This past weekend I was in California visiting my sick grandfather. As I walked up the front desk at the skilled nursing facility he’s staying at, the Asian woman behind the counter said to me, “You’re Asian.”
“What was that?” I said.
She smiled. “You’re Asian. What kind?”
I didn’t take offense. Living on the East Coast for the past twenty years where people constantly ask, “What are you?” with a sort of mild disgust, it was kind of nice to have someone ask to identify me in a positive way.
“Indonesian. My mom was born in Jakarta.”
“I see it in your eyes. I can tell. How about me? Guess what I am.”
“Um…I don’t know. I live on the East Coast now and I’ve lost my powers of guessing Asian heritage.”
My six-foot-four white dad was nearby, and she pounced on him. “You guess!”
He took on the challenge far more willingly: “Vietnamese?”
“No! Guess again!”
I’m not sure what charmed me most about this experience. Maybe it was the way that I felt identified by my race in a positive way, rather than the quizzical suppositions that I’ve become accustomed to in my adult life. Maybe it was the way my father so easily jumped into the conversation without a hint of discomfort. Maybe it was the brief respite from the long hours spent with my deteriorating grandfather. Or maybe it was simply my childhood nostalgia for California, somewhere I identify as the land of abundant Asian immigrants.
Whatever the reason, I appreciate that Chinese nurse and her willingness to ask about racial identity rather than hiding behind the facade that we are all the same.