I feel like we often focus on the white man's assumption of being a foreigner in America, but we never focus on the perpetual foreigner's search for each other. I've had multiple interactions with Asian people and people of other ethnic groups, and the first, and sometimes only, thing they say to me is: "Where are you from?"-- I think I've even gotten this question more from them than from white people. Ever since I was younger, at nail salons, at sushi bars at the grocery store, or even at school on the rare occasion that we’d have an Asian exchange student join class, I’d be asked about where I was from. But in these situations, I never feel the urge to reply with a bitter tone or to say: “I’m from Tampa Bay” even though I know what they’re really trying to ask.
Once when I was at work, a Hispanic man came in with his wife and came up to me and asked, "How long have you been here (in America)?" From the way he delivered the question and the way he searched my eyes, I somehow knew what to say. I knew he wasn’t just asking about my origins, but that he was asking for familiarity. Instead of telling him I was raised here and was adopted, I kept my story vague but true by answering, “I came here when I was only 10 months old, but my grandfather had come here in the 1940s.” At my response, he became more relaxed and started relating to me with his experiences in America. He ranted to me about how he’d gone to a Cuban sandwich shop only to find two ‘gringos’ behind the counter. His chosen terminology caught me off guard, for it was the first time I’d heard the word ‘gringo’ used in a real life conversation. It had also struck me since he used it so casually, as if it were an inside joke we had.
Similarly, my longtime friend and, at one point neighbor, was also a Chinese adoptee, she and I always shared some sort of subconscious understanding. From the faces I can remember, she, my sister, and I were the only Asian kids, or even people, in the neighborhood. I don’t know if it was because we were enrolled at the same school or if it was because of our ethnic and adoptee background, but I always felt at ease with her. It also may have been due to the fact that we all had been called each others’ name at least once during our elementary school career. But even after elementary school, when we were able to understand the absurdity of the false idea that “we all look the same,” we banded together and felt comfortable with each other to a point where we could turn others’ misconceptions into our own inside joke. An inside joke similar to the Hispanic man’s.
These interactions make me consider this question from a different angle. How "perpetual foreigners” seek each other out... for comfort, relatability, or just for someone who won't see them as a perpetual foreigner.
To be seen as a perpetual foreigner means to be seen as an outsider, a misfit. It makes you feel like you don’t belong. Even if one identifies as an Asian American, Asian is usually the only thing people see. It doesn’t matter that I speak perfect English or even if I tell them that English is the only language I know, my Americanism is never assumed, and my citizenship is always returned to China. It’s as if my US Certificate of Citizenship came with a “Made in China” sticker, just to help clarify that I am not (just) American.
Another common question I receive is, “Do you speak Chinese?” Although I am Chinese, I am also adopted. And although my adoptive mom is half Chinese, she never learned the vernacular. So, my answer to this question is always no. My answer, no matter what race the questioner identifies as, always brings disappointment. My no means no possibility of a reply to the eager demand for me to, “Say something cool in Chinese!” But it also means no to the opportunity for someone to be able to communicate with me in the language they dream and think in. For their words to flow fluidly and their tongue to taste the familiar dialect they know so well. To be able to share secrets that only we can hear.
Though, there are two sides to this assumed foreignness, just as there are two labels within my cultural identity. The label perpetual foreigner isn’t just a reminder that “you are not one of us,” but it serves as a reminder of the distance that each of those cultural labels create. Visually, an Asian-American is not American and culturally, they are not Asian.
This sense of cultural disconnection creates common ground for deemed perpetual foreigners, one where they can identify their differences, but also share the difference others see in them.
Their ignorance is our inside joke. We may not know it, but we all understand it.
Editors: Lang D., Joyce P., Leila W.