I 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.
My 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 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.
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!