I look Asian

K and I recently hosted a houseguest from Japan. He was one of the men K knows from the small but worldwide network of puzzle box makers. K met the man from Japan about a decade ago, and his visit to Denver was the first time I met him myself.

In preparation for his stay with us, I cleaned the house, as per usual. I also pulled out our sofa sleeper (which still fills me with amazement every time I witness the metamorphosis of our IKEA corner sofa into a double bed). Then came the angst-driven preparations, such as setting out a wash cloth in addition to a bathroom towel for our guest, and breaking out the nice silverware that K and I got as a wedding gift, and until this moment, had never used.

It occurred to me that each of these unnatural preparations I was making might be interpreted by our houseguest as THE AMERICAN WAY. I never use a wash cloth. Did offering one to him make it seem like ALL AMERICANS use them? And the forks I unwrapped from their packaging seemed gigantic compared to the ones K and I normally use, so would our houseguest think, “Jesus Christ, these Americans really know how to shovel it in.” 

I prepared dinner for the evening he arrived and even second guessed my selections (black bean burgers,oven baked mac and cheese, and tomato salad). K mentioned our guest might not be that in to cheese. Was I setting him up for a gut bomb by serving mac and cheese (that I assumed he would not refuse because, you know, Japanese house guests are so polite that they don’t turn away offerings from their host)?

Upon their arrival from the airport, I greeted K and our houseguest at the front door. He bowed his head to me and I mirrored his gesture. After thanking K and me for having him in our home he looked at me and said, “You look Asian.”

Yes. Yes I do. And many times, that is the extent of my Asian identity. I was raised by white people in the midwest. I had American friends growing up. I did American things like curl my bangs in the 80’s and watch My So Called Life in the 90’s. I am American through and through, no matter how much people I meet want to shove me into the “Asian/Pacific Islander” box.

I look Asian. Our houseguest from Japan could not have put it any more eloquently. 

Race face

Yesterday was a shitstorm of a day for a variety of reasons. When I got to the youth center on Colfax where I work, my patience was spent. During mandatory homework time, I ended up supervising a dreadful game of Set for kids who didn’t have any homework. Three of the boys were continuously giving each other a hard time, disrespecting by calling each other, “Boy” in an uncomfortable slave era tone and referring to each other as “she” since clearly being a female is far inferior to being a male, such as themselves.

I had the energy to call them out on about 1 in 20 of the jabs. I was exhausted when I walked in the door to the center. At one point, one of the boys laughed and pointed to the other and said to the third, “Look, his eyes look Chinese.” Because Chinese eyes are fucking hilarious? Well, it got awks when one of the boys looked at me and made the connection that I’m Asian. Who knows, maybe they thought I was Chinese. Probably they don’t know there are various countries on the continent of Asia. Usually I would react to this in a more professional manner. But yesterday, being in an absolutely shitty mood and in no condition to practice positive youth development, I flatly said, “Maybe if you stopped being so mean to each other so much, you wouldn’t find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of offending someone you don’t really know.”

A few hours later when I was eating dinner with the teens, one of them who I haven’t seen in months asked me, “Are you Asian?” I wondered where that came from. I had just said, “Guacamole.” Maybe she was surprised I didn’t call it wasabi?

On my drive home I wondered why there were so many Asian encounters in one day, when there had been none in so long. I wanted to correlate being exhausted and in a bad mood with looking more Asian, but of course that makes no sense. 

What if every human’s appearance depended on their mood? No need for mood rings. There’d be no hiding. If you were embarrassed, your face would look British. Guilty? Your face would turn German. Angry? Asian. Sad, Anglo…and so on. Race face.

It’s in your blood

Part of my job involves working with teens. Where as I know some people who are terrified of teens and their volatile mood swings and impulsive, underdeveloped frontal lobes—my chiropractor recently told me about how she calls her stepdaughter’s adolescent years her ‘hell’ years—I quite enjoy teens.

Teenagers are at the stage of life when they’re learning how to be an adult. Key word, learning. I’ve heard the teenage years be compared to the time in one’s life when they’re learning to walk. Except at that point, they’re a cute little wobbly thing and parents don’t yell at them when they fall down and aren’t able to walk from point A to point B. Yet, when teens make mistakes when they’re learning how to be an adult, it’s not uncommon to hear parents rip them a new one. I love how teens still have the kid power to see right through superficial bullshit, yet can carry on a conversation at a higher level than Sponge Bob.

