My Ethnic Blend Makes Me Feel Like A Cultural Spy

Because of my apparently indiscernible features, I’ve become a spy, privy to the stereotypes and hardly veiled prejudices that surround us.
Publish date:
August 30, 2012

Apollo Creed was not the first black man I loved; that honor goes to Courtney S, my kindergarten classmate. When I was eight years old, however, Apollo taught me an invaluable lesson via Rocky IV. I mentioned my crush to a friend whose response was, “I guess he’s handsome. For a black man.” Though I was ill-equipped to articulate what was so very wrong with that statement, I got the point: lots of people think differently than I do.

I knew early on that a person’s skin color doesn’t impact his or her potential for beauty, that some men love other men and that there is nothing wrong with that. I knew that my grandfather was Chinese and my grandmother German. And I knew that my other grandfather had come from somewhere far away and very different and that we ate matzo ball soup and gefilte fish with him.

When I fill out forms that ask for my ethnic background, I contemplate checking “other.” To most of the world, though, I am Caucasian -– or “white,” as the word has come to mean. But really I’m Chinese, Russian and German. And while not technically Jewish, I am Jew-ish.

However, I don’t look the part of any of this and, according to someone whom I now know to be bat-shit crazy, I seldom “act Jewish.” My bit of Chinese blood often surprises people, my sister’s even more so. Of the two of us, I do look more Chinese, but that’s pretty much akin to saying that Madonna looks more Finnish than Sofia Vergara.

Because of my apparently indiscernible features, I’ve become a spy, privy to the stereotypes and hardly veiled prejudices that surround us. That’s one of the benefits of being a hybrid: I get to see people’s truth very quickly. The year that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was nominated for a billion awards, I attended an Oscar party with friends. I braced myself as Chinese people streamed into the Shrine Auditorium, because I knew what was coming. It’s not that the giggling and cooing at the sight of adorable, dressed up Asians was mean-spirited, nor was it that the puns and jokes and fake Chinese accents were terribly offensive. It’s that the other-ness was so worthy of commentary that it didn’t stop, and we all know what a short evening the Awards are. I felt protective of the Chinese, which is a massive undertaking.

When my mother asked a friend of mine who she’d lived with freshman year, she told her that she had been assigned a Chinese girl. Turns out Chinese Roommate was unhinged and dropped out a few weeks later. Fine. Let’s leave it at that, I prayed. However, my friend went on to say with great merriment that a freshman she knew had just been assigned a Chinese roommate and that she’d warned her about her own experiences with a Chinese roommate. I couldn’t look at my mother, who I’m certain was as captivated by this witty anecdote as I was. Later I said to my friend, “You do know my mom is half Chinese, right? That she was born there? And my grandfather’s Chinese?” “Of course,” she assured me. “But you know what I mean.”

So here’s where I get confused. Am I Chinese enough to take personal offense? It’s offensive when any population gets lumped together as a whole. But in cases like these, that’s not what I’m feeling –- in fact, I am fairly difficult to offend, but I could write volumes about things that annoy, bewilder, and disappoint me. And that’s how these “harmless” comments from people I otherwise respect affect me –- I’m disappointed. Disappointed that “-ism” is not just the ideology of the Tea Party, white supremacists, and the criminally insane.

In some situations, I do feel justified to comment, like when the guy flirting with me at the bar used “Chinaman” and “kike” in the same sentence. Or when the casual acquaintance forwarded me an email with made-up Chinese sayings. Yes, Chinese words and names sound funny to the western ear, just as many English words amuse non-English speakers. (Did you know that “pet” is French for “fart”?)

And then there’s the Jewish part. I grew up in a city and had classmates of all races and religions; I first learned about Jehovah’s Witnesses in fourth grade from the kid who was allowed to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve since encountered and befriended a number of people who grew up in towns where Weiners were in short supply, hence “You don’t look Jewish.” I imagine this is because I no longer wear a wig or eschew pants.

The slander and stereotyping of Jews I needn’t explain –- you’ve heard it all too. But again, am I entitled to a personal sense of annoyance? While I’m not Jewish, my father and his side of the family are, and so I’ve found myself representing on that front too. In truth, I’ve learned far more about Judaism via Google than I ever did from my family or formal education.

My background has always played a role in my life. I was weaned on roast pork buns, sturgeon and borscht. I can say, “How are you?” in Mandarin, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” in Russian, and count to 10 in German. My grandfather taught me to use chopsticks the way he was taught. My grandmother sang beautiful German lullabies to us. She also did a hell of a rooster impression, but I don’t think that stemmed from national pride.

To revise my earlier statement, there is a group of “other” that is unequivocally “less than” and that is racists. I don’t mean your amnesiac, 104-year-old grandma who grew up in Alabama and “can’t help it” -– as feeble an excuse as that may be. Racism comes in many guises, and disappointing though that may be, it is beyond my power to eradicate it. One could argue that to bite my tongue is to perpetuate the problem. But I’ve learned, over time, that accusations of this nature sink in only as far as defenses lie. And so I continue my role as the Chinese/Jewish Mata Hari.

The man I’m dating currently, by the way, is of Jamaican, Irish and Scottish descent and is very handsome. Period.