“Where are you *from*?”

By now, you may have already seen this painfully awkward interaction between a white American man and an Asian-American woman.

I found this video hilarious. I’m tempted to start practicing my accents for the next time this exact scenario happens to me. Because it has happened to me, and it will happen to me again.

Yeah, it sometimes makes me and my companions uncomfortable when people ask me fairly clueless questions or make embarrassing assumptions about my ethnic background. No, I don’t appreciate being singled out for unwanted attention based on things that I can’t control, like the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes.

Yeah, I grew up around other kids singing the “ching chong” song at me and pulling the corners of their eyes to make them look narrower.

Yeah, I get the occasional “Konnichiwa” or “Sayonara” from strangers in public places (once from a Swiss French man in an art museum in Geneva – he was surprised and embarrassed when I answered him in French: Bonjour, je suis americaine, je ne parle pas japonais. Americans are not the only people who make assumptions about me based on how I look.) For reasons unknown, I have yet to be greeted in Mandarin or Cantonese.

I try to take these questions in stride. At some point I noticed that when children ask to touch my hair or ask their parents why I look different from other people, I don’t mind answering them at all. We chalk up a child’s behavior to innocence and curiosity. We don’t blame children for not knowing better because they just don’t have the knowledge and experience that adults do.

But adults – adults aren’t allowed to misunderstand or be curious. At some point in our formative years, maybe while we were attending Big City universities, we were supposed to have learned all there is to know about other ethnicities and races and cultures, and we’re embarrassed to admit that we didn’t. Well, some of us are embarrassed.

I say racist things and ask questions that reveal my ignorance and make assumptions about people based on their looks all the time. You do it, too. Imagine you’re walking alone through a dark city alley late at night. You turn a corner and see a big, dark-skinned dude in his 20s in a hooded sweatshirt running at you. How do you react? Replace that man with a petite Asian woman in her 50s in a dress and heels – now how do you react? Whom do you ask for directions in an unfamiliar city – the lone Mexican woman waiting at the bus stop, or the well-dressed young white couple sharing a latte at the corner cafe?

Stereotyping is a form of pattern recognition. We are so very good at seeing patterns that we see them even when they’re not there or don’t apply. Patterns and stereotypes are tools we use to abbreviate the world and make it more manageable – because how exhausting would it be to assess every person we meet anew like they’re the only other person in the world that we’ve ever met? No, we’re wired to assume that most things and living things that look the same, act the same.

Novel things and people are Other. Curiosity about Other is fine and natural. What’s bad and toxic is fear or hatred of Other. I’ll never forget the time I was staying in a hotel in eastern Idaho and I encountered a very conservatively dressed woman and her four children. She positioned herself between me and her children as I walked by, and they all automatically, in unison, averted their eyes. All except the youngest one, who stared me down like an owl.

Compared to that, I’ll take “What kind of Asian are you?” any day.

I wish we would all, at least once, spend some time stranded in the exclusive company of people who look and sound very little or not at all like ourselves. When you are the majority and someone else is the rare bird, you are tuned in to everything “weird” and different about that person. But when become the rare bird, you suddenly find that being different is lonely. You need other people to understand you, not fear you or stereotype you. You search desperately for common needs, desires, wants, which you can use to communicate and connect with these strange people. You find yourself relieved and grateful to meet strangers who are willing and able to communicate with you. You start to adopt many local behaviors and words, words and behaviors which at first seemed odd to you, words and behaviors you may have laughed off if you encountered them in your home country when you were surrounded by Your People. Eventually you make some friends and learn enough of their words and behaviors to not constantly feel awkward in their presence. But still, people openly stare at you in public, make faces at your strange and accented speech, tell jokes you don’t understand.

You get used to playing the role of the Exotic Foreign Person. When you do go home, or at least back to a place where you naturally blend in, you can finally relax. No one picks you out of a crowd and asks to touch your hair, or tries to show off their “knowledge” of your native culture from movies and TV shows.

I’ve lived in times and places where friends and strangers alike were constantly reminding me with their words and actions that You’re Not Like Us. I believed it, and it made me feel lonely. Like they had built a glass cage around me to wall me off from the rest of society.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I secretly carried that cage with me long after I left behind the people who built it.

