The scene: I was getting dinner with a couple of other people, some of whom I’d just met that night. One of them was a woman who had just graduated from UC Berkeley (congratulations, class of 2013), and we had already shared a few stories about our experiences there. At some point in the conversation, she turned to me and said, “So, are you friends with a lot of Asians?”

I will admit that I don’t remember the exact phrasing; it might have been “Do you hang out with Asians a lot?”, which is somewhat different, or even “Do you have a lot of friends who are Asian?”, which is a bit better. I also don’t recall if I had shared at this point that I had studied multiple East Asian languages, or idly said something in Korean (one of the other dinner-goers was also trying to learn the language). I’m pretty sure I had said that I had been in Theatre Rice, but I got the impression she actually had very little idea what that was.1 (Her loss.)

But even with that, I was at the very least startled. I kind of just stared at her, both trying to search for a cutting comeback to express my opinion of the question and working through some actual astonishment. (It felt especially strange because the dinner organizer, sitting right next to this woman, was also ethnically Asian.)

She gave me a moment, than followed up with, “What am I saying…you went to UC Berkeley and you studied Computer Science. Of course you are.”

Which only compounded the problem, at least at the time, but this does in fact match the data, so this part I’ll let go.

Coming up with nothing, but wanting to say something, I came back with the extremely poor response of, “You just dropped like three notches for asking that question.”

Yeah, way to go, me.

Realizing how bad that was, I tried to put a more positive version of what I was thinking. “You went to Berkeley, and now you live in San Francisco. It’s just not a Thing anymore.”

Which isn’t true, but it’s starting to get at why I was bothered by this.

The reason I have a problem with “Are you friends with a lot of Asians?” is because I don’t bucket my friends that way at all. Of course the answer is yes, quite a few of my friends are ethnically East Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander…both Asian-American and true immigrants or international visitors. But I’m not sure what that has to do with anything…

…especially because I’ve noticed sponge-like tendencies in myself, taking on different characteristics when with different groups of friends: Theatre Rice, my current set of coworkers, multiple circles that have come out of Berkeley CS, fellow Vienna Teng fans, my Korean classmates. Having these different “personas” makes it interesting when the groups intersect.

But every single group has people who are ethnically some-Asian. Most of them have at least one person who was born in East Asia. That isn’t and fundamentally wouldn’t be a factor in choosing how I would interact with someone; it’s not one of the things that triggers a different “sponge-persona”.

The reason I have a problem with “Are you friends with a lot of Asians?” is because it encourages “Asians” as a valid grouping. I don’t have a problem with “Are you friends with a lot of Americans?” and likewise with “Are you friends with a lot of Koreans?”; these are questions about cultural exposure, not skin color variation in one’s list of Facebook Friends.2 Still a little strange to ask, IMHO, but I can at least accept the premise. But using “Asian” as a noun for anyone with any of several East Asian ethnicities is a bogus grouping that doesn’t really mean anything: in a lot of ways, my friends from Japan have more in common with me than with my friends in Cambodia.3

Of course, these false groupings can become real when placed in a larger setting; for better or for worse (usually worse), Americans have generally grouped all “Asian” immigrants in quite a few ways, and mutual exclusion can cause groups to form. Thus, “Asian-American” may have actually become a valid grouping now: shared culture, some points of common tendencies. It’s becoming or become the same sort of term as “African-American”, having very little to actually do with Africa or Asia but describing a group that’s emerged from the way American society works today. As with any generalization, it only goes so far: not all Californians are the same, despite what you may have heard.

I realized that for the last few years, I’ve been subconsciously assuming that the average “X-American” with a non-sheltered childhood is probably more similar to me than a person born in X, i.e. that they are more “American” than, uh, “X”. Of course, being “Hyphen-American” (or “Hyphen-Canadian”, or “Hyphen-Australian”?) is always about managing connections to two cultures, sometimes two identities, and everyone falls on a different place on the spectrum. (I am almost all the way at one end on my own spectrum.)

