Someone tells you to walk through it and pick the one that doesn’t belong. You walk through. Scan the room. You see a girl. She has slanted eyes, black hair, a natural tan. She’s a bit scrawny, if you wanna know the truth. There, you say. That’s the one.
She’s the only Asian in her classroom—actually, the only Asian in her school. People ask her questions like, “What are you?” What they mean is, “What’s your ethnic background?” or “What’s your ethnicity?” but that’s not how they phrase it. Instead they say: “What are you?” And the question is vague with many answers, so she’s never quite sure how to answer it. Another puzzling question: “Where are you from?” She says, “I’m from here,” because she’s in a classroom in the southern town where she grew up. And they reply, “Yeah, but where are you really from?”
She lives in the southern US, but is part of a culture that feels distant to her. She has an enormous family—cousins, aunts, grandparents, more cousins, still more aunts—but they’re on the other side of the world. Literally. She wonders what it would be like to live in a place where everyone looks like her. Where she’s not the one that doesn’t belong.
When she tells people she’s Filipino, they don’t understand. They want her to be Chinese, because that’s the Asian ethnicity most immediate to them. There are virtually no Filipinos in the area where she lives. Less than 0.5 percent of the population is Asian. (Today, it’s 1%).
Meanwhile, she moves on to middle school, where there’s one other Asian girl. Let’s call this other girl Miya. All through middle school, people ask: Are you related to Miya? Is Miya your sister? Are you and Miya related? Do you know that you look just like this girl Miya? You and Miya could be twins!
Miya is Japanese.
In high school, a figure skater named Kristi Yamaguchi blows the Olympics away. People say: Do you like Kristi Yamaguchi? Did you know you look just like Kristi Yamaguchi? You must have watched Kristi Yamaguchi on TV last night, right?
Kristi Yamaguchi is also Japanese.
People ask, too many times than she can count: “Are you Chinese?”
Boys say: “Do you know the price of tea in China?” or “Have you ever eaten dog?” They chant: “Chinese-Japanese-dirty-knees-look-at-these.” Ha-ha. How funny.
The girl grows up. She’s been a writer all her life. She writes a short story about a girl who prays to the Virgin Mary to unslant her eyes. Her cousin invites her to read her work at an event specifically for Filipino writers and artists—in New York City, no less. She reads, nervously. She thinks: “This is my story, because I’m from the south. Because I didn’t grow up in a Filipino community.” But afterward, something truly remarkable happens. People come up to her, one after another. They say, “I understand.”
And she realizes: Otherness is universal. Otherness comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes it’s slanted eyes. Sometimes it’s orientation. It could be religion, quirks, or an odd taste in music.