The million dollar question

So I was walking past a group of kindergarteners waiting for the bus when a little white boy says, “Are you CHINESE?”

My experience:  Often this is not a friendly gesture from a white kid.  It’s said in a sneering tone of voice.  And it seems to exemplify just how early kids learn their presumptions of racial superiority.

But this time, conscious of all the little eyes on me, I answered him.  And then I asked him,

What are you?

He was really taken aback. And then he said, “I’m AMERICAN.” I replied, “I know you’re American. I’m American too. But what else are you?”

A sunny little girl jumped into the conversation: “I know what I am! I’m Scottish! And I’m also English! And Ukrainian!” So I told her that was great. And then I turned to the little boy again and said, “So what are YOU?”

He was losing all his bluster, and the little girl said, “Yes, what ARE you?”

As I was walking away, a little kid came running hell-for-leather. But then he saw me and came screeching to a halt. He bowed and said, “Annyonghaseyo.” So I greeted him in return and walked away smiling. That really made my day.


7 thoughts on “The million dollar question

  1. Yay for the Scottish-English-Ukrainian girl :) (I’m Ukrainian-Canadian and it makes me happy when kids of Ukrainian background know where they came from)

    I’ve often thought that one way to counter other-ing is to encourage everyone in countries like the USA and Canada (excluding aboriginal people) to be hyphenated, to remind people that they do not have a god-given right to live here, any more than a recent immigrant, and that there is no one monolithic kind of “real American” or “average Canadian” etc.

  2. hmm, a problem with hyphenating is it still creates a sense of otherness. Using hyphens often assumes you’re one or the other, but that they can never be combined. Having pride in your cultural heritage is a part of who your are and can’t be replaced by simply throwing in a hyphen.
    But moving beyond hyphens or no hyphens I think minority Americans should be able to say with confidence they are American without being questioned or having to hyphenate to denote their heritage for the same reason whites aren’t required to do so.

    Sometimes I feel whites often do this as a novelty. “Hey, I’m …-American, but I’m really just American. What, you’re American too? No you’re not, where are you REALLY from?”

    The hyphenation issue is debatable because I think everyone has a different opinion. I hope I’m able to articulate my argument here clearly though.

  3. I loved the happy ending!! :) But ughh, I get that question asked all the time, too. And when I say I’m Canadian-born, as js718 pointed out, they ask, “No, really, where are you from?” And then for some reason, they FEEL the ENTITLEMENT to start asking where my parents are from, where my grandparents are from, etc. etc. WTF. Hello, I don’t ask you about your family tree – ESPECIALLY since we’ve JUST met, so don’t ask me about mine. Frankly, it’s none of your business.

  4. @js718

    The reason there is a “hypenated” american is because when you simply say you’re american, people assume you’re a white person.

    In the general conciousness, “american” equals white. This is true across the world. And hence the birth of the “hyphenated american”. It allows people to know you’re american, it also eliminates the common need people have to ask you what you’re ethnicity is.

  5. hey JK,
    I understand exactly what you’re saying, which is exactly why I am against it! It should not be assumed that if you are American you must be white.
    Like Sandy said, it’s not really any of their business and generally they’re not genuinely interested. I don’t understand white people’s sense of entitlement to question your origins, as if claiming you’re American isn’t enough!

    Also as far as hyphenating there is a history of othering behind this practice, which by many is perceived to be different from leaving out a hyphen. ex. Chinese-American vs. Chinese American.

  6. I believe some white people just don’t know what they should put before the hyphen. I had no idea until I was nearly 40 when my older sister finally cracked our past open. I’m still trying to find my inner Irish/German/Danish/Scottish/French/Swedishness.

    As to that rude question, my older Korean son has gotten similar from Mexican children who were convinced he is Chinese. He also caught grief from the Chinese students for not being Chinese.

    But he is doing as well as I could hope given his exposure to Koreans outside of his brother isn’t full time.

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