I met up with a friend for lunch today. He’s Chinese-Canadian, went to prep school, earned an Ivy education, and graduated from law school with me a few weeks ago. He’s also still dating his college sweetheart, who happens to be white. That is a lot of Caucasian for only twenty-some years. As we were catching up over coffee and paninis, we hit a serious vein of conversation. I asked him if he feels entirely at ease around white people. It would have been nice if he had taken off his Ray Bans so I could really assess his reaction. “I’m comfortable around any white person who is comfortable around me,” he told me, “America is so race-conscious. It’s not like that in Canada.” Good Old Canada.
America is definitely sensitive about color and ethnicity, but surprisingly, cultural identity had never been one of my big struggles growing up. My family lived in Texas when we first moved to the States, and I spent a good number of my formative years in a sleepy Chicago suburb. I always figured the hyphen stood for “and” — Chinese and American. I was precocious enough to juggle both and did it well. Weekdays were American: trade Little Debbie pie for Gushers, attend Girl Scouts meetings, play Power Rangers during recess. Weeknights were Chinese: force down some bean curd at dinner and watch another chapter of Huan Zhu Ge Ge (so epic). Saturdays: Chinese school. Sundays: rent a movie from Blockbuster.
Then I moved to Southern California and discovered that I was mistaken about the hyphen. Chinese-American is a hybrid subculture with distinct characteristics, especially in Los Angeles: boba, the Asian-American Greek System, and taking pictures of every meal consumed:
Photos: L) Panini Prosciutto di Parma at Urth Cafe in Downtown, Los Angeles, R) African Latte
And the more I interacted with other Asian-Americans, the more I wanted only to be around people like me. There’s an instant rapport there that I started feeling entitled to in my friendships and especially in my relationships. It only seemed fair because white people date other white people all the time. I imagine they get together and talk about how much they love Simon & Garfunkel and how badly they wish they were on a boat at that very moment. Meanwhile, the one time I let a white guy around me, he took a lock of my hair between his fingers and mused, “So this is what Asian hair feels like.”
But recently, I’ve been doing some reevaluating. Maybe I shouldn’t let one white guy ruin it for everyone else. I probably have plenty in common with the normal ones. For example, I can discuss Seinfeld as enthusiastically as any white person. And 6’2 is hard to find in the pool I’m currently wading in. I’d just have to warn him not to ask me how to say things in Chinese and give up the crazy stuff at dim sum. Wait, does this mean I can’t go to Asian Night at the club anymore because if that’s the case, I better think this one through. It might be that I just have to take it slow. First step, start warming up to the Jews.