By David Yoo
People have always asked me about my ethnicity and nationality. The thing is, rarely do they actually use those words in their query. People are generally more blunt, out of either laziness or ignorance, and the question is phrased, more often than not: “What are you?” Looking back, my responses clearly reflected my various identities, from the self-loathing teen who reacted by blushing and quietly “admitting” that I was Korean, to the militant Asian macho who was greatly offended by the inquiry. What am I? A human being, you fool!
This was followed by a phase where I got playful with my answers out of sheer boredom. What am I? “An American,” I’d reply, completely deadpan. No, I mean, what are you? “Oh, a New Englander.”
At this point, I don’t even bother chastising them for their wording, or answering cheekily, or feeling any pang of emotion when strangers broach the topic. And for the sake of speeding up the unwanted conversation I simply reply, “I’m Korean American.” Heck, at this point I now consider the person asking a thoroughly enlightened chap, compared to the countless others who simply assume I’m Chinese, or Japanese, or just any Asian, who refer to me as “you people” or look stunned when they hear my non-broken English. The reason I bring this up is that my wife has never known what it’s like to be a curiosity in this country and field questions like these, since she’s as all-American as a McDonald’s apple pie.
Ever since our son Griffin was born, it’s like the tables have turned. See, we live in a Boston suburb whose denizens clearly aren’t used to having mixed-race babies in their midst, and so I’ve watched my wife—in the span of five months—go through all the phases I went through when dealing with The Question. Whenever she’s out in public alone with our son, who looks utterly Asian aside from his bright blue eyes, people approach her constantly and ask, “What is it?” At first she was taken aback. Then she got mad. “My son’s not some creature!” she once vented to me. And then she eventually became indignant, as I was back in my early 20s, replying to strangers, “He’s American.” Said stranger then blushes and stutters. Now, she simply says, “His father’s Korean,” and stares wanly as the slow rising sun of recognition envelops the stranger’s face.
Frankly, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the reversal. My wife’s a sensitive person, but it’s been illuminating for her to get a palpable taste of what I’ve experienced growing up. To be the one that fits in seamlessly for once is a nice treat, I have to admit. Well, almost seamlessly. Yesterday I took Griffin to Kugel’s, a local diner, for lunch, in part because I like to bathe in the admiring stares of cooing elderly folks who frequent the joint. At one point a pair of old ladies approached the table, making goo-goo eyes at my son.
But when they got up close and saw his bright blue eyes, their brows furrowed. One of the ladies then looked at me and asked, “What are you?”