“What are you?”
I’m a little bit sweaty, and a little bit overconfident. Cue approachable smile lit up by the blacklight. I lean into his ear and press against his navy blue sweater, under the guise of the music being too loud. “I’M LEBANESE AND KOREAN.” He’s not Asian, so naturally “Lebanese” goes first.
“WOW, THAT’S SO COOL.” I pull away and throw my head back in a laugh instead of coming up with a response.
Sometimes, I’ll switch the order to “Korean and Lebanese” if I get an inkling of a certain fever. Or I’ll just say half-Korean, all depending on the read. This isn’t my first time at the ethnically ambiguous rodeo.
He leans in as a Pitbull song comes on. “IS YOUR MOM THE ASIAN ONE?”
That was a typical scene from freshman year. Thumping music over physical and conversational grinding in a dim, crowded room. Actually, that’s still the scene of junior year. While my weekends haven’t changed much, I no longer use my ethnic background as a flirtation tool. I now hesitate at race questions that arise as an icebreaker. It took a journey to get here, but I’m uncomfortable when the questions conceal more than just curiosity.
I don’t believe that it’s always offensive to ask people about their ethnicity. It’s fair to be curious about the impact their parents’ cultural background has had on their human experience. I’m only questioning why it so often is the first thing ethnically ambiguous people are asked during introductions, and what it implies when the asker is clearly trying to flirt. I also know friends who use the word “exotic” with innocuous intentions, to refer to an uncommon or diverse racial background. But the word is still worth exploring for its undertones.
I’ve been called “exotic” since childhood. It first came from adults making conversation with my parents. My sister and I wouldn’t respond, other than shyly hiding behind each other and looking up at our mother. We have the same elusive features: golden olive oil skin, curly black hair, alert round eyes, half-moon shadows. When we went to the Korean salon, the hairdressers would laugh at our mops of play-worn curls. There would be a show of taking out the big detangling brush just for me. They’d coo “ee-pu-da, ee-pu-da” at us when our hair was flattened straight. Pretty, pretty. We hid behind each other then, too.
In seventh grade, my friend’s mother gushed over my “exotic look.” I didn’t know what she meant, but she was such a sweet woman that I took it as a compliment. Actually, I still might take that one as a compliment. If you saw what I looked like in seventh grade, exotic is pretty generous.
Skip ahead to a wide-eyed 18-year-old immersed in the playground of Camp Harvard. I floated through a whirlwind of first introductions, first dining hall meals, and first dorm parties set to the backdrop of dark wood and red brick. When people had asked me “What are you?” in the past, it was only mildly annoying, much like how a tall person would react to constantly being asked for their height. But at college, the topic came up with startling regularity, either immediately or after a handful of encounters with someone. Sometimes they would call me exotic, and oftentimes it was from a boy at a party. I could feel their intrigue. I could see the way they looked at me, and I loved it. For the first time, I was interesting, I was appealing, I was an object of desire. Who cares exactly what fantasy I fulfilled; I fulfilled a fantasy! Even so, I never understood how they could call me exotic within the same conversation where I had said I’m from the mystical land of New Jersey.
What about me arouses exoticism? Is it my eyes, my hair, my body, my being? The word is elusive. It’s a foreignness you can’t place but somehow feel attracted to. In flirtatious conversation, it’s a substitute for “I’m attracted to your vague non-whiteness.” When you ask me what I am, when you tell me I am exotic, it feels like you’re trying to pinpoint me. If you look at what it’s typically used for, exotic is an object, like a carpet or a bird. Notice how it’s “what” are you, and not “who.”
Another half-Asian friend, skilled in the ways of these conversations, advised me to always mention my mixed race to the opposite sex. “Play up your strengths,” she said. And I would, because my heritage worked as a pickup line. The second a boy said, “So this is kind of an awkward question, but...” my ears would perk up and my heart would race with anticipation. I knew his intentions. I was the exotic girl he wanted me to be.
Last year, my sister and I tried out a Korean restaurant near our town in the suburbs. If you’ve never had it, Korean food has a mouthwatering sizzle to it, and a bit of a funk. Cooking infuses one’s home with heavenly aromas, or in some cases, fermenting death odors. The same could not be said for this Americanized restaurant. It wasn’t bad, I’ll give it that, but it wasn’t right. The Yelp reviews, of course, had been overwhelmingly positive.
At the next two tables were a young Asian man and his friend, and beside him a white family. The father leaned over to interrupt the neighboring conversation.
“Excuse me, are you Korean?”
My sister and I looked up from our watered down soondubu.
“Yes, I am.”
“Let me ask you something. What do you think of the Sony scandal with that new movie?”
Our eyebrows raised. The young Korean man laughed politely, embarrassed. “Oh, I don’t keep up with the news… I don’t have an opinion.”
“Oh, come on! You heard how the North Koreans hacked into Sony? I think Sony should still release the movie.”
“Yeah, people are saying that.”
“Are people in South Korea just scared all the time?!”
“No, no one takes North Korea seriously over there.”
My sister and I exchanged a look at this point. This man was making the most of his time in a “real” Korean restaurant by trying to talk to some real Koreans.
The man ended the conversation with a business card and a possible job offer, leaving my sister and I unsure about it all.
I knew that none of it really felt like a compliment. Was this the first time this man met a Korean person? Was this so foreign and exotic to him?
I knew that there used to be a time when I would be so excited for a stranger to ask me about Korea. To be recognized as a part of a culture I was always half-excluded from. In reality, there is a difference between curiosity and ignorance. What box did he put the Korean man into in that conversation? The conversation started with race, as if that was most important. I thought about how many conversations I’d had that started like that.
Earlier in the semester, before the leaves and my GPA had begun to fall, I was introduced to a very sweet freshman boy. Both of our groups were mingling outside of Winthrop, shouting and laughing after having left the same overcrowded gathering. This fresh-faced boy and I had just gotten past “What House do you live in?” in the “Harvard conversation starter pack,” when his voice raised in volume.
“So, like, what are you?”
“What do you mean?” My eyebrow and the corner of my mouth lifted, as if connected by a half-amused string.
“Like, what nationalities?”
I answered him and moved on without concern. I didn’t capitalize on his question, and I didn’t hate him for asking. He was fresh out of Opening Days, shirt sweaty with wonder and eyes giddy with hope. Hell, mere months ago he was dancing at prom, shirt just as sweaty. I knew my mother’s Korean heritage and my father’s Lebanese roots are beautiful and nuanced and intertwined in this person that I am. I didn’t need this kid to see me as anything more than the “exotic half-Asian girl.”
I let the moment go, walking away with an unsavory realization. I only need the rest of the world to see that I’m more.
Liana E. Yamin ’17 is a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Adams House. She’s from the exotic part of the Mid-Atlantic.