As an Asian American in Asia, I’m mistaken for either the local population or a Chinese tourist. This even happened in Ecuador! I was seen as an Asian Latin American, and not even having a fellow gringo as a sidekick changed their perceptions.
But I think this incident best summarizes my experiences (because I’ve had plenty as an English teacher in Cambodia, Ecuador, and Thailand). I was waiting for a friend at popular restaurant when the waitress said something in Thai while placing a menu in Chinese and in Japanese in front of me. She probably felt pretty confident that she had covered her bases, too.
Instead, I asked what I hoped was, “Could I have a menu in English?”
And that’s just the assumptions people make about me on the outside, in passing, during brief encounters. On the inside, say, when I’m starting a new job, or working with a new group of students, I’ve learned that my personality doesn’t jive with people’s first impressions because my husband tells me to “act normal”. [In other words, don’t freak people out because you’re not what you seem.]
I like to make folks laugh, but for some reason, I must not look like the kind of person who says outrageous and off-color remarks. I can see how surprised they are, and then, how they’re not quite sure what to make of me after that — until they get used to me. [I blame my funny family and the copious amounts of stand up comedies I’ve watched throughout my life.]
I’ve also had friends confide in me that they don’t really see me as Asian, just American. It’s a strange thing to say, something that in the past might have lightly offended me, but now I understand I don’t fit this idea, this stereotype, and this is the best way they can communicate this feeling. I’ve already decided that this is part of my journey, to be what folks don’t expect, and to find the heart and humor along the way.