“What are you?”
Updated: May 16, 2019
By Jay Alba
A well-meaning question . . . do I really have to answer?
Most of the time, it would happen on the last train of the night, a little after midnight, when I was surrounded by happy, drunk, confident men. The question was never aggressive, and it wasn’t meant to be offensive. It usually came up as a vague conversation starter: “So, where are you from?” or “Where is your family from?” or, in its most crass form, “What kind of Asian are you?”
On one particular occasion, I was approached by an older man who’d enjoyed a few pints of beer and was convinced that he could charm me. He’d be handsome to women in his age group, but he had no business talking to someone as young as I was.
“Excuse me, sweetheart,” he said, with a hint of a Boston accent. “Are you Chinese?”
Here we go. Without fail, it was always their first guess.
“Japanese?” The man searched for hints in my facial features, then tried again—with more certainty. “Korean.”
“Nope,” I said, to all three suggestions, overwhelmed with the urge to snap twigs. In the interest of settling this matter quickly, I'm Filipino. In my childhood home in Central New Jersey, I am unquestionably Filipino. The same applies to my current home, Los Angeles, which I’d call the unofficial Asian capital of the U.S. For most of my life, I was surrounded by a diverse Asian community—surrounded by people who looked like me. But for the three years I lived in Boston, I was essentially in the heart of white-liberal America. Up there, I was considered an enigma.
I have gone on a soul-searching journey to decide whether or not I was bothered by this question. Catch me in a good mood, or even an indifferent one, and these encounters don’t even faze me. It's a brief question, followed by a briefer answer, and the whole conversation is over before I can check my watch. It's never until much later, when I have time to reflect, that I wonder . . . should I be offended?
I moved to Boston just before I turned eighteen—my birthday being perfectly timed with the beginning of the school year. I was about to start my first college semester and enter early adulthood. I knew, from the colorful pie-charts included in my orientation welcome-packet, that the demographics at my chosen school would be at least 65% white. At the time, I truly didn’t think it would matter. In many ways, it didn’t. But after living in a densely populated Asian suburb, living in a town where my ethnic identity was easily recognized and considered a “norm,” it was disorienting to move to Boston and realize . . . Oh, I’m different.
It wasn’t an earth-shattering realization. It wasn’t like I was being stopped by untrusting policemen in the streets. It wasn’t like professors made off-color jokes in my presence. There were rare moments—and I mean rare—when drunk white men made a guessing game out of my appearance, but that truly was the worst of it. So, on the scale of racial injustices, I wouldn’t expect anyone to shed any tears for my “struggle.” (And I beg you, please don’t.)
The point is, I never considered myself different—I had no reason to. Half my high school was Filipino. I lived within walking distance of three Asian markets. An estimated 21.4 million Asians currently live in this country, according to the United States Census Bureau. According to Pew Research Center’s statistics, Filipinos are the second largest subgroup within that population. If you live in a coastal state, or close to a metropolis like Manhattan, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, you are more likely to be exposed to a diverse Asian community. But outside of those bubbles, I may as well be invisible.
Hence the question, What are you?
I reached out to Atsuko Okatsuka, an Asian American comedian/actress based in Los Angeles. She, like every Asian person I’ve met, was no stranger to the What are you? question. She's half Taiwanese, half-Japanese. “Which is why I look Korean,” she'd add, earning a surprised laugh, when strangers—myself included—ask.
She admitted that the question does bother her, but she's adopted a “choose your battles” mentality, refusing to let these moments irritate her. After all, they happen so often, it would be an exhaustive waste of her time.
“Apparently, everyone has a friend who recently went to Japan,” she noted, finding humor in the small things. She found that people would grasp on to random facts about Japan, as a well-meaning attempt to relate to her. Some of these encounters had even inspired bits for her stand-up.
“People never talk to me about the respectable things Japan is known for, you know?” she said in one video, with a disappointed sigh. “It’s always like, ‘Hey, you guys have really weird porn.’” Watching her routine, I had to admit to myself: despite my personal grievances, I did enjoy sharing moments like these, learning about the varying quirks that come with growing up Asian.
