I thought I could let this go, but I can’t. A few months ago, I was part of a group of Korean American authors who’d gathered for happy hour at a tony restaurant in downtown Seattle. We’d come to the city from all corners of the country for a literary conference, and we were happy to reunite with one another, feeling festive after a long day of panels and meetings.
When almost all of us were seated, our (white) waiter stood at the head of the table and addressed us. “So, is this your first time in the United States?” he asked our group. We burst out laughing. Several of us had already ordered drinks from him, had been exchanging pleasantries with him and telling him about the conference—speaking in perfect, unaccented English. After all, we’re all novelists and short story writers and poets who have published books—written in perfect, unaccented English. We assumed our waiter was joking, cleverly mocking the stereotype about all Asians being fresh off the boat. He couldn’t have been serious. But he kept talking, and it became apparent that he was.
Most of us were flummoxed. As Korean American writers, we have explored and recounted, in books and articles, various incidents of racism in our lives. We have tussled, over and over, with the issues of ethnicity and identity. Yet we have felt the need of late to start pushing beyond these subjects—not because America is now “post-racial,” as some would claim, but because we have said our piece and want to tackle other themes. Younger Asian American writers in particular are yearning to break out of the ethnic-literature box. Racism, though extant, isn’t as pressing a topic to us anymore as our primary literary focus. There may still be tweets like The Colbert Report’s that will call for the establishment of a “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” There may still be frat boys and sorority girls dressing in yellowface on Halloween. There may still be TV reporters who butcher Korean pilots’ names for a chuckle or make ill-advised puns about Jeremy Lin. But overt racism—slurs, bullying, discrimination—isn’t something we experience as much as we used to, particularly in big cities on the coasts, and we’ve been ready to move on. As writers, we’ve gotten kind of bored rehashing this stuff.
So this waiter surprised us. His remarks were an unexpected anomaly in a posh restaurant smack in the middle of Seattle, a liberal, cosmopolitan city where Asian Americans make up 14 percent of the population. In other parts of the country, we might still gird ourselves for people thinking we—an all-Asian group—had just stepped off a tour bus, but not here.
A couple of the writers at the table got pissed off. “I was born in the United States,” one woman told him. “I’m an American. We all are.”
But the waiter kept talking, walking deeper into it. “Oh. Well, I like to think of all of us as citizens of the world,” he said, and babbled on, making a further fool of himself. We looked at him, aghast. It didn’t seem possible, but he was exacerbating his initial faux pas.
I said, “Listen, I think you should stop while you’re still ahead.”
We ordered appetizers, more drinks. Once or twice, when the waiter returned, a few members of the group needled him about his earlier comments, but they did so teasingly, not (too) belligerently, and he played along, laughing. Others, including myself—fatigued to the point of resignation with these sorts of racial microaggressions—just wanted to ignore the whole episode, forget it ever happened.
Another poet arrived later in the evening, and someone told him what had transpired. He wasn’t amused. He wasn’t about to let this go unchallenged. He asked the waiter if he’d actually said what he did. The waiter nodded, and the poet said, “Man, that’s kind of racist. That’s kind of racist.” The waiter drooped his head and slunk away. He felt bad. Yet I could tell he didn’t quite understand what he had done wrong—certainly nothing to merit an apology, which he never thought to deliver. He probably concluded we were a bunch of PC whiners, overly sensitive to an innocent little mistake, when he had only been trying to be cordial. Why, he likely wondered, were we making such a big deal about this?
He was around 30. He seemed intelligent, urbane, and by all dints a nice guy. He was an excellent server—friendly, attentive, and swift—and at the end of the evening, as requested, he patiently took photo after photo of our group. Any awkwardness notwithstanding, we ended up enjoying ourselves that night. We didn’t really begrudge having to leave him a 20 percent tip, which was automatically tacked on to our bill because our party was so large (okay, maybe some of us did begrudge it).
I’m not particularly angry with this fellow. I’m not seeking an apology from him or from the restaurant. I’m not interested in seeing him reprimanded or, God forbid, fired. But I wish we could have made him understand. I wish he’d gotten it. We’re all guilty of indulging in stereotypes at times, until we’re called out for it, at which point most of us are mortified. But he clearly didn’t get it. Otherwise, he would have said, “I’m sorry. That was dumb,” and we would have been done with it.
I wish he could’ve grasped why his remarks were so objectionable, why Asian Americans are still so touchy about questions like “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” and “No, where are you really from?” when we were born here, when we’re as mainstream as anyone could be. No matter how long we’ve been in this country, we keep being regarded as foreigners, aliens, people who aren’t real Americans—the possibility precluded solely on the basis of our Asianness.
These kinds of questions and comments might seem innocuous, born out of benevolent ignorance or curiosity, or mere stupidity (see also Macklemore, Gringo de Mayo). Yet, to people of color, the cumulative effect of these microaggressions can be as hurtful and pernicious as more blatant forms of racism. They reduce us to categories or caricatures, denying and nullifying individuality. They diminish and dehumanize anyone who’s different. They assert power and privilege, demarcating who’s an insider and who’s an outsider, who’s normal and who’s abnormal. African Americans are told: “You don’t act like you’re black.” Latino/a Americans are asked: “What do you mean, you don’t speak Spanish?” Microaggressions, of course, are not limited to what’s said (little gestures and looks go a long way), and they’re not limited to race. They extend to sexual orientation, gender, class, religion, profession, physical appearance, and a whole slew of other characteristics. But they all reflect prejudice—preconceptions about others that are so deeply embedded, people are oblivious they might be saying something offensive. Indeed, people will often protest they’re just trying to be complimentary, which is even more frustrating and disturbing.
The worst part about these microaggressions is their tenacity. They’re wearying in their persistence, corrosive in their pervasiveness. In the end, I suppose what saddened us most about that night was how naive we had been: first, in thinking that in Seattle, we might, for once, catch a break, and second, in ever believing that we, as writers, would no longer have to rehash this stuff.
Don Lee’s most recent novel is The Collective. He is also the author of the novels Wrack and Ruin and Country of Origin and the story collection Yellow.