I have not actually tried to verify this in serious discussion with anyone.

The last time I felt this conflicted by an offhand remark was in my second-to-last semester at Berkeley, which I described in a post called “Thinking in Color”:

I was out late with a couple of friends, who happened to all be Asian-American. While we were walking, we were accosted by two drunk idiots who had a bone to pick with one of my friends. After we had gotten away from them, another friend said, “You know…I feel a little bad saying this, but I’m glad they were white.” A third friend agreed almost immediately.

And I was stung. I tried to keep cool — this night didn’t need any more drama or bad feelings — but I did say a rather sardonic “Thanks”. The friend who had spoken already realized it was weird to say that with me there, and responded “We love you, Jordy!”

Which was nice, but not the point. I didn’t even register the ethnicity of the two outsiders. It’s not like this sort of thing never happened with other ethnicities either…it’s a college campus. But more than that, I just didn’t like the idea that these two guys’ behavior somehow reflected on all ethnic whites. If they had been Asian (which is as general as “white”), their behavior wouldn’t have been representative of all of the “Asian” students on campus. And same for any other ethnicity macrogrouping: Hispanic, Middle Eastern, black, whatever. (The fact that these “groups” lump unrelated people together is a separate problem.)

In general, I’ve noticed I have a problem: my mind wants to decide what’s racist, discriminatory, inappropriate, based on the ideal situation, rather than what society’s actually like in real life. I came to realize that for “Thinking in Color”, those last two sentences aren’t true in today’s society. The online reactions to movies like “Red Dawn” and “Olympus Has Fallen” have showed us just how badly some people react to this; more seriously, the violent backlash against Boston Muslims after the Marathon bombings—even before any suspects were identified—showed how bad the problem is. A Hispanic miscreant’s misdeeds can reflect on pretty much any Hispanics in the US. And the same thing just doesn’t happen for whites.

(I read an article about how non-white shooters and bombers in America are Othered: not always by race or religion, but in whatever ways that can make them different from Us. Whites, on the other hand, are apologized for, such as in the case of the Steubenville rapists.4)

I’m still not happy with “I’m glad they were white”, but after Boston I finally understand one aspect of it in my gut.

So it’s not true to say that being ethnically Asian doesn’t matter, even in San Francisco. And I hope this new friend realizes that she just accidentally hit one of my pet peeves; my reaction wasn’t deserved and wasn’t directed at her personally.

But this is something I don’t want to give up. Asking if a lot of my friends are Asian is about as meaningful to me as asking if a lot of my friends are short. I hope we really can ditch this grouping, sooner rather than later.

P.S. One more lesson from “Thinking in Color” was that using “Asian” to describe someone’s macroethnicity is perfectly okay – say, if you need to identify someone. There, you’re using the term to describe a collection of physical characteristics often found in people of certain ethnicities, historically from certain parts of the world, and that’s true no matter what their cultural and personal identity.

  1. As I said in “Thinking in Color”, being white in Theatre Rice was “pretty much never weird except when people ask me if it’s weird.” In my final year, I came up with a catchphrase to counter the tagline “Modern Asian-American Theater”: “…but you don’t have to be Asian [me and others] or American [various international students] to join!” ↩︎

  2. “Koreans” is distinct from “Korean-Americans”. My personal censors are okay with using “Koreans” to mean “Korean-Americans”, but using it as a common group for both is a bit sketchy. ↩︎

  3. My objective mind finds it interesting that both at UC Berkeley and in the South Bay where I grew up there was a large enough Indian population that “Indian” or “South Asian” (not the same) was a distinct category not included in “Asian”, both casually and in demographic statistics. “Asian” usually meant “East Asian”, with Pacific Islanders sometimes thrown in for lack of numbers. ↩︎

  4. Pulling a bit of humor out of the Marathon bombing, a quote I saw after they had apprehended the Tsarnaev brothers: “We asked whether the bombers were Muslim or white; we weren’t prepared for the answer to be ‘both’.” See also The Onion↩︎