The other week, I arrived to the youth center on Colfax where I work, when I encountered one of the teens who’d been through one of my programs last year. He was with his dad, who held the door open for me, as I was wheeling in my box o’ program supplies and looking like I could use an extra hand, as per usual.

“Whatcha got new?” the dad asked me.

“Oh nothing new. I’m here to run SMART Moves today,” I replied.

“Come on,” the dad insisted. I could see his son grow more uncomfortable with the amount of time we were keeping this conversation going. I tried the walk away slowly tactic to see if I could just fade out of the situation. That didn’t work.

The dad offered up some new things I might bring to the kids, instead of the standard confidence building and resistance skills of my health and life skills programs.

“How ‘bout some Kung Fu?” he suggested.

“Mmm, I don’t know Kung Fu,” I replied, with my most patient voice, trying to lessen the embarrassment that I sensed his son felt.

“Tai Chi?” the dad threw out.

“Nope. Don’t know that either,” I responded.

“It’s in your blood” the dad replied.

I imagined Kung Fu fighters charging through my aorta and really old, slowly moving Tai Chi grandparents scooting through my veins.

I let out a courtesy, I’m amused, but have to get going and this conversation is over, “huh.” Like a period at the end of sentence.

Later I wondered what the teen son learned from that moment. Teen skeptics might say nothing, that he was probably too self-involved to even notice that his dad had just made racist comments that swept me into the Asian stereotype. But I think the teen was taking mental notes. And I like to imagine they looked something like this: 

“Note to self: Not all Asians know Kung Fu or Tai Chi…and what’s the Korean version of Kung Fu? I should look into that.”

Boob boundaries

Sometimes social norms baffle me.

Personally, I’d love to go a week without showering. But that would mean my hair would become greasy and my rep as a reasonably presentable individual might be tarnished. My colleagues might snicker and give me a mean nickname. I might never be promoted. 

Life would be so hard.

So I shower. And I don’t ask too many questions. 

But if I did ask questions, they’d be about the meats our society eats—and the ones we’re outraged to learn slip into our lives now and again. Like horses. I’d question the shoes that have become mainstream, the ones that look like feet, but are shoes. And are supposed to help build your feet muscles. Why not save the $100 and just go barefoot?

K and I recently breezed through all the Game of Thrones episodes available on DVD via Netflix. During one episode, I was introduced to Lady Stark’s nephew who appeared to be 11 years old, yet still breastfeeding. Disgusting!  I thought. He’s WAY too old to be sucking on his mother’s tit! I reasoned with myself.

This past week, I was at one of the youth centers where I work. They were celebrating 10 years of being open at that particular location, celebrating being supported by the local NFL team for ten years. Kudos to all the individuals who keep that youth center operational, for sure.

As part of the celebration, two cheerleaders from the local NFL team were visiting, sitting at a table, signing posters for all the kiddos…and a few drooling dads who were taking pictures with their camera phones.

I watched little boys, six and seven years old, next to adolescent boys, all stumbling over each other, jockeying to have a unobstructed view of the four boobies hanging out of the two sexy cowgirl outfits. Literally. Hanging out.

To me, it felt vastly inappropriate to be exposing such young boys to over-sexualized women. To expose such little girls to a snapshot of how to get attention. And imply that said attention somehow determines their worth.

But then I looked around and realized that this episode fell within the social norm of the majority there. People seemed to be completely comfortable with the exposed boobs, welcoming even. Which got me to thinking about boob boundaries.

I’ve heard people complain about mothers who breastfeed in public. I’ve watched men who I’ve been talking to unabashedly look at my 34A chest, filing away the information they’ve collected into their giant booby database. I’ve been exposed to hundreds of thousands of advertisements that suggest boobs are da bomb. I’ve heard acquaintances talk about how their sisters are considering a boob job to boost their self-confidence.

It makes me sad. All of it.

Social norm #1, 481 that baffles me: boob crack is okay, but butt crack is not. 


UPDATE: I forgot to mention in the original post that while I was at the celebration event, a little boy walked up to me, looked at his poster of all the cheerleaders, back at me, and told me, “You look like her,” as he pointed to the one Asian out of the whole lot of them. Yup. 

What does your culture do with its old people?

