I see white people

whitePeople often ask how my family and I ended up in Arizona. The short version is that my husband and I were sick of the rat race in Orange County. We had just bought a home in Costa Mesa about six months prior to our move; however, circumstances led us to an about face, and we have not regretted moving out of California.

I had mixed feelings about our move here initially. On one hand, I could not wait to get out of Orange County, to leave behind the traffic, the fast pace. On the other hand, I missed the diversity, the culture, the “big city” experience. When we moved here, it became apparent quickly that the demographics were very different..not a lot of Asians compared to California. Funny thing is, the lack of diversity was not something unusual to me. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and was raised by white parents. For many years, I wanted to be white so badly I did everything I could to minimize my Asian appearance. My adoptive mother was kind of racist and often made prejudiced comments about black people she worked with. I used to think to myself how hypocritical that was because I was Asian. I was also a minority. How could she possibly explain that? Growing up, I saw things through the eyes and experiences of a “privileged, middle class white person” because I was raised by privileged white people. I almost feel uncomfortable around other Chinese people in our community, especially if I hear them speaking Mandarin. Why? Because I don’t speak Mandarin, and sometimes it’s weird to have to explain to others why I don’t speak it. I feel much like an outsider.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been at the other end of others’ prejudiced and/or racist remarks, whether intentional or not. Sometimes people are just ignorant, and they don’t know any better. A couple of weeks ago, an older white woman I met  told me that her daughter wanted to travel to Vietnam to vacation. I was wearing a name tag, and the woman identified right away that my last name was Vietnamese. The woman proceeded to tell me that she didn’t think her daughter should vacation in Vietnam because of “the war” and all. I wanted to ask her, what war? But, of course, I knew what she meant. The war that occurred in Vietnam, what some five decades or so ago. I politely told her that I was not Vietnamese, but from Taiwan, but that didn’t seem to register. She continued to talk about Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as if I’d been there before, as if I knew all about these countries when in fact, I have never been to Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos. I didn’t know if she wanted my opinion or what exactly she was trying to get at. In my mind, I wanted to say, “Yes, but wasn’t it the white people who treated the veterans so horribly after returning home from the war?” But, I didn’t. I waited and waited for the conversation to end and finally excused myself.

Some people would tell me to blow off a conversation like that. She didn’t mean any harm. I don’t think the woman had any ill-intention, but it sure felt like it during our conversation. It felt like tiny little daggers to the heart as she kept pressing me to see her point of view. This conversation could have taken place anywhere, not just in Arizona. It never fails, however, to surprise me, especially when race is such a complicated thing for this Asian adoptee who was raised with a very “white” perspective in a very “white” world.

That day when approached by the woman whose daughter wanted to vacation in Vietnam, I told her, “Well, maybe Vietnam’s not such a bad place.” Everything in me wanted to ask, “Why are you talking to me about this? There are so many other things to talk about!” I didn’t exactly feel compassion towards the woman but gave her the benefit of the doubt. When it’s all said and done, what can you do but walk away, learn something, or help someone else learn something, and be done with it. Yep, I think that’s about it. I can only change me most of the time, despite wanting to change the whole darn world.

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