I was in a cab yesterday, sandwiched between two friends, as we hurtled towards LaGuardia Airport from the Midtown area in New York City, near Times Square.
Around that time of the day, the traffic was bad — though, nowhere nearly as miserable as it usually is during rush hour in Atlanta, where I live and where a 25-mile trip can take upwards of 90 minutes to navigate. A small television screen, hanging on the back of the passenger’s seat, played reruns of Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show. He wasn’t particularly funny, and I was too tired to process his jokes.
The cabbie gripped the steering wheel, expertly merging into a new lane with only a small margin of distance between his car and the one behind him. New York drivers — I would flounder if I tried to drive alongside them in this city.
He cleared his throat and asked us where we were going.
We told him that we were trying to make a flight home, back to Atlanta.
He didn’t respond for a few minutes. We passed a handful more cars. My friend on the left cracked her knuckles and chewed her gum so loudly that I heard every snap. My friend on the right tapped at his iPhone. I closed my eyes and tried to will myself to sleep, but I couldn’t. I was in that terrible limbo — where exhaustion made it difficult to think, but the excessive amounts of coffee I’d drunk earlier kept me going.
“Hey, so…” He glanced in his rearview mirror. We made eye contact. “Are you Asian?”
He piped up so abruptly and matter-of-factly that his question threw me for a loop. I also just wasn’t particularly expecting it.
“Uh. Well, actually, I’m Canadian.”
I answered his question in its most technical sense. I hold Canadian citizenship.
“No, no, I mean, where are you from?”
“I’m from Canada, originally. But, I live in Atlanta right now.”
One of my friends patted me on the knee, a sweet show of solidarity. This was an uncomfortable conversation but not one with which I was totally unfamiliar. Probably, he was just trying to chat — to punctuate the sound of Fallon’s shrill humor and the sound of cars honking around us.
“Well, where are your parents from?” The cabbie refused to abandon his line of questioning. I wondered if he realized that he was being perfectly clear — that I just refused to answer his questions in the way he wanted or expected.
We made it to the front of the Delta terminal at LaGuardia. I hopped out of the cab first, grabbed my bags, and handed him a wad of cash — waiting a few yards away as my friends sorted their things.
Later, as I sat at my gate and waited for my flight (delayed — no surprise there), I thought about the conversation I’d had with the cabbie. For some reason, I had felt extra sensitive to his questioning. Perhaps, that was a product of my stress, of my exhaustion. But, I wasn’t sure if I had the right to feel that way or if I was just overreacting. I didn’t think he’d meant to offend me — his questions seemed to stem out of curiosity rather than maliciousness or anything of the like.
At the same time, however, his questions felt unnecessary, and that bothered me the most. They felt like a display of microaggression — though, likely an unintentional one. The cabbie probably didn’t stop to register the subliminal messages behind his questions. To me, they screamed, “Yes, you say that you belong here, but you look as though you don’t really. Where do you really belong?”
My physical appearance clearly indicates that, yes, I am of Asian descent.
But, what does it matter?
I live in the United States. I have lived here for most of my life. I probably will continue to live here — at least for a large portion of my adult life. Technically, I am Canadian, but culturally, I am as American as Dolly Parton, jalapeno cornbread, and the ever-looming debt ceiling. I speak Mandarin, my native language, with a slight American accent — which breaks my grandmother’s heart. When I visit extended family in China, the locals can tell immediately — from my manner of speaking, my gait, my way of dressing — that I am a red-white-and-blue blooded foreigner.
That cabbie isn’t the only person to have recently asked me questions of that nature. I get it all the time. People with whom I am loosely acquainted — or even people that I’ve just met — make it a game to figure out if I am Chinese, Korean, or Filipina (these are the nationalities that they most often guess). They don’t seem satisfied when I tell them that I’m from “here.”
Technical citizenship aside, so long as I live and feel at home in the United States, can’t I consider myself an American?