From Leeds to Little Rock: What Kind of Asian are You?

Leeds Bradford AirportI was riding in a taxi cab through West Yorkshire earlier this month. It was four in the morning, and I was on my way to the airport to return to Italy. I don’t often take cabs, let alone chat up cab drivers.  But the bloke was talkative, and so I followed suit. Next thing I knew we were in a lively discussion about race and culture.

His mother was from Nepal; his father from Kashmir. He was born in the former, and had lived in Britain for years.  Then he said something that exclusively linked him to my aunt back in the States. My aunt was born in Korea, but was adopted as a toddler by my grandparents and grew up in Arkansas where she still lives.

o-WHAT-KIND-OF-ASIAN-ARE-YOU-VIDEO-facebookMy Arkansan aunt and this British gentleman are my only points of reference for a YouTube video entitled, What kind of Asian are you? Earlier this summer, my Korean aunt shared the link on facebook, and so I actually knew what my Nepalese/Kashmiri cab driver was talking about when he mentioned it to me at 4:15 in the morning.

The video mimics interracial conversations commonly encountered in Western countries. Two American joggers are stretching in a park. The man (M) is a ‘regular American’; the woman (W) is ‘some kind of Asian’. The man inquires.

M: Where are you from? Your English is perfect.

W: San Diego. We speak English there.

M: Ah, no, where are you from?

W: Well, I was born in Orange County, but I never actually lived there.

M: Ah, I mean before that.

W: Before I was born?

M: Well, where are your people from?

W: Well, my great grandma was from Seoul.

M: Korea. I knew it. I said she was either Japanese or Korean, but I was leaning more towards Korean.

From this point on, you need to watch the video – as well as the subsequent video of the same actors reading real comments by viewers.

There is something in the video that strikes a chord with my Asian aunt and my Asian acquaintance – now living on two separate continents, neither of which are Asia.

We live in a virtual world, and videos go viral on a daily basis. Some of the vilest and most explicit racism can be found on internet discussion boards, but the same media also allows the occasional video to emerge as a talking point for race and culture. An ease with irony and sarcasm – and a sense of humor – are often advised.

But identity often precedes dialogue. As the title implies, What kind of an Asian are you? deals first of all with the common experience of encountering an European-imposed construct of ‘being Asian’ that labels, categorizes and stereotypes those that look – in the eyes of the European beholder – as if they should be from somewhere else. At worst, the message is that you / they don’t belong here and never will. At best, it reduces the ‘Asian other’ to an object of curiosity, although there is a place for query in interracial discourse.

That my Korean-Arkansan aunt and my Nepalese-Yorkshire cabbie both mentioned this video to me suggests not only the wide reach the video has in appealing to issues of identity among those belonging, even in part, to the wide and diverse spectrum of Asian descent, but, where the word, Asian, invokes different images in the United States than it does in Britain, my two sets of reference points – Kashmir and Korea, Leeds and Little Rock – also reveal how broadly and successfully the European has been able to cast the cloak of indiscernible Asian otherness.

Enjoy the videos, and let me know what you think!     

asia_map

About Rodney Aist

Rodney Aist, Ph.D. is the course director at St George's College, Jerusalem. Visit him at www.rodneyaist.com.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to From Leeds to Little Rock: What Kind of Asian are You?

  1. ChungJujin says:

    Hi Rodney, The video clip is hilarious. It makes me thinking about my days in Canada, US, and UK. I used to have similar questions, but in larger contexts. People, I mean people actually living there would ask me “where are you from Japan? or China?” They would not have any idea about Korea. Some of them could talk about Korean food a little. I would feel isolated whenever I got the question and encounter the ignorance. I used to go to a Methodist church in Bradford. I was the only Asian in the church. I was often wondering how many people in the church had met Asians like me from Northeast Asia. Asians often mean people from South Asia in UK. I guess Asians can mean peope from China these days since there are so many Chinese students and immigrants in UK. In a different context, Koreans are often confused with Koreans from other countries. They are only ethnically Korean but in fact, non-Korean, like your Korean aunt. But people expect they can speak Korean and understand Korean culture and society, and even politics. People get frustrated when those non-Koreans cannot interact with them based on shared cultural ideas and attitudes. This is a very uncomfortable situation for many ethnic Koreans visiting Korea. How’s it going? Are you going to Israel soon? Jujin Date: Tue, 23 Jul 2013 05:05:55 +0000 To: jujinchung@hotmail.com

    • Rodney Aist says:

      Jujin,

      Great to hear from you, and thanks for your comments and stories. I have two more weeks of work in Milan. I’ll then take vacation and spend some time with family in Colorado. I will arrive in Jerusalem in late September. Blessings, Rodney

  2. mike says:

    Good! God bless you!

  3. Susan Haris says:

    Jujin, it was a pleasure meeting you in Korea. I appreciate you going out of your way to meet me.
    I am the aunt he is referrring about in the story. Growing up, my sister & I would often times get asked the same questions. We knew we were from Korea, but we didn’t know anything about language, food or customs. As far as we knew, we were Americans with Asian faces. It is difficult to mingle with true Koreans.
    Susan
    .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s