First of all, Asian names are so hard to pronounce, right? I mean, they are not these easy names like Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky.
Secondly, who can really keep track of about a dozen or so main actors in a movie full of people of same race? It’s not like these magazines have people who double-check things. What? Oh, they do? Well, it’s not like people haven’t gotten the cast of Love, Actually mixed up… or no? (And I am sure you had no idea that T’Challa* was in Love, Actually, right? How progressively diverse that cast was! Who knew?)
Thirdly, who doesn’t get called the wrong name now and then? I mean, it’s not like this is a phenomenon… right?
*no, T’Challa (or the actor Chadwick Boseman) was NOT actually in Love, Actually. Chiwetel Ejiofor was in Love, Actually.
Okay, before y’all get up in arms about my hatin’ on Love, Actually, I have no mayo with the movie. And I am sure I’d like La La Land just as much – if I were to see it. La La Land even has one of my favorite Asian actors as lead: Emma Stone.
But I do have some side-eyes for people who, for the life of them, cannot tell us Asians apart AND see nothing wrong with it.
What do I know about this, you ask?
In college, I was mistaken for another random Asian international student at least 2 or 3 times a week. It was weird since there were maybe 10 of us in the 3000+ student population. I thought it’d be easier since we each stood out, i.e. it would make each of us more unique.
Bonus: We kept a list of white boys with Asian fetish, ones who asked out only Asian international students because they typically got rejected by Asian American students. Sometimes, these boys forgot which Asian they asked out and asked out same person more than once. Oh, good times. One of them ended up going all the way to the source, i.e. Indonesia, and found a girl from a village to marry. The fetish was strong with that one.
In college, I got an apartment off campus and mostly hung out with “the townies,” thinking I was “keeping it real.” One group of friends who had known me for about 3 years or so didn’t even realize that I was one of the college kids. They did, however, think I was the Korean adoptee from their high school. You know, the one with whom they attended high school? It was amazing when she returned from college one winter break, and we ended up at the same party. Oh, the hilarity that ensued. For some reason, she and I were more embarrassed by the situation than they were. She was mortified that these people with whom she attended high school (granted, it was a fairly large school, but with very few Asian students), could not tell us apart. I was mortified that I had been mistaken for someone else for 3 years.
They, on the other hand, were not even sorry or embarrassed. They kept on insisting that we look exactly alike.
In graduate school, a Japanese poet and I were the first two Asian writers in our writing program. So, of course, we were given the same first year advisor even though she wrote poems, and I wrote fiction. She was not fluent in English and had a fairly thick accent. I, on the other hand, had attended American schools and college from age 11 and had even developed a sort of a flat generic urban midwestern accent. She was about 5′ 1″ to my 5’6″. She had shoulder-length hair that she kept neatly combed and pinned, and I had long hair that was rarely brushed and was always in my face. I could list a thousand things that set us apart besides the very fact that we looked NOTHING like each other.
Our advisor called Akiko* (*not her real name) “Akiko.” She called me “Akiko” as well.
At an advisor-advisee meeting, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and after which I switched advisors, she welcomed me into her office with, “How was your trip to Japan?” I blinked a couple of times and sheepishly corrected her, “I think you are thinking of Akiko. I’m Jung Mi.” She squinted at me, incredulous, and said, “Oh! You are Akiko, aren’t you?” “No. I’m the other Asian. Jung Mi. And I am Korean. Akiko is Japanese.” Plus, Akiko doesn’t really speak English, asshole.
She then stammered, “Oh, right. I did see Akiko earlier this morning for her meeting.”
Bonus: As I was leaving, she nonchalantly and very cheerfully said, “It was so great to see you, Akiko!”
Lest you think that this would be all behind me once I got older, and started working in a small boarding school environment, I am now often called by another Asian colleague’s name – whether there are maybe two of us, or three of us, and at most four of us. Or they call me by an Asian student’s name. Sometimes they are extra nice to me because they mistake me for a parent. And parents sometimes call me by another Asian colleague’s name or think I’m their kids’ Asian friend’s mother. Even when I’ve worked at small private schools with just over 300 students, where everyone knows everyone.
The list of Asian and Asian American celebrities who apparently look exactly the same as me:
1. Vera Wang – 21 years my senior. Lovely woman, I’m sure. The person who told me I looked just like her was slightly inebriated at a state fair and started yelling at me for not saying, “Thank you.”
2. Grace Park. Sure, why not. I also knew, as soon as they told me this, that they are Battlestar Galactica fans.
3. Lucy Liu. This one lasted for a few years as she was the only visible Asian American celebrity for quite a while.
4. Tia Carrere. For a bit after Wayne’s World came out.
5. Michelle Yeoh or Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Except I never knew which one since people couldn’t tell which one was Michelle Yeoh and which one was Zhang Ziyi. It was always, “That one from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
I’d say that the list goes on… but it really doesn’t since there was and is a severe lack of Asian representation. So I was constantly compared to the handful who looked so uniquely different from each other as though I were reduced to an amalgam of all the Asian women they knew.
It’s not so much that we are offended. We are exhausted for being mistaken for any random Asian. What does offend me is when you insist that we look alike and that we should not be offended. Or that it’s hard to tell us apart because you don’t see that many of us out there.
You don’t get to tell us when we are offended or what offends us. You are not, day in and day out, told that you and a whole bunch of random strangers look so much alike that your colleague cannot even tell you apart. Your kid doesn’t have to tell her teachers every year that her name is not the same as the two other Asian kids’ names in the other classes the teachers teach.
We see you all the time. And we are expected to tell you all apart. With these tiny eyes that you constantly mock. If we can tell you apart, the least you can do is not get the one of two Asians whom you know confused with the other. It’s not that hard.
And if it really is that taxing because, well, you have not been exposed to that many Asian people, then let’s fix it. Believe that representation does matter, and speak up with us when we are white-washed out of stories, out of history books, and out of our own lives.
Be better, and maybe there will indeed come a day when you can finally tell us apart.