I didn’t discovered Brooklyn and San Francisco until a few years ago. I was delighted to encounter many other young Asian-American women who spoke accentless English, dressed androgynously and sported visible tattoos and short hair. These were the first places I had been where I felt I could be myself and blend in at the same time. As I walked and trained and bused through those cities I felt shards of glass fall from my invisible cage and shatter at my feet. Other American tourists even stopped me and asked me for directions, and I’d like to think it was because I looked like I belonged there.

Finding those places has helped me embrace and assert my identity. It doesn’t hurt that my identity is becoming more mainstream. For instance, Korean food, and Asian food in general, is everywhere now, and that makes me very happy. My generation is celebrating and embracing diversity of all kinds. I’m no longer offended when people say embarrassingly ignorant things to me or ask questions about my race. I recognize that it is most often an effort to connect and learn rather than blatant racism (Though sometimes the stranger zeroing in on my appearance is a man with an Asian fetish. In which case, I run far, far away as fast as I can.) I enjoy a good opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and address harmful assumptions. I am also aware that for this stranger, I may be the sole real-life representative of an entire category of people. I feel the need to set a positive example.

But always, in the back of my mind, is the memory of what it feels like to be in that cage.

Apples to apples in interracial marriage

This is a follow-up on a NYTimes story, Black Women See Fewer Black Men at the Altar. The range and extremes in this cursory analysis of interracial marriage rates are pretty striking:

Of all 3.8 million adults who married in 2008, 31 percent of Asians, 26 percent of Hispanic people, 16 percent of blacks and 9 percent of whites married a person whose race or ethnicity was different from their own. Those were all record highs.

Well, since Asians are the smallest ethnic group of the four, just by sheer odds we should be marrying outside our race (‘marrying out’) more often than the other groups. But how many of the interracial marriages are due to preference and how many of them are what we would expect just by the numbers?

If your choice of whom to marry were completely independent of race, the chance that you’ll marry someone from another race would be about like the chance you’ll run into someone from that race on the street. If we take the U.S. Census Bureau data from 2004 (most contemporary survey with all four of the largest races), the single (not married or separated) population over age 15 is:

3.6% Asian
13.3% Hispanic
16.5% black, and
66.5% white.
So since 96 of every 100 single people (13.3+16.5+66.5 = about 96) in the States are not Asian, you’d expect about 96 of every 100 Asians to marry out.

But only 31 of each 100 did, so it looks like Asians show some tendency to marry each other (‘marry in’) more than they marry out. Let’s look at some ratios to see how the same-race preferences compare across the races:

intermarriage rates
race expected / actual = ratio
96.4 / 31 = 3.1
Hispanic 86.7 / 26 = 3.33
black 83.5 / 16 = 5.22
white 34.5 / 9 = 3.83

The higher the ratio, the more likely that race is to ‘marry in’. Asians are, again, the biggest miscegenators, but not by a lot. Blacks, on the other hand, are far more likely than the other racial groups to marry each other based on what we would expect from race-independent marriage. We can speculate on the contributing factors – prejudice, prison, education, age structure, other socioeconomics – but I don’t have any data to support or refute any of them for now.

By the way, in 2004, the percentage of each racial group married without separation:

Asians 61%
Hispanics 50%
blacks 34%
whites 57%.

Asians are almost twice as likely to be married as blacks.

[In a New York Jewish accent] Talk amongst yourselves.

In addition to the referenced NYT story, I pulled March 2004 Census Bureau Community Survey data from these sources:


From those tables I added the numbers of widowed, divorced, and never married to get the following numbers:

3,623,000 single asians >15 both sexes in March 2004
13,294,000 single hispanics >15 both sexes in March 2004
16,499,000 single blacks >15 both sexes in March 2004
66,408,000 single whites > 15 both sexes in March 2004
99,824,000 single people total in March 2004

The percentages of each racial group that are married are taken directly from the linked tables. Yes, I am leaving out Inuit/American Indian, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, as well as mixed-race. They account for, respectively, 0.8%, 0.14%, and 2.3% of the population, too small a percentage for the CB to have useful data on them.