In the Chinese restaurant across from my dorm, Chinese volleys rapid-fire back and forth in the kitchen. Steam rises from the woks, flames flare on the stove.
I stand at the counter and stare down at the menu, contemplating what to order.
“Excuse me,” I say, my voice already pitched too high. “Do you have tofu and shrimp?”
The guy at the cash register looks at me as if I’ve suggested drinking orange juice after brushing my teeth.
“Shrimp and tofu?” he asks, his nose wrinkling.
I feel my face turn red and my hands twist in my pockets.
“Never mind,” I mumble. “I’ll just have chicken and tofu.”
I sit on one of the chairs by the door, waiting for my order to be called and looking around at the other customers. Clusters of students sit at the tables, an abundance of food spread out in front of them.
They serve themselves, scooping chicken and pork out of huge bowls into their own smaller bowls of white rice. A girl holds her soup close to her face, spooning broth with one hand and slurping noodles from her chopsticks with the other.
I am on the outside of the inside of their world–the chatter is in Chinese, and the laughter is about jokes I do not understand.
I sit quietly, feeling the exact inverse of the way I feel when I’m the only non-white person in the room. In here, I am the only Chinese person who isn’t really Chinese.
I don’t stand out because I look different, but because I don’t know how to blend in.
My chopsticks skills are average and despite it being second nature to the rest of the people in this restaurant, I have never had the coordination to drink soup with one hand and eat noodles with the other. I embarrass myself when ordering food, as if it should be obvious to me that shrimp and tofu don’t go together.
I was raised culturally by middle-class white American parents. And, like them, I see Chinatown as a place to eat food that isn’t five-minute take out and buy cheap bok choy—often my place setting includes a set of chopsticks, and theirs do not.
The other students in this restaurant make me feel like I received an invitation to a party, but never knew the address.
I rarely find myself in a situation where most of the people in the room are other Asians. When I do, it’s as if I don’t know how to act. In a group of people who were raised in culturally Chinese households, I resemble them far more than I do my parents and most of my friends, but it’s as if I’m sitting behind a glass wall, spectating, the last one to understand the jokes. In these groups, I am often quiet, knowing that as soon as I open my mouth, I’ll give myself away.
Math wasn’t my strongest subject in school and when the study groups formed, the other kids quickly learned I was the odd one out, that last Asian kid in the class to understand the concept.
“Why aren’t you good at math?” Stanley Wong asked me in fourth grade as I was sharpened my pencil carefully, watching the shavings fall onto my paper. It was covered in the erased frustrations of long division.
“I’m just not, OK?” I snapped back. “I suck at math, and I don’t get it.”
“But you’re Asian,” he said. “All Asians are good at math.”
“Well, I’m not.” My eyes filled with angry tears and I looked away quickly, humiliated. “Shut up, and leave me alone.”
Stanley turned to Wilson Chen and they both snickered under their breath, their own pencils quickly scrawling the answers.
On the playground, I approached three girls from the English as a Second Language class jumping rope. One offered it to me and frowned when I didn’t understand her words. She sighed before switching to English, then back to Chinese again, calling to her other friends, leaving me feeling a little bit confused, very stupid and wondering what was wrong with me.
My friends in eighth grade liked to call me things like “banana,” “Twinkie,” and “Whasian,” things that meant “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” It was easier to laugh and accept it than to explain why I didn’t meet their eyes when I did.
My brother doesn’t have a problem straddling both sides of the hyphenated Asian-American. He and his friends call themselves “The Rice Boyz.” He puts on his best “immigrant fresh off the boat” accent—“Fri’ ri’ one dollah”–and asks if I can do it too. I say I can’t, when what I really mean is I won’t.
I have learned what to expect from people, but most have never learned what to expect from me. There is a disconnect between what I look like and who I am—sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but most of the time it does.
I am a cultural dual citizen and while I wait for people to figure out what they can expect from me, I sit quietly on my side of the glass wall, from the outside of the inside, looking in.
Lian Parsons can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Lian_Parsons.