Why what some consider an innocent mistake is actually a rascist, demeaning act
I had barely spent more than two weeks at Colorado College before the inevitable occurred: I was mistaken for another Asian person. Buried deep in the crowd at a party, two hands grabbed me by the waist and a pair of lips muttered the name of another Asian girl in my ear. Since then, what I thought would be an isolated incident has quickly grown to become an extension of a phenomenon that I thought I could escape in college.
In high school, my best friend was Vietnamese. The two of us were often called each others’ names in simple slips of the tongue, but I usually chalked it up to the fact that we spent every waking moment together and shared many of the same mannerisms. Here at CC, I’ve experienced this phenomenon of Asian confusion more aggressively than I ever did back home. I have begun to suspect that it has more to do with racism than with genuine missteps.
Some days, when I’m in the mood, I’m able to find the humor in these situations. Sitting beside one of my Chinese friends, I couldn’t contain my incredulous laughter when a white male student who I’d never met before asked us if we were related. When confronted with this reaction, he stammered wildly into thin air, saying, “Don’t you guys see it too? It’s all in the face,” begging others to back him up.
However, lately these interactions have left me seething more often than not. In my FYE, when my professor was incapable of distinguishing between the four Asian girls in the class, I found myself balling my fists with every blunder. Five weeks in, when he took me aside to inquire about a meeting I set up with him about my research paper on spruce beetles, I reminded him with gritted teeth that my paper was really on sickle cell anemia and that the Asian girl he was looking for was actually across the room.
I never cease to be amazed by the rationalizations people devise to cover their blunders in these situations. Most commonly, people are sheepishly apologetic: “sorry, you just look so much alike.” Or, they’ll brush it off, as if the mistake isn’t even important enough to warrant an explanation. Other times, they get defensive, like the student I mentioned earlier. “You hang out together all the time, and your facial structures, body type, and hair color are so similar.”
I see right through them, of course, which makes it all the more painful to watch them fumble through an apology. I am not even completely Asian. Like many white people, my mother hails from a litany of European countries. I can’t speak a word of Korean, and essentially my only claim to my Korean heritage is the fact that I can wield a pair of chopsticks. The idea that I would so closely resemble someone adopted from China or someone whose parents had immigrated from Vietnam that I could be mistaken for them repeatedly is preposterous.
They always seem to be shocked when I am offended by what they believe to be an innocent mistake. I used to think I was being sensitive whenever my stomach involuntarily clenched during these uncomfortable encounters. After all, on the surface it really is just a name, which is why I always feel like I’m overreacting when I confront people about this issue. In the moment, it’s much easier to joke about it than to cause a scene.
However, all the jokes just serve to mask a deeper insecurity that brews inside me with each misstep: do I not have a personality of my own? Am I so plain that it is impossible to distinguish me from others or am I just so uninteresting that people don’t deem me worthy enough to remember? It is just a name, but after a while of being called the names of every other Asian girl in existence, it begins to feel like I am nothing to anybody but a pair of almond shaped eyes and a round face.