It’s a common question and a conversation starter. People in New Orleans are incredibly friendly, and wherever we go, we meet someone new who wants to strike up a conversation. Once the locals realize that we’re a group of fifteen college-aged students, they’re curious about where we’re from and what we’re doing. I’ve said, “I’m from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and I’m working at the Red Cross,” more times than I can count at this point. Even this past week at church, I had to stand up in front of the entire congregation and state my name and where I’m from. At that moment, I was glad for all the practice I had earlier.
When I tell people that I’m from Myrtle Beach, depending on their age, they either laugh and say that I must have good times, or their eyes light up as they tell me about family vacations they’ve had there. I am proud to be from Myrtle Beach, and I love telling people that it’s my home.
But sometimes, this seemingly innocuous question can take a turn. One morning as I was standing at a bus stop with my co-workers, a man looked at us, and asked me, “Where are you from?” Since he looked at all of us, I assumed the question was directed at the group. I took out my earphones and responded, “We’re students from Duke University.” I thought the conversation was going to end there, but he continued to speak. As he motioned to his face, he said, “Oh. I was wondering where you were from because it looks like you’re from the Far East.” My heart began pounding, and my body started tensing up.
It’s not like I had never been asked this question before by a person looking for an answer regarding my ethnicity. I had heard it growing up, on the golf course, at school, and at work. Even in these past five weeks in New Orleans, people have asked me this question, although they are often children. Part of our job at the Red Cross is to present the Pillowcase Project about emergency preparedness to elementary-school-aged children. One of the other Duke interns is also Asian-American, and some children will ask us if we’re siblings, despite the fact that we have different skin colors, and in my opinion, we do not look alike. Some students have asked the “where are you from?” question, and I have also had a student or two ask me directly if I’m from China. With the kids, I often laugh the question off and say that that my parents were born in South Korea, but I was raised in South Carolina. The kids walk off, satisfied with my answer, and I have a funny story to tell my co-workers at the end of the presentation.
However, that morning, I did not feel like laughing when the man at the bus stop asked me where I was from. Maybe because it was early on Monday morning, and I was not mentally prepared for this to be my first conversation of the week. Or maybe it was because several days before, a guy I met said that my parents would want me to date someone “in my culture”.
In any case, I was not particularly keen on continuing my conversation with the man at the bus stop. Mercifully, the bus came, and I quickly got on. As soon as we sat down in our seats, my friends and I talked about how strange the conversation was. Then, I started thinking about the Asian-Americans I had seen in New Orleans.
Even though New Orleans is 3 percent Asian/Asian-American and has a large Vietnamese community, the Red Cross team has still yet to present the Pillowcase Project to an Asian-American student or install a smoke alarm in an Asian-American individual’s home. This could be due to a multitude of factors including the fact that the Vietnamese community is mostly in New Orleans East, an area we have yet to service.
The people in the city are loving and so welcoming, but sometimes I feel like an outsider, a foreigner from Asia. I know that this is not the intention, and people are not acting out of malice. My Asian-American identity is incredibly important to me, but it is not my only defining characteristic. When people ask me where I’m from and expect to hear a country from Asia as an answer, I feel as if they only see my monolid eyes.
I hope to take a lesson from New Orleans, a city with an unbridled sense of celebration and joy with scars that run deep, and be more open and honest about conversations regarding race.