As an Asian American, people often ask “what” I am within the first 20 minutes (or sometimes 20 seconds!) of meeting me. Others feel self-conscious about asking but are visibly relieved when/if I happen to mention my ethnicity myself. I think the question of my ethnicity wouldn’t bother me so much if it was a true inquiry about the substance of who I am and what makes me ME (including but not limited to my ethnicity). But more often then not, I find that the desire to know “what” I am seems to be motivated by an anxiety about the unknown, an anxiousness to know which category of people to put me in. This anxiety is revealed as soon as the question of my ethnicity is answered. What that looks like is this: as soon as I reveal that I am Korean, I hear about all the other Korean things in that person’s internal Korean Box — friends who taught English in Korea, favorite Korean dishes, the two words of atrociously pronounced Korean picked up along the way, family members who fought in the Korean war, or childhood best friends who were (and presumably are still) Korean. These contents of the Korean Box come spilling out and I realize that the next Korean person this person meets may be soon be hearing about me.
Jessica’s story was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.