It was a bad day.
I was sent to work at the cafe that’s set in the corner of the bookstore. Although I had gotten only minimal training, it was a Sunday and the after-church rush was over so my managers thought I could handle it. So did I.
The shift lasted 3 hours. During that time, I spilled milk on the floor, made a frappe explode because I didn’t put the top on the blender, spent precious minutes frantically flipping through the recipe book, twice made the wrong drink, and forgot to fill 4 coffees because I was too busy trying to clean everything else up. I used up almost an entire roll of paper towels.
Finally, after the third or so crisis, I called for the backup I should have asked for 10 minutes ago. One of my managers came over to help and we managed to get everything back on track. After we got all the orders out, he saw how distressed I was and talked about how he spilled two full pitchers of coffee base only a couple of weeks ago. It happens. Don’t worry about it.
And I know it could’ve been a lot worse. I didn’t set anything on fire or accidentally cause a fatal allergic reaction. The looks that the customers gave me were mostly of pity or annoyance, not anger. Disdain maybe, impatience definitely, but not anger.
So why did I feel so miserable? Why did those looks that I would normally just brush off, hurt so much?
It wasn’t until after everything had slowed down and I was closing the cafe for the night that I realized what thought was bothering me, what question kept prodding me, right under the surface of my subconscious.
‘What if they assume all Asians are like this?’
I know, it seems like a completely ridiculous thing to think of, let alone be upset about. After all, I am my own person. I have my own strengths as well as weaknesses, virtues and faults; some values that I hold fast to, and others that crumble too easily. I make mistakes then try to fix them; I learn then forget; I succeed, fail, try my best, don’t try at all, hurt, heal, hate, love, and choose. I am my own man.
So why is there this nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to do better? Better, not just for my own sake and how people perceive me as an individual, but also for the sake of all Asian men and how people perceive me as the representative of an entire race.
Am I making all this up? Is this just in my head and not reflective of reality? Is it some sort of victim mentality that allows me to wallow in self-pity?
I don’t know. Maybe.
But hasn’t society showed us time and time again that if you’re a minority, you are forced to represent the group you’re in? If a white man shoots up a building, he’s a deranged lone gunman, but if a Muslim man shoots up a building, then the problem is the whole of Islam. If a group of white people riot and destroy property, it’s just that particular group that is excited and rowdy, but if a group of black people riot and destroy property, something is wrong with black culture. If a man drives too slowly in the left lane, you think, ‘that person is a bad driver,’ but if a woman drives too slowly in the left lane, you think, ‘women are bad drivers.’
On top of that, take the atmosphere in this country. When the likes of Donald Trump, a clear-cut racist and misogynist, is not only running for the President of the United States, but is also receiving an overwhelming amount of support, what does that say about the current mood in America? Xenophobia, exclusion, the other.
So can you blame me if I feel a pressure to be better in fear that people will judge an entire race based on my own personal behavior?
Maybe it’s just a symptom of where I am now. Close to the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, with a whole lot of white people and not much diversity. I’ve seen a few Asians around, but I imagine that most people don’t get the chance to interact with them very often. And given the people’s common tendency to generalize, perhaps my attitude is understandable here.
But this feeling of having to represent my demographic isn’t exclusive to this place. I’ve felt it in many different places, throughout my entire life.
For example, at Boston College. With over 70% of the student population being white, it’s not exactly the most diverse space I’ve been in, but it’s also not the least. There’s a strong minority community there, filled with an variety of voices and opinions, so that most of the time, I was able to be myself. I could make mistakes, slack off, be mediocre, and nobody would think that all Asians are like that.
And then I took a class called Intro to Feminisms. It’s a class that should probably have more male students than female students, but of course the majority was the latter. There were perhaps five guys, including myself, and one of them was simply obnoxious. He would spout off various theories that were, quite frankly, stupid and ask questions that were borderline offensive. Of course, the rest of the class didn’t like him at all. It got to the point where even if he said something that was insightful (which he did on occasion) everyone would still dismiss him.
If he was any other guy, I probably would’ve let him be and not cared at all what others thought of him. I would have sat quietly like I do in all of my other classes and only participate when there was something I really wanted to say.
But this guy was Asian.
He was the only other Asian guy in the class. And I couldn’t help but think, ‘What if they assume all Asian men are like this?’
Of course they wouldn’t. It’s a class full of college students. Not only that, it’s a class on a social justice issue full of college students who are bound to be aware of stereotypes and privilege and all that jazz. They wouldn’t possibly think of such a thing.
I started raising my hand more. I would speak in a calming tone. Say things that made sense. Make a few light-hearted jokes when it was appropriate. Be the one to dispute the idiotic thing the Other Asian Guy said.
I wasn’t saying anything that I didn’t believe in nor was I trying to pander to the rest of the class. I daresay I learned more in that class than I would have otherwise precisely because I was participating so much.
But at the end of the day, a part of me would still feel uneasy. Pained. Like I was doing something wrong. Or at the very least, I was doing something right for the wrong reasons.
It’s a feeling that weighs me down. It hurts. Not sharp and quick like a knife, but a mounting pressure that could eventually cause me to crumble.
Some people of color have been able to overcome this pressure. A lot of people even. They live their lives not caring what others might think and are comfortable in their own skin. And that’s amazing.
But I’m not there yet.
I still find myself desperately trying to be likable, hardworking, funny, energetic, smooth, articulate, patient, confident, and on and on and on at all times in public. When I go to a restaurant with my parents, I make an extra effort to speak in perfect, unaccented English so I can imagine that the waitress won’t grumble about foreigners to her coworkers. Sometimes I wonder if she does anyway.
I get it, I really do. It’s pessimism. It’s paranoia. And it’ll only eat away at my soul if I let it.
So I’m trying. I’ll get there.
At the end of a bad day, I’ll lay on my bed and say,
“I am my own man.”