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“…you look Chinese!…”

On a recent job interview with a local bank, the Vice President spent close to five minutes expressing her surprise that I was Japanese.  “You look Chinese..,” she kept saying, as if waiting for me to get on my knees and confess that I lied.  “Your skin is so white!,” she would continue, “and Japanese are so brown.”

As she ambled along this line of conversation, mostly on her own as my only contribution was to add “…I look like every other member of my family in Japan…,” I was rather embarrassed at how a business professional would openly express her opinions on light and dark-skinned people during a job interview.  Her own children, a mix of her own Filipino blood and Middle Eastern ancestry, were not given names. Instead, one was referred to as “lighter skin” while the other was “darker skin”.  In the end, her opinions on these matters was enough for me to decline the kind job offer.

Skin tone matters a great deal to too many people.  While I was still a small child, skin color determined one’s personality, status and life pattern without uttering a word.  It granted privileges and entitlements to better schools and jobs while denying others an opportunity.  It is the basis of identity for many, which is unfortunate because Gene Roddenberry’s epic play on skin tone in the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” should have been sufficient to teach the average television viewer that skin tone should account for very little.  True beauty comes from within, and that is the basis by which we are judged is a nice sentiment, but it is the truth for only a very small segment of our population.

I have lived my life as that unknown American, the one who always get stopped at borders or at checkpoints.  While driving through Arizona with a female friend, police pulled us over to ask for my proof of citizenship.  They never asking the same proof of my friend, a green eyed Canadian girl who was the green card holder.  This incident might have been an embarrassing ordeal had it been the only such occurrence on our mini trip across the United States.  However during a mini-stop at the Grand Canyon, an angry Japanese tour guide pulled on my shirt and told me that the tour bus was leaving.  In Japanese, I informed the poor tour guide that I was an American, and not a member of her tour group.  My friend laughed at me for the rest of the day.

Perhaps it is my face.  I look like my Japanese grandmother and have very light skin.  This is the backdrop for my tiny nose, the only hint of my Filipino ancestry.  Filipinos, however, never see any of their blood in me, always shaking their heads vehemently while saying, “No!!! You are Chinese!” when I tell them that we share a common heritage.

When returning from Europe, customs at LAX once called a Japanese interpreter for me.  After answering a few questions in Japanese, the poor interpreter was too embarrassed to inform the customs agent that I was an English-speaking American. Instead, we just continued on with our bizarre question/answer session for a few more minutes until I was released onto the luggage zoo.

I was also detained in Canada for several hours, a stopover on the way to Japan.  Because I looked far too Japanese to be carrying an American passport, Canadian customs thought the best way to deal with my kind was to pluck me down into the middle of a room overlooking beautiful Vancouver bay with a bag of ketchup potato chips.  No one spoke to me, and I simply sat still, mustering up a giant ball of hatred for Canada and their terrible selection of snacks.  A uniformed woman finally marched in a few hours later and released me out into the public, where my sister and her friend laughed at me for several hours.

There were also times when looking very Japanese worked to my advantage. Before embarking on my first trip to the Cannes Film Festival, my benefactor advised that I not learn a word of French out of fear that I would do something wacky like butcher his language.  My benefactor’s worries were unneeded, however, as the French just assumed I was Japanese.  I was treated quite well, made friends with an amazing French woman who brought me every where to make up for the language deficit, was stopped on the street by a famous Japanese actor who warned me that the French were preying on Japanese tourists and was bowed to by the sexy Jean Reno.

I love France.

These mistakes with my identity and race are so commonplace that I should accept these experiences, writing them off as non-incidences.  The whole Asian American label would even be acceptable if I could just fall in this category, but there is a large part of me that wonders if people outside of California, New York or big city even know our kind exists.  Like others, I am always asked if I can speak English.  If I am with someone who is not Asian, they are often asked if I can speak English.  No one asks Glen from “The Walking Dead” such questions.  No one cares about such things in the zombie future.

Being mistaken for Japanese can become annoying, and the results are sometimes inconvenient, but never soul shattering as it is for others.

My best friend growing up is a stunningly beautiful half black/half Japanese woman who did everything she could do cover up the darker skin.  She hardly acknowledged her heritage, which was unfortunate.  Her skin Is the color of rich chocolate, while her eyes were both wide, round and arresting with downward glances that allow her eyelashes to rest against her high cheekbones.  With a  bone structure so gentle and perfect, no other racial variety would provided all the beauty she was blessed with from birth.   I wish she understood this, because so much time was spent altering eye colors or powdering skin tones until it was reflective and white.

I understood why she never appreciated such inherent beauty.  She was a gazelle in a world filled with fences, unable to find independence without stumbling through another obstacle.  Her grandmother did not like blacks.  The mother of a friend we visited in Los Angeles did not like black people.  My own mother hated her, referring her by a derogatory word for half black.  When others cannot see beyond face value, it is a diminishing experience.   Pep talks and spirit lifting ego boosting chats become ineffective in the face of real, ongoing hatred.

In light of all this, perhaps I should be thankful that my lighter skin, while creating some problems, does not surround me with the same sort of hatred that my friend experiences.  Light skin has all the advantages, it seems, and I hear about it all the time.  Except that my light skin comes partially from being quite anemic.

How attractive can that be?  Not very.

(c) 2014 Slow Suburban Death. All Rights Reserved.

Published inCommentaryJapanJapanese AmericanLos AngelesSan FranciscoShort Stories

One Comment

  1. I keep thinking I’ll stop being shocked by my fellow white people and the things they say, and then I get shocked all over again. I’m glad you got a bow out of Jean Reno, though. That’s an exceptional experience.

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