My Turn: I’m Not Who You Think I Am

Once I was mistaken for Vera Wang. I could have viewed this as a compliment, overlooking the fact that Wang has a good 10 years on me, but I did not. Then there was the time a woman in the elevator greeted me and welcomed me to my building. I happened to know that an Asian couple had just moved in on her floor, while I had lived in the building, on this woman's elevator bank, for seven years. I recognized her, yet she could not distinguish me from her new neighbor. I said, sourly, "You are mistaking me for a different Asian woman." She took offense.

I regret my behavior when I think I've been too judgmental, when I create difficult moments for those who mean no harm, but I'm tired of being confused with people who really, objectively, don't look like me. I am short, and have been mistaken for people who are quite tall. I tend to wear jeans and loose sweaters; I have been mistaken for people who wear fur and tulle. I don't wear makeup—well, I could go on and on. Given the vast array of those I've been told I look exactly like who have neither my facial structure nor my body shape nor my demeanor, I have always felt justified in assuming that people who make these mistakes are, at some level, racist. Meaning that when they see me, their normal powers of observation switch off so that the only information their brains receive is: Asian. These people see a type, not a person.

But then.

My husband and I host an annual barbecue for the associates at his law firm. This group changes every few years, so it never seems worthwhile to really get to know them, and I must confess that they are virtually indistinguishable to me except that each year's batch seems younger than the one before. Once a year, though, I make an effort to be pleasant. I know they work hard, and I appreciate what they do.

Among those who were to attend last time were a young couple who stood out in my mind because they had brought their infant to the prior year's party, and also because the wife was Korean-American, like me. I remembered having had a conversation with her, and that she was very nice.

When the guests started to arrive, I shook hands with and smiled at a half-dozen or so people, and then I noticed the Korean-American woman. I was somewhat relieved to see someone I had met before, so I approached her in a friendly way and said, "Hello! So you're taking a little holiday from the baby today?"

She sort of nodded but did not say anything, and that instant was all it took for me to realize she was a different Asian-American woman. One who did not have a baby. I also realized that she looked nothing like the woman I had mistaken her for. I believe I muttered something under my breath, so that maybe she would think I was just crazy, as bosses' wives often are. Or drunk, perhaps. Mostly I thought: thank God I'm Asian. Whatever else she may think of me, at least she can't accuse me of being racist.

A few months after that I was with my 10-year-old daughter at a horse show. Her hair, like all the other young riders' hair, was in two braids, as dictated by horse-show convention. We were waiting in a very slow line to buy soft drinks. Bored, I left the line to pick up a magazine from a nearby table. I leafed through it and walked back, looking down at a picture I had found. I nudged my daughter to show her the picture. She didn't respond, so I nudged her again, and that was when I saw it was not my daughter I was nudging, but a different Asian child.

Even though I knew that this could not mean I was a racist—racist toward my own daughter?— I was mortified nonetheless.

"Oh, I'm sorry! You all look the same from the top!" I said.

By which I meant, all little girls with dark pigtails look similar to a taller person who is not really paying attention. The girl's mother smiled pleasantly enough. To further complicate the matter, at least in my roiling brain, the mother was Caucasian. I wondered, confusedly, whether this changed the situation. If she and I were not from the same ethnic group, did this mean I really was a racist?

A plea, then, for all of us to take the time to look more carefully. For those who see the race and not the individual: look harder. And for those who, like me, may be hypersensitive after years of not being properly seen, keep in mind that while there are people who are racist, many others are merely distracted, overeager, careless, tired, old. We, the thin-skinned, also need to avoid applying the easy label.