The first time I realized how Asian I am was the summer after junior year of college. Incredibly Christian at the time, I had opted to be an intern at Summer in the City during summer break. Our mission was to spread the love of Jesus by enabling local churches to reach out to those in need. It’s a pretty neat idea and organization, but “out of the scope of this discussion.” That summer reminded me of being part of some reality TV show- 4 girls, living in one 1 bed/1bath NYC apartment, working together and discovering the City together. In fact, the Atlas, the apartment complex that the contestants for Project Runway resided in during the NYC seasons, was just around the corner.
That summer, despite the fact that 3 out of 6 of us doing the summer internship were Asian, was when I first became acutely aware that not only did I look Asian, but I think Asian.
To back up and start from the beginning, I was born and raised in Southern California. I had Asian friends, went to an Asian church, and even my white friends were more Asian than I am; two of them now speak Asian languages better than I do. They know what Pocky, Yan-yan, and Hello Panda are and both have spent more time living in Asia than I have spent living in Spanish-speaking counties. We spent high school making trips to the local Asian market, just for fun. And then, in college, I joined an almost entirely Asian Christian fellowship and spent all of my time surrounded by Asian people. Not on purpose, but because that was just the way it had worked out.
And then, summer of 2005, I found myself in almost uncomfortably close proximity to a white-washed Korean girl from Portland, an African American girl from Florida, and a white girl from Arkansas. In less close proximity, my company also included a quiet Asian boy from the South, a white bread boy from Texas, and a white couple from good ol’ Middle America. It was about as far out of my comfort zone as I had ever lived for a total of 10 weeks.
The best example of this is when we kept ordering Chinese takeout for dinner. The first time we ordered from there, we were sitting around looking at the menu, and like most Chinese places, the majority of their dishes were large and meant to be shared “family style”*, but there were also a few “dinner special” options that entailed a smaller serving of a main dish, along with rice and a side dish. Looking at the menu, I had suggested that we order “family style,” only to be met with a room full of blank stares. After explaining the concept, I met up with a large amount of resistance: “What if I don’t like one dish?”, “What if I like one, but everybody else eats it?”, “I’d rather just have my own food.” I was in complete disbelief. In my experience, one of the best parts about eating in large groups was the ability to eat family style. Sure, maybe you wouldn’t get to eat all of the General Tso’s chicken by yourself, but you’d also get to eat a vegetable dish and maybe some pork, beef, or noodles as well.
The group ended up each ordering their own dinner special. I remember thinking then that perhaps their culture was more individualistic, with each person unwilling to compromise for a collective greater good. Or maybe there was just a greater fear of the unknown and unfamiliarity wtih Chinese food (albeit Chinese takeout).
At any rate, it became a tradition that once a week we ordered Chinese takeout. And that was the day of the week that I walked 2 avenue blocks to get Chipotle instead.
(to be continued…)
*In family style eating, a selection of different dishes are ordered, the bill the split evenly, and everybody shares everything. This allows for a greater variety of foods for everybody to sample and enjoy.