I took some of the teens who I work with to a civic engagement event last month. After listening to the panel of speakers, all attendees broke into small groups. We were to have an intergenerational conversation. I ended up in a group with one of the teen girls I brought, and a hodge podge of strangers. There were two adolescent girls from another group of youth, who appeared as though they might die of boredom, or kill the woman who looked like she came from Boulder. Their death stares, which communicated clearly to me that they wanted her to stop directing questions at them, requesting that they speak on behalf of all middle schoolers everywhere, were not processed as such by the woman who looked like she came from Boulder.

After a quick assessment of our group, I realized it was not only intergenerational, but inter-ethnic and inter-economic. If Maslow were to sprinkle us all over his hierarchy, 1/3 were thinking only of the free cookies sitting on the table in the room and were too distracted by hunger to engage in any sort of discussion. 1/3 of our group were too self-conscious to share the legit opinions and experiences they had on the topic we were discussing, and 1/3 dominated the conversation with their theories and position of privilege.

After using a variety of four or more syllable words that I struggled to define to my youth on the bus ride back to Montbello, the woman who looked like she came from Boulder posed a question to all of the ethnic, youthful looking individuals in the group. She included me in this cohort. My Asian skin deceived her. And maybe the Chucks I was wearing on my feet threw her.

“What do your cultures do with their old people?,” the woman who looked like she came from Boulder asked. When none of the ethnics in the group answered, she took the liberty of providing us with an example. “Like in Asian culture, the parents move in with their kids when they’re too old to be on their own. Whereas here, we throw them in what we call retirement communities.”

Being the only Asian in the group, I felt like I was off the hook. Now, she wanted to know what the mixed race girl and the two Latino girls had to say. They said nothing.

Their silence that evening was an eerie illustration. 

I found myself wanting the woman who looked like she came from Boulder to consider what her culture did to their young people.

I’m from the ‘Lou and I’m proud

A boy who I’d place at about 10 years old who I’ve never seen before approached me when I was at the youth center in Montbello today. Here is our conversation in its entirety: 

He asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Paperwork for a field trip,” I replied.

“Did you come from China?” he continued.


“Where’d you come from?”

“St. Louis.”

“Are there Chinese people there?”


And that was it. He ran off, and I was left imagining what St. Louis Communism might look like. Way less fun than St. Louis Cardinals, for sure. But the same exact amount of letters!!!

An ideal meal

I drove to Boulder this morning to pick up the wedding band that I bought for K, and left the house without eating breakfast or drinking coffee. My stomach had that residual day after being upset feeling, and I didn’t want to find myself shitting my pants on the side of Highway 36. That would not be very ‘bride to be’ like.

After successfully picking up his ring, I found my appetite and noticed I was next door to the undercover Whole Foods in Boulder, known as Ideal Market. Food! Great. I told myself I’d get something bland and safe like crackers or bread.

After scanning all the aisles, I came to the grab and go area. I considered what would be a good option for eating in the car and ended up completely disregarding my better judgement. I find decision making before noon nearly impossible if I haven’t had any coffee.

I didn’t inherit the chopstick gene. In fact, for a good portion of my life I refused to use the things because doing so slowed down the time it took for food to go from the table to my belly. Knowing all of this, I still gravitated toward the sushi and stood staring at it, as if doing so long enough would present a solution to the predicament that I found myself in.

I needed to get back to Denver pretty quickly, so I didn’t want to sit and eat at the store. Plus, I hate to feel like I’m eating on display, which is what vibe the patio outside Ideal Market had. Every customer coming and going, every driver waiting to park, they would all see my terrible chopstick skills. I’d feel like an animal at the zoo, the display card would read, “Freak of nature Asian, sans chopstick gene.”

I grabbed a veggie roll, chopsticks, and two extra packets of soy sauce. As I sat in my car in the parking lot, I fumbled to tear open the first soy sauce packet. I thought of the teens who I teach health to. “This must be what it’s like for them when they can’t get a condom open,” I thought. How frustrating.

