmed up to her, to see her as just one of those black ladies.  In the Ivory Tower, Toi recalls feeling uncomfortable when her department hired another African American faculty member.  She finds herself sizing up her new colleague, comparing the colleague against herself.

Some comparisons are more understandable: siblings comparing themselves to other siblings, cousins to other cousins.  Sometimes parents make the comparisons, or other relatives or teachers.

One time as I was standing in line to buy something at Express (way back in high school, and a gift for a friend–I’ve never been trendy), I heard a woman behind me.

“Ohh, she’s tall.  Think you can grow to be as tall as her, Laura?”

There were no giantesses on the line, or on the sales floor vicinity.  The woman was talking about me.  I looked back, and was not surprised to see a middle-aged Asian woman and a pre-teen Asian girl.  The mother didn’t notice my looking, but the daughter’s eyes met mine for a second before they darted in another direction.  You know, it’s fine.  If some Asian American advocacy group wants to make me the poster girl for an “Eat Your Veggies and Drink Your Milk” campaign, sure.  (Money would be appreciated, however).

When I was young, I asked my mother why there wasn’t an Asian American American Girl Doll.  I didn’t believe her when she told me Asian Americans only comprised about 2% of the American population.  I grew up in a Queens neighborhood that had a large Asian American community.  I attended schools with many other Asian American children.  But while there were many other Asian American college students in the Boston/Cambridge area, my college was predominantly white.

“Hi, I’m writing for The Beacon,” a girl said, walking alongside me as I was headed to class.  “Are you an international student?”

I still cringe when I remember a session of my freshman honors seminar, in which our professor had us go around the room and read aloud from Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.”  Most of my classmates were furious.  They felt that they were made to feel guilty, and didn’t appreciate it.  My professor kept throwing looks at myself and the other two non-white students in the class.  “I’d really like to hear from some other people in the class,” she repeated. I was mortified.  One of the “daily effects of white privilege” listed in the article is “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”  I didn’t feel that I enjoyed many of the white privileges stated in the piece, and especially not that particular privilege in that class session.

In the face of feeling different, some people band together with other people they feel are their compatriots.  Take Chinatown communities, for instance, including the sizable one in my hometown.  Or student groups at my college, including Asian Students for Intercultural Awareness (ASIA), Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (EBONI–“Natural” throws me off, but maybe that’s just me), and Amigos (no acronym there).

I didn’t join ASIA even though I was invited to do so and ignored any outreach the office of multicultural affairs attempted.  (Why didn’t my roommates get the same correspondence?)  I don’t think my indifference bordering on avoidance is necessarily a generational issue.  According to Facebook, quite a few of my Asian American classmates from high school went on to be active in Asian American student groups at their respective colleges, and most of them are like me in that we’re second generation (or maybe first–the semantics are unclear) Americans.

The western part of my hometown is predominantly Asian American, but the community still appears to be growing and headed further east in the town, in Queens, and out to Long Island.  Goong Goong, my late maternal grandfather, bought his house in our town because he was confident that other Asians wouldn’t move so far east, a stretch from the downtown area and from the subway station.  He bought his and Poh Poh’s New Jersey cemetery plots, purposely choosing an area where other Asians weren’t buried.  Today, the neighborhood around his old house is overwhelmingly Asian.  A Chinese American civic association of some sort bought all the surrounding area in the cemetery where he and Poh Poh now lie.  Neither my mother nor I know why Goong Goong was so averse to other Asians, but it rubbed off on us both.  Going to college and now grad school, and studying in programs with students who are primarily white and middle-class, hasn’t inspired me to return to my “roots.”  If anything, I’m all the more awkward and uncomfortable with such an idea.

“You’re so/such (fill in the blank–e.g., Asian, a girl).”  Generally this isn’t a compliment.  Maybe that’s part of the reason why I was uncomfortable being around S.  She’s so Asian.  Look at those Asians, hanging out together.  Always sticking together.  But by being standoffish and ill-at-ease, I actually fulfill part of the “so Asian” stereotype: the reserved and socially awkward Asian.  Well, damn it.  Damn me.

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