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Why “Are you Korean or Japanese?” Is Not a Good Pickup Line

(What kind of Asian are you?)

Strangers make racial remarks to me frequently, almost as frequently as they acknowledge me for being an ovulating homo-sapien as I take the bus or the subway in New York City. But if you are just trying to start a friendly conversation, “Are you Korean?” may not be your best choice. It doesn’t translate very well with me because this is what I think it means.

  “Even though I didn’t grow up with many Asian people around, I still know that there are different cultures within the Asian culture. So I better let her know that I know that.”

“My last girlfriend was from Korea. And you look like you could be her sister."

    Whichever the case, there is nothing wrong with asking this question. I just don't feel like talking to you. No one thinks it's an offensive question, right? Well, you might be surprised. I have to say it's one of the most delicate topics among Asians. Despite the fact that DNA studies show our close ties, the Asian people themselves like to think that their physical attributes are different from (and better than) that of the other nationals. These are excerpts from my real life experiences.

     A Korean girl: “Meg, you don’t look Japanese at all. You look Korean because you have big round eyes. I know most Japanese people have slanted eyes.“ (giggle)

     A Chinese girl: “Meg, if I didn’t know you were Japanese, I would have guessed that you were from China because you don’t have those typical Japanese slanted eyes.”
    A Japanese girl: “What? Somebody said you look Chinese? How rude! Don’t worry. You don’t have slanted eyes like the Chinese! You are pretty!”

     So the discussion of which of the three Asian countries one looks like she is from is simply ridiculous. I think it’s best to start a conversation with something else, like you would with any other human beings. Also, by starting with race, it gives an impression that you are only interested in stereotypes of that person's race. So it’s better to wait for a few minutes (or weeks) if you can resist it. I should also note that while some Asian girls may fit some of the stereotypes such as quiet or polite, many Asians today do not. So you might want to be ready for disappointments. 

      Several years ago, I met a musician on a gig who lived in New Jersey. When the topic of real estate came up, he said to me, “You and your husband should move my town in New Jersey. We like people like you to come to our neighborhood.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, when blacks come to a neighborhood, the property value goes down. And the problem with Jews is that they don’t eat the same stuff and kids can't play together.” Needless to say, I was offended by his insensitive, yet very candid remarks. Despite my anger and hurt, I remained silent because I knew he would not have made these remarks had he not made wrong assumptions about me in the first place.

His wrong assumptions were:
#1) Since I am Japanese, my husband must surely be Asian too.

#2) Japanese people are Buddhist or Shinto, and certainly not Jewish.

#3) And therefore, there should be no reason for me to take his anti-Semitic and racially insensitive remarks personally.

#4) Even if he exposes his racist views, I will just take it and won’t make any waves because we (Asians) are “nice”.

    Though I don’t expect anyone to know that I am a Reform Jew or that my husband is an African American, I still don’t consider myself to be that unique. So many musicians are in interracial marriages/relationships. Also, most of my classmates in the Judaism conversion class were Asians, getting ready to start Jewish families. Take the new senior rabbi, Angela Buchdahl at Central Synagogue, one of the largest Reform congregations in the country. She is Asian and a famous rabbi.

    Just last week, I met a U.S. based dancer Hanna-Lee Sakakibara at a gig. She looks Asian like myself, and many people in the audience could not tell us apart. But when you hear her speaking to my band-mates in Hebrew, you would know immediately that she is not a recent convert. Despite her looks, Hanna-Lee speaks perfect Hebrew and English because she was born and raised in Jerusalem by a Japanese father and Australian mother.

    Or let’s take our fellow musician like Helen Sung, one of the top jazz musicians of our generation. We all know that she swings the hell out of that piano. She was born and raised in Houston, Texas. Yet, strangers constantly treat her as a foreigner. How much more American can a person be? Isn’t becoming one of the bests in jazz enough to qualify her as an American?

   So think again before assuming that Asian Americans are somehow less American than all of the other Americans. “Where are you originally from” is a question people ask after an Asian person had already answered the question “where are you from”. It doesn’t matter what city you were born in. No U.S. city can satisfy those who insist on playing "let me guess what kind of Asian you are" game. What is so satisfying about finding out if a person’s grandmother is from Taiwan? So you can then say “I love Thai food!!”?

    Growing up in a fundamental protestant household in Japan, I missed out on every seasonal celebration of the Japanese culture. We grew up in a church with American and German missionary families and my parents constantly reminded us that we Christians were different from the secular world and that we did not belong to the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto culture. I always felt like an outsider growing up in Japan and truly looked forward to finally coming to America to be with my fellow Christians.

   So I am sorry if I don’t act Japanese enough.

- No, I don’t cook Japanese meals for my husband everyday if ever.

- I am not subservient, quiet or nice.  
-To the contrary, I am a bitch and I curse like a sailor. (Sorry for the stereotyping of sailors!)

- And I will not bow when I see you. 

- I have always hated Hello Kitty 
- I am not that good at math.

- I do neither karate nor karaoke.

- I do not eat Sushi everyday, or can afford to do so.

   And I am sorry if I don’t seem proud of being Japanese. But I find it challenging to be proud of a country that committed the worst atrocities against humanity in the history, and deny it to this day. The Japanese killed more than 30 million Asian people, not to mention human experiments of the Unit731 (sometimes even on children), mass murders and mass rapes (The Nanking Massacre), military organized rapes of Comfort women, just to name a few. 

   So the “what kind of Asian are you?” question is not a good ice-breaker. I am tired of having to answer this question, especially when all I want to do is to get milk for the baby and get back home. I do not need a guy reminding me of my Asian appearance on the subway platform at 1:00 AM after playing 3 sets at Zinc Bar. And please stop harassing me when I ignore you, lecturing me how I should be proud of my heritage just because I don’t want to engage in a conversation with a drunk.

    The problem with us Asian people having to constantly tell people where our ancestors are from is that there is an underline implication of us not being real Americans. I have met many Japanese people in California who have been U.S. citizens for several generations whose Japanese American parents were put in the U.S. internment camps during the WWII. For a long time, Asians have kept low profile because their rights and wealth have been taken away by the government at times, in spite of their hard work and services to the country. Today, Asian Americans earn the highest median personal incomes than any other racial demographic, thus paying more taxes to the US Government. Maybe it's time that people start accepting Asian Americans as real Americans.

And as for my Japanese family, friends and colleagues, I truly love you, and there are many wonderful things about the culture. But your blissful ignorance is not cute. Today, ignorance is a choice. If you chose to stay ignorant, you are not a decent human being. It's time to read up on the subject and stop honoring the Japanese war criminals as heroes. "Pride" coming from ignorance is not a virtue.

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