Nothing about me other than my appearance gives away the fact that I was born in Seoul and lived there until I was four. My life is like that of many other Americans. I work, I’m a mom, I’m a wife. We have two cars and a mortgage and student loans. I eat Chipotle twice a week because my kids will eat it and it’s fast, and sometimes I only have time to put mascara on the eye that’s not covered by bangs. See? I’m basically you.
Except, maybe I’m not. Unless you, too, have accidentally cut someone off and then had that person pull alongside you to call you a “stupid Oriental bitch.” Or been heckled by the school bully in front of 30 merciless 8th graders for having a flat nose and “Chinese” eyes. Or had someone–who’s just “keeping it real”–tell you to your face that you probably got the job offer because you’re a minority.
I’m not complaining. Everyone feels like they are on the outside, some of the time. I’m only writing about it now because a recent incident reminded me how the scars last long after you think you’ve outgrown them. I belong to a private athletic club that I joined mostly because my husband badgered me into it. The reason I had to be harassed into joining is because, when I was growing up, that club represented everything I felt excluded from. But I’ve grown to love the club. I work out there, and my kids take swimming lessons there and shoot hoops with their dad. I’ve met great friends.
This last November, without advance warning, the club put a photo of me on the cover of their monthly member magazine. I’d been asked to take part in a photo shoot promoting the club’s upcoming fashion show. Good God that sentence pains me. Anyway, the point is that the photos, if they turned out, were supposed to appear inside the magazine. My husband can confirm that I spent all of October regretting my decision and dreading the November issue.
And then, there I was, on the cover, in my mailbox and in the mailbox of almost every lawyer that I know and work with professionally, immortalized in the most unnatural pose imaginable.
My most pressing concern was that people would think that the ruffly dress I was wearing on the cover reflected my personal taste in clothing. My next most pressing concern was that people would think I was put on the cover because I’m Asian and the club wanted to advertise that they had some. And my fear was justified. I got more than a few well-meaning comments that were variations on “They must have put you on the cover because you’re a minority!” Gee, thanks.
The comments were technically made in 2011, but people: it’s 2012. 2012.
After the December and January issues came out, I thought I’d heard the last of it, but three days ago, an older woman in the locker room, after asking if it was indeed me on that cover, asked what I “did at the club.” I guess she assumed that I worked at the club, because a lot of the club employees are minorities. When I stammered that I didn’t work at the club, it was hard to judge who was more discomfited: the other woman, or me.
The concept of “passing” is one that has stayed with me since I first read my Ralph Ellison. But the older I get, the less I want to pass for something I’m not. Instead, I’m taking ownership of what I am. Which is why, with this post, I’m saying goodbye to all the rest and choosing to dwell only on my favorite comment about that cover, from an older Filipina, who told me that she was so proud to see a fellow Asian on the front of that magazine. There. Progress. For her, and for me.