A few months ago I was honored to be asked to contribute some of my paintings to a gallery’s booth for a local art fair. The art fair was small, and quite understandably overlooked, because it coincided with our nation’s largest (monetary) art competition, ART PRIZE! The streets of our medium-sized city were filled with nearby suburbanites scurrying around with official Art Prize venue maps, generally ignoring the smaller venues, and high-tailing it to the bigger, more established ones, that contained the sought-after TOP TEN… Of course, a lot can be said about Art Prize, but Randomencounterswithracism is not the right forum.
As for the local art fair, my paintings and I spent a good deal of the afternoon amongst booths of stationary, booths of jewelry, booths of salsa…. Marie curated our booth, mostly of fine art, and I was keeping her company for the day. We were stationed next to the salsa lady, a LARGE boisterous woman, who formerly worked in the print advertising business. As an advertiser focused primarily in the print world, she had lost her job sometime during the recession, and went into making salsa and corn bread full time. Of course, it is difficult to support yourself on salsa and cornbread, so I wasn’t surprised to overhear her offering to be Marie’s personal assistant.
I’m not sure when I found myself walking to the bathroom, but it was as if fate had given a stranger this one window of opportunity, and I found myself in the bathroom with her at the same time…
As I was washing my hands, a woman from the jewelry booth looked at me with a friendly, but purposeful gaze. She had short hair, glasses, a bright red sweater, and looked like she could be anyone’s mother. In fact, she was someone’s mother.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she stared directly into my eyes so I couldn’t escape. She stepped closer to me and smiled. And then she stepped closer.
“Yes,” I smiled back, because I think, chemically, humans react instinctually to other people’s emotions and expressions. My body was reacting for me, but internally I knew that this question wasn’t going to make me feel comfortable. But I smiled nonetheless.
“Are Asians intimidated by Caucasians?” she smiled again and eagerly waited for my response.
“______,” [blank stare.] “Uh. Uh, Uhhhhh. Uh.” [shifty eye glances].
In my mind I knew I had to answer, because I didn’t want to prove her question true without getting a chance to speak for my entire race.
In hindsight, why not respond with, “Historically speaking, what race hasn’t been intimidated by White people?” But I knew she wasn’t asking that kind of question. And though it seemed like she had all the time in the world, I’m sure she didn’t anticipate getting a history lesson. (Or a lesson in how not to talk to people.)
I wanted to answer with, “Yes, when you Whites corner us in the bathroom and ask us questions like this, our smaller, quieter race gets intimidated.” But I’m a coward.
“My son is dating an Asian woman, and she never wants to come to our family parties. I don’t understand. We are so nice to her. We always accommodate her and make her feel included [and etc.],” she explained, with Midwestern dignity and justification.
I told her I couldn’t speak for my entire race her son’s girlfriend, but I personally am generally not intimidated by Caucasians that look and act like her… (But I can get annoyed).
She went on to ask, “Do you think it’s normally a cultural thing? I heard that they’re quieter or maybe closer with their own families.”
At this point it was obvious that it had nothing to do with any kind of weird, celestial, Asian cultural shit. This was a classic case of an overzealous mother. People don’t want to be around overzealous parents, ESPECIALLY not their own. It took me five uncomfortable minutes in the bathroom for me to understand that her own son probably didn’t want to be around her. He was using his Asian girlfriend as a scapegoat to avoid spending time with his own mother. So yes, I did feel sorry for her.
Since she was standing in front of my exit, and directly in front of me, I was forced into participating in a conversation for which I had no interest. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her son doesn’t love her, so I said my adopted Korean stump speech. A speech I knew all too well in various forms, for various other questions, because when you’re Asian, strangers from other races, and even your own, will come up with all sorts of questions relating to being Asian that you have to answer despite how unknowingly uncomfortable it is to the interviewer.
“I was adopted. I know nothing about Korean culture, other than what my White parents told me. Yes, I was forced to go to Korean Culture Camp (for which I am thankful for now, more on that later). But, that was a place I dreaded going to; and I would have much rather spent that week rollerblading with my White friends. I went to public schools during the 90’s and early 00’s. I can’t speak for how history lessons are taught now, but we sure as Hell didn’t cover Korean history (and seeing as how I was trying to “blend in” for most of my public school education, I’m not sure I would have wanted otherwise)…. I just found out who PSY is, like two months ago…..” (And then I go on and on, until both parties are uncomfortable, and I get a harsh look of judgment from whoever started talking to me, like I’m useless to them. “Oh,” I can read their minds. “She’s practically a White person.”) [The shame.]
“Well, I guess I just don’t know then. My son told me it was a cultural thing… Hmm, I’m sorry.” She, like every other person that asks me about being Asian seemed disappointed. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to apologize for being adopted. I wanted to leave the bathroom…
“Your son doesn’t love you.” “Your son is dating a bitch, who is ungrateful of your love.”