During middle school, students are expected to have minimal exposure to a language other than English. I had Spanish and French for two hours a week in 7th and 8th grade, and I was not interested in either. When high school came, we were allowed to choose between Spanish, French (though this department was later cut because of the cleaver dubbed “Insufficient Funds” that looms over every public school), and German. I was mildly interested in French, but I wasn’t feeling the “yearn to learn” for any of those. Then, my guidance counselor made an announcement that would alter my linguistic career forever: I could take Mandarin Chinese online.
I couldn’t wait. I enrolled as soon as possible and felt hope and excitement for learning a foreign language. I signed up because I wanted to learn the language and learn more about the culture. At that point in my life, I hardly knew anything about Chinese culture. I had the face of a Chinese person, with the values of an American and cultural knowledge that could match the amount of a tourist. This online class was an opportunity to learn and enrich my then-deprived cultural identity.
Driver’s Ed is something that every adolescent has to do in order to legally drive. You have to sit there, watch the movies, fight the urge to sleep during observation hours and log all the skills you learn with each time spent behind the wheel. All to get a piece of plastic that is a ticket to the highway of “More Independence” and a stepping stone to freedom. I sat through the movies, I logged my driving hours, and I remember the great feeling of receiving my driver’s license. But what is equally memorable is what happened as I was filling out the paperwork to take the driver’s test.
My teacher (her name in this story is “Edith”) was filling out the paperwork for us to bring to the DMV that said we passed the class and were ready to take the test. She had to fill out things like our name, address, phone, etc., and there could be no mistakes because it was on special paper in permanent pen. It got to be my turn, and Edith asked me to spell out my middle name.
When someone mistakes you for another person, you feel confusion and wonder how there could be a mix-up. After being given an explanation like, “Oh, from the back you looked like them they have similar hair,” you politely say, “Oh, I get it,” and then move on, but still feel a tiny degree of residual bewilderment. As a Chinese female growing up and residing in a predominantly white area, this kind of interaction is not rare, in fact it has become routine.
The fact that I have more than a handful of interactions about being mixed up for another Asian person I could choose to write about is astounding. Disclaimer: most of the time these mix-ups are never done with malice or ill-intent, most people who make these types of comments have probably just never seen an abundant number of Asian people in a small state/area of the United States that generally lacks diversity. Thus, these people who have never lived in a diverse community inadvertently perpetuate the misconception that all Asian people look alike and/or are the same person. For me, it’s better to be mistaken for another person than to be the subject of the “All Asians are good at math” stereotype, because if that’s true then I’m a disappointment to my whole race.