This is a guest post by Jennifer, who blogs at Mixed Race America. Jennifer -- who recently did a series of posts about her travel in the Southern U.S. with "Southern Man" -- describes herself as a "30-something professor of contemporary American literature and Asian American literature interested in issues of social justice and specifically how to create spaces to talk comfortably (and sometimes uncomfortably) about race."
My intent during this road/research trip I'm making around "The South" was to blog about it every night. But I have been pretty tired the last few nights -- long nights driving and then long days of sight seeing and information gathering. So I'm a bit delayed in my narrative, but that's OK -- I don't need to share every single detail on this blog about what I'm doing!
But I did want to share a bit about our time in Sewanee, TN. I went there, or rather that area, to do research at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN -- an old and revered liberal arts college of the south, as its name clearly implies. There really isn't any place to stay in Sewanee itself, so Southern Man and I made our way to a lovely bed and breakfast inn in Cowan, TN, The Franklin-Pearson Hotel, run by Jared Pearson.
When we got to the inn we were tired (over 8 hours in the car), hungry, and a bit cranky. Or maybe this was just me. Jared directed us to a restaurant, High Point, in nearby Monteagle. I wish I brought my camera because the house that the restaurant was in was a beautiful old stone house, apparently financed by money from Al Capone - -he used the house as part of his bootlegging operations! So there are apparently all these hidden entrances and trap doors and false walls -- at least that's what the brochure to the house said.
Now the thing about small towns in the South is that people love to talk to you. For example, Jared, our innkeeper, told us all about the politics of the town-gown divide between the University of the South and the local communities (something quite common in many small town college communities). And our waiter at the restaurant told us all about the history of the restaurant. And while I was doing research in the archives, Southern Man went to a coffee shop where he met local residents and the owner of the cafe, who also shared all sorts of stories with him about Sewanee and the surrounding area. This is part of what it's like to travel in small towns in the South. People like talking to you.
And for the most part, I've grown accustomed to this. My natural demeanor whenever I travel, whether on an airplane or by car, is to put on a polite face, but one that suggests I am not interested in conversation or small chit chat. Because especially when you are on an airplane, you DO NOT want to get trapped next to the woman who is going to talk to you the entire flight across the continental U.S. about her mother issues (this happened to me once) or the guy who is trying to hit on you and who actually keeps bothering you, even when you have your laptop up and your headphones on (again, another true story).
But after living in "The South" for a few years, I've learned that this is part of the culture of many communities here -- and after all, when in Rome.
However, no matter where I am, I'm never comfortable with a conversation that begins with this opening salvo:
"What part of Asia are you from?"
At the end of our dinner (which was quite good--I had scallops and Southern Man had a NY strip and we ended the evening with creme brulee--YUM), when Southern Man went to the restroom, an older gentleman who had been sitting with his wife (she also was not at the table when he broached me) asked me, "What part of Asia are you from?"
Now, I should tell you that the room that we were in was the size of a small dining room and there were only half a dozen tables in it, and during our meal there was only one other occupied table -- the one with this older white couple -- they looked to be in their late 60s. It was clear that they were listening to our conversation, because at a certain point when we talked about what we were going to be doing when we got to Memphis, the woman chimed in and said, "Oh we're from Memphis! It's lovely -- you should go in May!" Southern Man thanked her -- I didn't even make eye contact with her, I mean, we were in the middle of a conversation and the entrees hadn't come yet and I didn't want to open the door for having to talk to this couple all night long (they seemed the type who would invite you to join them at their table and we were both at 4-tops).
Anyway, this OWM (older white male) asks me the question that I dread -- the variant of "Where are you from/what are you" -- because that's really what he wants to know -- he wants to know what I am. Because since he's been eavesdropping on our conversation all night, he would have picked up on the fact that I have no discernible accent, and since I talked about my research and was working out with Southern Man the different components of my class at Southern U., it should have also been clear that I was not a visiting foreign professor.
So I looked at him, unblinkingly, and asked him to repeat the question -- I was really stalling for time because I wasn't sure how I wanted to answer him -- it was late, dinner was over -- we were waiting for the check. He repeated the question -- admitted that he had been listening to our previous conversation (I had been talking about my grandfather and his life in China earlier, as well as the research that a friend of mine is doing in Cambodia around issues of the tribunals for the former Khmer Rouge and the killing fields), and he wanted to know whether I was from Asia.
I think a quick glance at me would tell you that I appear to be Asian and probably Asian American. Again, he didn't want to know about whether I was from Asia -- there was another motivation behind his line of inquiry -- and perhaps, in hindsight, my 6th sense also told me this from non-verbal cues -- his absolute confidence in how he posed the question -- his assumption that it was OK to talk to me and ask me this question.
So I told him that I was from California and that I consider myself to be Californian. He then moved on to asking me where my parents are from -- he wasn't phased by me putting him off. And I said that my mother was from Jamaica -- which was actually the wrong tactical move to make because I kid you not, his eyes LIT UP and he leaned in towards me and squinted and said,
"I never would have guessed by looking at you!"
At this point his wife had rejoined him, and I realized my error in trying to throw him off -- that it was only going to reinforce his exoticization of me and my family, so I said,
"No, you wouldn't probably because she's Chinese Jamaican."
At this point I was hoping he would drop it and leave me alone -- I was not smiling and clearly not enjoying out tete-a-tete. But that's the thing about white privilege -- it means that those actively employing it -- and I would put this OWM in that category -- don't care about what YOU want -- he only cared about what HE wanted to get out of the conversation.
And what he wanted to demonstrate to me, and perhaps to remind his wife was that he had traveled all over Asia, including Cambodia -- yes, he had heard us talking about Cambodia, he said -- and then he proceeded to list ALL OF THE ASIAN COUNTRIES that he had been to and that he had been to Cambodia DURING THE WAR WHEN HE WAS IN THE MARINES.
This was now THE WORST because not only was I accosted by an OWM, but it turns out that he's a Veteran of the war in Viet Nam and he wants to regale me with bombing stories of Cambodia and to tell me about all the Asian countries he went back to visit over the war (he said that specifically -- that he went back to Asia after the war to see what had happened to it after he left).
Now, I am not trying to diss veterans. I'm sure this man has his share of PTSD stories and that there is a genuine interest that he has in Asia since he has a connection to it that is unique.
However, I don't need to be part of his therapy and I certainly didn't want to hear his stories or to be the conduit for launching into what he was doing in Asia, during and then years after the war.
Luckily Southern Man came back and we quickly left the restaurant. And Southern Man asked me why I didn't turn the tables and ask him and his wife where they were from -- but the truth is, these people wouldn't have gotten the sarcasm -- I would have had to have been really direct and said, "why aren't you asking my white partner where he is from -- why are you focusing on where I'm from?" and as confrontational and direct as I can be, I really just wanted a nice dinner out after a long day of driving and didn't feel like having to deal with having to educate the older white couple about their white privilege.
But it does give me some food for thought and it does make me wonder next time I'm asked this question and it starts to head into the territory of "look at all the Asian countries I've been to!" whether I won't flip the conversation around to the real motivation behind why I'm being asked this question, or whether I won't just simply speak my truth and tell my interlocutor that s/he is making me feel like an orientalized object and I don't want to continue talking with them anymore because I'm not feeling comfortable with their line of questioning.
Which brings up an interesting question for all of us: when we are faced with this kind of weird racial crap, why don't we get more aggressive?