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Close Encounters of a Different Kind

By Mary Marczak, Evaluation and Research Specialist

Recently Trish Olson (FD Assistant to the Associate Dean) sent me a link to a thought-provoking YouTube video called “What kind of Asian are you?” I had already seen it, but given our recent professional development conference focusing on issues of diversity, race, and culture, I took another look. Before reading on, watch the video.

So what does this video have to do with me? I was born and raised in South Korea until I was about 10, but then was adopted and grew up in Minnesota in a nearly all-white community with no other Asians (until my parents adopted more Korean children, followed by the adoption of a Korean girl by a Lutheran pastor at a neighboring church).

Not surprisingly, I went through many “what kind of Asian are you?” moments. For example, my sister and I were walking our family dog and a couple walking toward us asked something along the lines of “What are you?” Thinking they were asking what kind of dog we had, my sister responded, “It’s a Lhasa Apso.” They said, “Oh?? What country is that, and how did you get here?” When we realized they were actually asking about us, we all had a good laugh over it. And as we continued on our walk, my sister and I teased each other all the way home about what kind of dog we were.

The video does one important thing — remind people to be thoughtful about what they do and say when interacting with people of a race or ethnicity different than their own. I agree, but echo the "both/and" refrain from this April's Qualey-Skjervold conference: Both be more self-aware and don't be afraid to engage with people of a different race than yours for fear of asking the wrong question or making mistakes.

Picture of Stella Chloe with the title iranoutofgoodnames
Stella Choe in the reaction video, Actors read real comments from What Kind of Asian are You?

From personal experience, I can say it is more hurtful not to be acknowledged or kept at a distance than to be acknowledged, even if awkwardly or impolitely. Those of us from non-dominant cultures are resilient. We won’t crumble or have sleepless nights because you unwittingly asked an insensitive question. In fact, you may find a kindred spirit!

Last year during our yearly family vacation up north in Walker, MN, I went to a coffee shop to access its WiFi. It was obvious I was working fast and furiously, with my computer open and papers everywhere, when a white man who looked in his mid-60s walked up and said, “Annyeonghaseyo, eotteohge jinaeseyo?” That’s Korean for “Hello. How are you?” He then said, “You are Korean, right?

I was beyond annoyed and gave a polite “yes” and looked down at my computer, hoping he would get the message and leave. But he refused to give up and began telling me he had recently lost his Korean wife whom he met while stationed in Korea with the Army. We spoke nearly a half hour about his family, children, and grandchildren, and at the end we gave each other a big hug. I was moved by his story and his love for his wife, and I felt a real kinship with him. Our encounter made my day and reminded me that I should shut down my computer and be with my family.
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