I've Never Been More Aware That I am Asian and My Husband is White, Than While Living in Japan

And I've never been so hyper-aware of other people attempting to qualify our relationship.
Publish date:
November 12, 2014
travel, marriage, interracial relationships, race, japan

Nobody of consequence has ever before cared that my husband is white and I am Asian.

To be precise, he's of Jewish descent and I'm mostly Chinese-Persian-English, with a dab of German in there. I say that because I always find it fascinating that I look much more Chinese than both of my parents. They pull a lot of Persian and European -- all the Chinese landed in me. Genetics are cool! But all that being said, I identify as Chinese American.

Regardless of what we "are," most of the time "F" and I flit around in our kooky little life looking for places to pet cats, feed, and pet cats while feeding. Race and all the issues surrounding it is one of our favorite discussion topics, but it has never defined us.

Sure when we visit small towns in the US, we get the occasional hard looks from senior citizens or second glances from locals who rarely see someone of color in their coffee shops. But for the most part, after the initial "shock," life moves on and everybody goes back to thinking about how cool it would be if one could stop time and make a fluffy sleeping-bed appear whenever one wanted. (Just me?)

And of course, we have those stories about being chided by older generations for being "shameful" or "not right."

Once we were in the Denny's at Gower Gulch in Hollywood, eating our weekend breakfast, and an older Chinese couple kept staring at us from another booth. Pegging me as an "ABC" (American Born Chinese) unable to understand my "mother tongue," they started speaking loudly about us in Cantonese.

"This one! Look at that. They all like white men."

"So bad. No respect for who she is -"

"- her parents! She doesn't like herself. That's it. They all want to be white."

I've heard stuff like this before. I've even heard worse. A part of me gets some sick pleasure out of looking like a stereotype to people such as these, but having a secret language power deeply ingrained in my "ABC" brain.

I wanted to say something to them. I wanted to respond to their gross comments in my shitty but passable Cantonese (I can understand almost fluently, but speaking is difficult for me). But I didn't want to escalate the situation, thus ruining my breakfast, and creating more of a memory with these two than they deserved.

So the next time they stared at us, I stared back and caught their eyes for a moment. I raised my eyebrows, and holding their attention, I nodded slowly. No words, no shouting, just a moment of comprehension on their part, "Yeah. I understand you. YA BURNT."

The couple dropped their eyes, finished their food, and were GONE within five minutes.

Someone should tell them that words may not always translate, but STARING always does.

I try not to let stuff like this bother me. Occasionally I'm dumbfounded by people's audacity to impose their ignorance on MY life, but more often than not I'm able roll my eyes and eat my sandwich without any shits given. (Is that a disgusting sentence?)

But now I live in Japan, and I'm suddenly hyper aware of what I look like, and what my husband looks like, and what we look like together. No, no, no, I haven't developed some complex about interracial anything. It's just that, for lack of a better word, "F" and I are incredibly CONFUSING to locals in Japan.

"F" already draws stares. He's tall, has crazy curly hair, has a bizarre collection of cat shirts (most made by yours truly -- we're the couple you don't want Christmas presents from), speaks loudly with a slight Staten Island accent, and yeah, he's a white dude in Japan. A white dude in Japan who speaks Japanese. And I don't.

People see us, and immediately start speaking to me. I'll explain that I don't speak Japanese, in my OBVIOUSLY redneck baby version of the Japanese language, but very often people JUST CAN'T COMPUTE.

Sometimes they laugh, and say, "But you look Japanese!. Other times I can see the gears in their brain grinding to a halt ("but...but...but") as they try to figure out what the hell to do with the woman in front of them who their brain says SHOULD speak Japanese, but cannot/will not/must be mistaken.

I always look for blood dripping out of their ears. I need to learn how to call Japanese "911."

When we're on the train, and "F" is babbling away in English about history or politics or cheeseburgers, it's almost always guaranteed that a couple locals will look up from their phones to notice the "Japanese woman" speaking to the Gaijin in perfect English. Small children will sometimes stare or giggle.

My favorite example of my destroying a Japanese person's brain happened at our neighborhood convenience store.

My husband and I stopped in there to buy some snacks, and when we got to the register to pay the woman, as usual, started speaking to me. My husband jumped in and explained that I was American and didn't speak Japanese. The poor woman looked at him, looked at me, lost some brain cells, thanked him, and asked me a question.

"F" answered her question about some promotion they were offering, then told her again that I didn't speak Japanese. She smiled, thanked him, then turned back to me and completed the transaction in Japanese.

Look, I don't at all mind being mistaken for Japanese. When I want to be left alone, and just fade into the crowd, it's ideal. What I'm still adjusting to is how vividly people see my husband's and my race.

We are an ASIAN WOMAN and an AMERICAN MAN who obviously share some kind of intimacy. While people are not unkind (at least here, I've had less friendly experiences outside of the big city), and relationships like ours are definitely not unheard of, the level of attention drawn to us is something I've never really been faced with before.

In the eyes of the hundreds of people I pass every day, I am in the racial majority, and he is the minority. Whether our relationship is right or wrong to them, it brings notice. A lot of people have preconceived notions about the parameters of our relationship. Some think I'm with him because it's "cool" to be with a white guy. Some roll their eyes at "F" and say, "Of COURSE, you're with an Asian woman...you're studying Japan, you MUST be an Asiaphile."

I'm sure it happens in the States, but I've never been so hyper-aware of other people attempting to qualify our relationship.

I don't hold any of this against the locals here. Stares and confusion have to come before understanding and acceptance, I'd like to hope.

More than anything, I wonder if I have never really grasped the social implications of being in a interracial marriage? Here or anywhere.

It is exhausting constantly having to explain "us" to people. I know that almost every single outing will have some version of, "Well he's...and I'm...and we're..." And while I don't entirely mind it, it's opened my eyes to the sort of privilege and even bubble I've lived in until now.

I'm not going to lie and tell you that I know entirely what to do with this new understanding. Or if I even fully understand what I'm understanding.

I've never thought about my race as much as I have in Japan. I guess I'm lucky that while I've encountered racism in the US, I've had the support and circumstance to stay relatively untouched. Not to say Japan is imposing any sort of trauma on me, but it has awakened something in my understanding of who I am.

I'm the majority, I'm the minority. I'm defined by the shape of my face, my eyes, my hair; I defy definition. My race is nothing, my race is everything.

I am a Chinese-American woman in an interracial marriage. Race still does not define us, but what is simply "our marriage" to my husband and me, is not always so simple to everyone else.