IT HAPPENED TO ME: A White Guy Called Me "Yao Ming" on Halloween Even Though I Was Clearly Dressed as a Cat

If I were white, I seriously doubt that guy would have said to me, “You look like Kevin Love!”
Publish date:
November 14, 2016
racism, halloween, asian american

My very first Halloween getup that I was legitimately excited for was “zombie bride,” circa the third grade. My mom did my makeup, and my dress and veil came straight from the local Spirit Halloween store.

In later years, I took more pride in DIYing and using existing clothing items for my costume ideas, such as my interpretation of The Shining twins with my real-life twin when I was in high school and Sailor Mars during my first year of college.

After a somewhat lazy, H&M-supplied showing as a bat last year, it was time to return to something more hands-on and original. After combing through costume ideas online, I settled on Tubbs from Neko Atsume, a cat from a smartphone game who shows up to eat all of the food from the bowl, and then lounges contentedly in front of the empty dish. I excitedly shared the idea with my long-distance boyfriend and sister. The costume’s combination of a cute, nerdy game reference with Tubbs’ relatable gluttony was perfect for me.

With my ensemble completed, on October 28th, I did what many other college students do on Halloweekend and engaged in certain off-campus festivities.

After a few hours, it was time to call it a night and head back to my apartment. At that point, I was sober and fully alert and just wanted to get back as quick as possible to tend to my leftover DiGiornio Rising Crust pepperoni pizza. The journey back takes less than 10 minutes on foot, so I decided to power-walk instead of Ubering.

The absence of fraternities on my trek back meant that the atmosphere outside was actually peaceful; several clusters of other Halloween partygoers glided past me without a care. At the homestretch, however, I noticed that, about to approach me, was a gaggle of white guys. I quickened my pace to avoid any unwanted contact with them. But sure enough, right when we passed each other, one of the dudebros leered at me.

“You’re Asian!” he exclaimed.

OK, yeah. I mean that’s pretty obvious, but whatever. I figured that he’s just really, really drunk, so I ignored him and kept walking.

He then yelled at me, “You look like Yao Ming!”

Now, just to be clear:

  1. I am a 20-year-old woman. Yao Ming is a 36-year-old man.
  2. I am 5’9”. Yao Ming is 7’6”.
  3. Yao Ming is known for being a basketball player. I, on the other hand, was wearing white cat ears and a big white fluffy coat that night.

In two short sentences, this individual reduced my entire existence to “being Asian like Yao Ming.” Wishing to toss that comment aside and act like I wasn’t bothered, I ignored him and moved along. After all, I had more pressing matters, such as gorging on pizza.

But I was bothered.

I felt ashamed of my racial identity. To this man, my Asianness is abnormal. My Asianness must be pointed out. My Asianness is Yao Ming.

When I got back to my apartment, I wallowed in insecurity. I immediately went to my bathroom mirror and stared at myself.

I guess it’s time to take this stuff off... Hey, wait a second. This costume is cool! It deserves to be documented! I need to take pictures!

Deciding to embrace my earlier feelings of pride for my Tubbs costume, I set out to reclaim my self-confidence by way of selfie. And after a few snapshots, my autonomy returned. Suddenly, I had control over how I viewed myself. Did this angle make me look better? What about this lighting? Reviewing the pictures I had taken and finding that I liked how I looked in several of them was actually empowering.

After the cathartic process of selfie-taking, I finally buckled down and realized that the proper response to that dudebro on the street should not have been self-deprecation, but rather anger. Being hammered does not exonerate this man from being racist. Trying to be funny in front of his dudebro friends does not exonerate this man from being racist. In fact, there is no reasoning that would have exonerated this man from being racist at all.

By calling me Yao Ming, he invoked one of the most tiresome, frustrating, and dehumanizing stereotypes Asian folks have to deal with. I can’t help but imagine if the incident would have happened at all if I were white; I seriously doubt that guy would have said to me “You’re white!” followed by “You look like Kevin Love!” That would simply not happen to those with white privilege.

Asians aren’t all clones of each other. Or of Yao Ming. We all have distinct identities and cultures. We don't exist for you to laugh at, compare, and contrast to each other.

Despite this, I know that individuals will continue to use my race as a metric of my worth. For me, it will definitely take time to completely move past the first reaction of internalizing harmful attitudes towards my Asianness. But I do know that, like a self-crafted Halloween costume, I can always find ways to take pride in how I construct and envision my own personal identity.