Atsuko and I had a brief discussion surrounding the complicated, nuanced history of systematic and casual racism, with the understanding in mind that we both had limited knowledge on the subject. I’d always been hesitant to call these moments racist, because the word seemed to hold a lot of power—it was a strong accusation for something so insignificant.
The question always came from a place of genuine curiosity. The intention behind it was never hurtful. It was never offensive. It was just . . . annoying. That’s all it was. And it wouldn’t be, if it didn’t happen so often.
“It’s a question about your personal life that people only want to know to satisfy their own curiosity,” said Samantha Rund, a Seattle-based comedian, actress, and a close friend of the Hezalia community. Being racially ambiguous, she likely dealt with the What are you? question more often than I did. Growing up, she enjoyed those moments. She was proud of her heritage. She was proud to be multi-ethnic. But eventually, it just became exhausting, answering the same question, with the same “spiel” again and again.
“You don’t walk up to somebody and ask, ‘How much do you weigh?’” She lit up, suddenly inspired. “Oh, I’m going to turn this into a bit now, so thank you,” she said, before continuing. “You don’t walk up to a person and ask, ‘How much do you weigh?’ ‘How much is in your bank account?’ Because those are personal questions you expect people to not want to answer. But saying, ‘Hey, tell me the lineage of your family history. How do you exist?’ People think that that’s fine.”
I had a sudden, vivid image of all those incidents I remembered from living in Boston, played one after another. All of them were brief, friendly, and (because I believed in the best in people) not intentionally racist. But I imagined how differently these moments would’ve been, if these well-meaning strangers had approached me and asked something as ridiculous and personal as, “How much do you weigh?”
There was a reason why I chose to interview comedians specifically. Part of that reason related to my recent obsession with Netflix’s growing collection of stand-up comedy. Have you noticed a recent spike of POC comics rising to fame? I sure have.
From a brief dive into the Netflix IMDB page, I’d guess that this rising trend began back in 2016. That year, Netflix released 25 original stand-up specials, doubling their amount from the previous one. It was well-timed with the upcoming presidential election, a time of outspoken social-political commentary, and unapologetic jabs at our least favorite presidential candidate. Not every comic broached hot-button topics surrounding race, gender, or sexuality, but it was a profitable year for comedy all around.
This trend continued to increase exponentially: in 2017, over 50 stand-up specials were released on Netflix, and 11 starred comics-of-color. Among them were some debut performances from Asian comics that you may recognize now: Hasan Minhaj—former Daily Show correspondent who recently signed with Netflix for his own talk show; and Ali Wong—a rare breakout star, who sky-rocketed to fame after performing a one-hour special while seven months pregnant. Maybe it was a conscious decision, maybe it was coincidence, but regardless, as the number of released stand-up specials increased, so did the diversity breakdown within the line-up.
So, what does this tell us?
One: the general public is now being exposed to a plethora of stories from all walks of life, which naturally will help to bridge the divide that separates certain groups as an “other.”
Two: if Netflix is allotting a good amount of financial resources to produce these specials, it means that there is an actual market for them.
Why does this matter?
Here’s the thing. I love being Asian. I love jokes about being Asian. I'm always the first to make a joke about something small, but inherently amusing about my culture. I'm quick to reference the strict, academic-based upbringing that defined my childhood. And there is no greater joy, in my opinion, than to bond with someone over the endearing quirks we remember from our upbringing—or to share those stories with someone who genuinely wanted to listen.
If you want to know what I am, then fine, I’d be happy to tell you. Why not?
Just one request: for the love of God, if you’re going to guess, please guess right.
Jay Alba is a young writer based in Los Angeles, California. She has a passion for storytelling in all its forms: everything from books to TV shows to even podcasts. She hopes to one day write stories like the ones that inspired her to purse writing in the first place.