Being Asian in Albuquerque

Some days I FEEL more Asian than other days. Yesterday felt like an 8 on the “how-Asian-do-I-feel” scale.

When I go to an Asian-owned business here, there is a good chance that an employee will ask me my specific ethnicity. This is different from when your average non-Asian asks the “Where are you from?” question, but is more like “Yo, homey, are you my kind of Asian or another? There aren’t that many of us here so I need some solidarity.” I answer and sometimes ask in return. The waitress at the Japanese teppanyaki restaurant asked me this as some folks and I were getting lunch. I answered as usual, but this time it made me realize the difference between me and my other dining companions whose chances of being asked that question were slim.

Then when we ordered a round of sake she asked to see our ID’s. The chances of me being asked for my ID are 95% whether I am at a restaurant, bar, liquor store, grocery store, or Costco. Yet my companions seemed a little surprised and celebratory for the compliment to our age. We are old enough to think it a nice gesture….except that for most Asians who look 12 all the time it is just the norm. I am more surprised when I am NOT asked. I often wonder what they think when they check my date of birth and realize that I have been giving my ID for decades. DECADES. Our waitress was honest and reacted accordingly, “Oh wow, you look much younger than you are.” Or something like that. I keep waiting for it to be a compliment for me, but for some reason it doesn’t feel that way. It just feels a little embarrassing that every time I partake of an adult beverage I am pretty sure the servers are putting on their best poker faces while thinking, “Dang, not only did I think this lady was 12, but she is actually significantly older.”

Later when I took the dog for a walk (or more accurately, she took me for a walk pulling me along so hard that I got leash burn on my hand), I ran into four young girls. After awing over Harper’s cuteness, they asked me if I had kids at the local elementary school.  They confessed that they wanted to get outside from their big party because well, their parents inside were OLD. I agreed that adults can be pretty boring. I could sense that they were giving me the inside scoop as a non-OLD parent. Little did they know that my Asian genes had me at about the same age as their lame OLD parents. Maybe the waitress carding me was not a compliment, but being “in” with the 5th grade girls made me thankful for my youthful genes. I could have kept chatting it up with them about boys, teachers, and what was on my iTunes playlist had one of them not dismissed me. (“Thanks for talking with us!” code for “bah-bye!”) I guess I was not as “in” as I thought, and I wish I could explain logically why that even mattered to me. But chalk one up for Asian genes. Had they been close enough to see the crows’ feet framing my eyes, they might not have indulged me in the insider conversation we had.

The teppanyaki lunch was after our outing to the movies. We were there for opening weekend, baby! That’s right, the movie we have all been waiting for….Sisters! (You thought I meant that other one?) I have always been a fan of Fey & Poehler and many of their SNL cohorts and want to support women in comedy doing their thing. It was rated R for plenty of reasons, but those ladies seriously crack me up. Again though, I felt quite Asian when the Asian girl(s) were on the screen. The movie did poke fun at the ignorance of the average non-Asian, but at the same time it was in a way that had me laugh in slight awkwardness. May there be a day when we escape from stereotypical roles and be known enough to just be a regular person. It can happen. I saw a woman of color on the same screen just there as a regular party guest. From what I could tell, she was married with kids and that was blessedly it. Not angry, not loud, (aka not stereotyped) but just regular. One day I hope to sit in a theater and see that person on the screen representing me and not the limiting stereotypes of Asians I see on the screen most times. It can happen.

It made me wonder if that is the only way most non-Asians see us especially in a place like Albuquerque where the percentage is slim. We are either nail salon workers, Asian restaurant workers, or on occasion a doctor or scientist. Those things are true. I guess I just miss being in a place where there are so many of us that we become more than those 3 categories. I am hardly asked my ethnicity in large cities because there are so many that the need for feeling solidarity is less. Non-Asians may think that there are more than I think here in the ABQ. But that perspective is usually from a majority view where we stand out. So having 2 of us in a group of 10 seems like a TON, like we are taking over. But if there were to be only 2 whites out of 10 non-whites, I think the feeling would not be that there are a good number of white folks in that group, but of unquestionably being the very few. Like how I feel on those days I feel pretty Asian. Percentages mean different things when made up of different people.

My older son read over my shoulder the first paragraph of this post. I asked him if he felt Asian here in Albuquerque. He said, “No.” I immediately thought, ‘Great, my son does not know his ethnic identity! He is not going to feel Asian at all growing up here. He won’t be able to appreciate the unique heritage given to him by God.’ Then he said, “I don’t FEEL Asian…but I know that I am.” Maybe I have a lot to learn from my offspring. I hope he always KNOWS it. On those occasions where he may also FEEL it, I hope he does so in a way that allows him to celebrate the uniqueness that is his. Even if it means feeling somewhat “other” or alone, may that feeling propel him to greater empathy for all those familiar with that blessing of discomfort. The good that can come of that is worth the awkward laughs and slight embarrassments. Feeling Asian can mean many things. I have to remember that it is always a gift.

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One Response to Being Asian in Albuquerque

  1. Chong Kim says:

    Ethan’s statement was very honest one!

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