It was a hot Friday night in Berlin, and young people on the narrow streets of Kreuzberg district were just beginning their usual 48-hour clubbing routine with cigarettes, beer, and lines of cocaine. Aware that I stood out as a solitary woman and an obvious foreigner, I tried to shove my way through the throngs of smelly teenagers and drunken old men as efficiently as I could, right shoulder angled toward the crowd to get the maximum force-to-surface area ratio. All I wanted was to get to the safety of my apartment without being harassed and the only one sober on the block. I was almost past the final bar on the street when the unthinkable happened. One of the lone men sitting outdoors, who was looking right at me and pinching a fat jay, uttered through his formidable mustache a phrase I thought had gone extinct in most of the first world: “Ching chong!” Yes. Ching chong. A set of sounds that, being absolutely meaningless, nevertheless carries meaning for the East Asian diaspora as the Number 1 cliché. My first thought was to turn around and give him the good ol’ right hook, right to the mustache. My second thought was that I didn’t want my parents to get the hospital bill, and by the time these thoughts waded through my stream of consciousness a group of squeaking preteens had blocked him from sight. Although I wanted to bulldoze my way back through to educate him, I let this one slide and went home. I must have scared the homeless man who sometimes sat outside my doorstep as I walked past, perfecting the monologue with which to verbally obliterate the next brute in my path. Just one week later, a boy of uncertain origin took the liberty of sitting in the empty chair across my table in a café. After I refused him my online contact information, he replied, “Oh—so you do have Internet in Korea?” My monologue had not been tailored for this level of obtuseness. “Well,” I wanted to say, looking him straight in the eye, “we have one communal computer in the middle of our rice field, but my panda gets exhausted because it’s such a long way to walk with me on his back, so I have to bring ten kilograms of bamboo to feed him on the road,” but I knew that this would help nobody. In the end, I contented myself with correcting him: South Korea has the fastest Internet in the world.
Luckily, you and I go to school in tame and cosmopolitan Princeton, New Jersey. There have still been the occasional “wow—you have almost no accent!”, “he’s into you because he has total yellow fever” (like it’s some kind of life-threatening disease), and “Asian girls are just so cute”, but these are all things that I can live with and that I even find funny. However, before you laud all of your Asian girl friends thus, I’d like to urge my readership to be mindful of this kind of language. For example: To some Asian or Asian-American women, the descriptor “cute” can be a front-handed insult. By “front-handed insult”, I mean the inverse of a “back-handed compliment”; I don’t doubt the good intentions of the speaker, which are front-handed, but to me the overused word has come to represent a very subtle form of belittlement—so subtle that the speaker probably doesn’t realize what it can imply. In my opinion, “cute” should be saved as an adjective for pet hamsters and little babies—basically anything that would die if you didn’t remember to feed it—and should be used sparingly to describe fellow adults. Although in some cases they can truly be used as front-handed compliments, we must remember that such words can also ascribe a position of superiority to the speaker and one of inferiority to the complimentee. But, of course, only context can tell.
It wasn’t until this summer that the term “microaggression” really entered my vocabulary. I welcomed it readily as the word that I could use to concisely and scientifically label the countless instances of overlooking, invalidating, assuming, stereotyping, and other subtle or unconscious forms of racial discrimination that I’ve experienced in my twenty years, and the variations of which I and my minority brothers and sisters will continue to experience in the foreseeable future. It would be counterproductive, however, for me to try to promote severe political correctness and make these microaggressions a complete taboo, because a: I know that a lot of them are unintended, and b: dialogue should never be artificially suppressed. Rather, we should either learn to recognize, or gain the courage to point out, instances of microagression when they arise—malicious and benign alike—and to talk to each other about where we think the boundary lines should fall. Silence will only drive the issue deeper into the rice field.