"What are you? Where are you from?"
I often respond to the "What-Are-You-Where-Are-You-From Game" that I am from Los Angeles. Then I get the question, "No, where are you really from?" The next question is, "Ok, then where were your parents from?" Then I have to explain that my mom is from East LA and my dad is from the Valley. I usually end the game by explaining that I am a Sansei and that my grandparents came from Japan over 70 years ago.
"What are you? Where are you from?"
Id like to respond that Im a human being. Or that Im from outer space, or a creature from Mars. What difference does it make? Oops, I forget. MEN are from Mars. I am a Sansei Woman from Venus.
Asian America, have you ever NOT been asked these innocently phrased questions? Recently, I experienced the following situation along those lines.
I was at the fish counter of a small Japanese market in Little Tokyo the other day. People who know me, will not be surprised that this was my first time at any fish counter. I was deep in thought, trying to decide if I should get the "salted" salmon or the "fresh" salmon. They were the same price, so I couldnt really tell the difference, thus adding to my dilemma.
A white man, about forty-something, walks up to me and says, "Excuse me, which is the best fish to buy?" Like I have a clue. I politely tell the man that I cant help him. He says, "I just want to barbecue something and want to know which one to buy." Again, I tell him that I dont know.
The guy working behind the fish counter comes over to help me with my selection, and I order two large pieces of the fresh salmon and walk away, happy with my purchase.
A few minutes later, I am standing in the vegetable section pondering what else to pick up for dinner. Im hoping that my boyfriend, who is a great cook, will make broiled teriyaki salmon and green beans with goma for dinner. This is beginning to sound like a good Japanese American dinner. Add a little takuan and rice and well really be in business!
The same man walks up to me and says, "Youre American, arent you?"
"What?" I ask, stunned at the question and bothered that Im being approached by this man a second time.
He repeats, "Youre American, right? Im sorry I bothered you. I thought you were Japanese. Im looking for a Japanese woman, but I can see now that youre American."
In my mind, I am thinking: "You jerk! What do you think I am? Do you think I would cook for you? What does this look like, a pick up joint? This is a grocery store, not a singles bar. Perhaps I can rub your feet right here in the market. I am so offended by your ignorant stereotyping of Asian women and your rude manners! Go away!"
Instead, I said somewhat apologetically, "Oh, its ok. Im sorry but I honestly couldnt help you."
And if I wasnt already insulted enough, he replied, "Thats ok. I didnt even want the fish, I just want to meet a nice Japanese woman."
Well, excuse me! A nice Japanese woman, indeed. As a Japanese American, I am proud of who I am and where Im from. Obviously, he must have seen my black hair, brown eyes and Asian features and thought I was a Japanese National. A case of mistaken identity. Imagine his disappointment to find me, an English-speaking "American" woman. One who would cater to his every whim... NOT! Count on that.
Okay, Ill admit, this was not a major deal. I wasnt harmed physically or upset by the rejection. However, this type of thing happens to people every day and is not an isolated incident. Most of the time it is shrugged off as nothing more than a mere annoyance. Like when a person compliments you for speaking English without an accent. It wasnt "blatantly" offensive, like someone shouting at you and calling you "J-p" or "N-p." But in a way, it is a big deal because this mans desire to meet Asian women reflects the bigger picture of the racism and sexism that exists in our society.
I can only assume that the man in the market was looking for a submissive and traditional woman, someone who might cater to his needs. The type of men who purchase those offensive personal ads in the newspapers that say, "Single White Male Seeks Single Asian Female," "Looking for Oriental Beauty," or "Exotic Asian Princess Wanted." Who are the men who seek out these women? And who are the women who answer them? I bet that when this man approached me, he didnt think I would write about him, or people like him, in The Rafu!
Or perhaps this man may have been influenced by Hollywood and was searching for the "Suzy Wong" or "Miss Saigon" type that you see so often in the movies. You know, the Asian woman, exotic and sexy, often with a cute "Oriental" accent. Actually, I kind of doubt that one, since I dont even remotely resemble Suzy Wong!
On the other hand, Asian women have also been stereotyped as dangerous and evil in the "dragon lady" image. The female version of Fu Manchu, with sharp red nails, long black hair and arched eyebrows, is often depicted as a ruthless killer.
These stereotypes of Asian women, perpetuated by the mainstream media, the U.S. military presence throughout Asia, and sex tourism trades in Asia, are long-standing and need to be examined.
Another question I have to ask myself is: If I was so offended, why was I so nice? Why didnt I tell this flake off? Im sure its something in my upbringing that says you should be nice to strangers, even if they are ignorant creeps.
I should have told this guy that his assumption of the type of person I am, based on my heritage as Japanese or Japanese American was ignorant and racist. I should have told him that his pick up line, asking me for cooking advice in a grocery store was sexist and uncalled for. I should have told him what I really thought.
Again, these seemingly innocent things occur everyday to people of color, especially women, and are often overlooked. But whether it is domestic abuse against an Asian sister; Asian American women not being promoted at work because they arent seen as assertive enough; or some guy in a grocery store wanting to date Japanese women, its important for us to speak up and speak out.
So, the next time someone wants to play the "What-Are-You-Where-Are-You-From Game" with this Sansei from Venus, I think Ill give them a piece of my mind.
By the way, my partner cooked a wonderful salmon dinner and afterwards, we rubbed each others feet.
Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida is a Sansei from Venus and writes from Panorama City. She has recently joined the "Through the Fire" column.