I poured the contents of all three packets into the clear plastic lid, dabbed some wasabi on each piece and was on my way. The phenomenon of all green lights when you are trying to eat in the car definitely was in play as I clumsily picked up pieces of my veggie roll and tried to shove them in my mouth before they crumbled to pieces. The car in front of me had a “Student Driver” sticker on the back of it, and I appreciated the slow speed it was going. I wondered if the student driver could see me in their rearview mirror and what list of rules I was breaking by eating while driving, being barefoot with my left leg propped up on my dashboard, and making wide turns. I imagined the scene if I accidentally rear ended the student driver. I’d emerge from my car, reeking of soy sauce that would have splattered everywhere. Maybe I’d even be choking on a chopstick and would need the Heimlich Maneuver.

One of my greatest fears is being perceived as a stereotype rather than an individual. Lucky for me, I did not crash into the back of the student driver and have to feel like I.Y. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Even luckier, in one week from today, I’m marrying a man who sees me, knows me, respects me, and appreciates me for the individual who I am. Yes of course I’m puttin’ a ring on that. And I’m not even upset I had to drive to Boulder to go pick said ring up.

That stranger?…is me.

Last week, I drove to Brighton, CO. I reminisced in the car, how it had been awhile since I’d made the trek north on 85. At one point in my life I made that 35 minute drive three times a week, there and back, in order to attend roller derby practice at the Wagon Wheel. I passed the Village Inn, where we had numerous late night bout committee meetings. I thought about how it was almost like I was a completely different person back then. I was volatile and had way more aggression to work out on the track.

My nostalgia session ended as I arrived at the youth center where I would be working a health fair that day. As I wandered around the building, I noticed an older man who I recognized from when the center first opened in 2007. My guess was that he was a committee member of that center. As I was talking to the director of the center, the committee member approached us. The director introduced us.

“I recognize you, it’s nice to see you again,” I said.

“We’ve met?” he responded.

Sometimes I wish I could just be an ass face and be the type of person who doesn’t remember anyone they meet, or pretend I don’t remember anyone I meet. People can be really strange when I am straightforward. Either their ego instantaneously inflates because they credit their own delightful character instead of my stellar facial recognition and memory skills, or they get all paranoid and wonder what kind of impression they made the first time we met that could possibly have led to me remembering them for it.

The committee member was of the first type, I could tell, because his demeanor strengthened and he became chatty in that icky old man taking his game out for a drive on a younger woman kind of way.

The director shared my 9 year working history and year-ish hiatus with the committee member, and somehow, the committee member started talking about “the Japanese girl who worked for the organization at the office who played roller derby.”

It was really strange to hear him describe this employee who he remembered. I should have just not said another word, but it was early in the morning and my brain wasn’t fully functioning yet, so I blurted out, “I used to play roller derby.”

He looked confused.

I was confused, too. I was 99% sure that the woman he remembered being a Japanese roller derby skater was actually me. 

It is moments like this that terrify me. It feels like I am about to be pushed off the cliff of sanity, into another’s reality, where I really am whatever stereotype or sweeping generalization they perceive me as. 

I’m a Chinese Olympian!

It’s health fair season at work, when we invite community partners in to set up tables to share information about their health related organizations with our youth. To supplement their knowledge based booths, my colleagues and I set up outdoor activities where the kids can run around and break a sweat—health in action!

I decided to teach the kids about heart health at our fair last Friday, with the emphasis on how keeping your heart healthy can be fun by doing things like running relay races. I set up hula hoops and cones on the grassy field and incorporated jumping jacks and push-ups into the activity.

Groups of kids in kindergarden through fifth grade visited my station, and as one group of fifth graders approached, I heard one boy energetically say, “You’re Chinese?! You’re Chinese!” 

He didn’t even mess. No, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Just a decisive, “You’re Chinese!” 

What struck me was the enthusiasm that fueled his misdiagnoses. It’s like he saw the bright, shiny hula hoops and colorful cones spread out on the field and instead of saying something like, “Are we gonna hula hoop at this station?! We’re gonna hula hoop at this station!,” out came the ethnic.

I really don’t think if I were African American or Latino, that he’d have said “You’re Black!,” or “You’re Mexican!” But who knows, as I’ve said before, knowing what a kid is talking about or where they are coming from with their comments is nearly impossible.

Maybe he had learned in school earlier that day about the 2008 Olympics in China, and saw the hula hoops and mistook them for rings. Maybe he thought I was Zhang Juanjuan. That’d be better than the time when I was 13 and a kid told me I looked like Tia Carrere. Being compared to an over sexualized female when I was a budding adolescent was the epitome of awkward.