You might not remember me, but I’m the dark-haired, Texas-born, Asian-American graduate student who visited the Payroll Office the other day to complete direct deposit and tax forms. What was printed on your red name tag currently escapes me, but I do recall the compact squareness of the windowless, gray-carpeted space, the distinct way you pronounced “dubyuh-4,” the relentless static of your frizzy, blonde hair, and the pointed way you asked me, “Are you an international student?” after glancing at my name on the yellow sign-in sheet.
Perhaps the peculiar arrangement of the letters floated off the sheet to whisper sweet tales from my family’s Vietnam-War-refugees story in your ear. I imagine them orating the humid, sweltering days my grandmother spent harvesting rice and climbing rubber trees before marrying an American soldier, moving her family to the United States, and managing self-owned convenience stores while raising five children; the day a shard of window glass sliced my aunt’s forehead when she was three, painting the debris with splattered crimson because a nearby house collapsed from the shockwave of a bomb while she was tumbling outside in the dirt; the regular calls to Vietnam my grandmother made only to find out that yet another family member had been bedridden by an unfamiliar illness they didn’t have the savings to cure while a different relative was tossed in prison for stealing the money necessary for the treatment.
I even picture a Doodle-Bob cartoon version of my last name, carrying in its arms the lanky shape of Vietnam in place of a pencil. Antagonistic by nature, it made itself visible only to you that day, in all of its misshapen-bubble-letters-bleeding-sketch-lines glory, undetectable to me. Maybe when I walked into the office, it somersaulted past me, colliding with you behind the faded-gray desk — decked out in the Vietnamese flag, a red banner streaming from its sides with “I’m of Southeast-Asian Origin” printed in yellow brush strokes, donning an unironically red-white-and-blue “My Owner’s Not From Here” t-shirt.
It’s plausible that you’re close friends with the northern Vietnamese lady who owns Pho 21 — you know, that Vietnamese restaurant off Fuqua Street, near downtown Houston? She must have called you all the way from Texas the day she disregarded me and my grandmother as non-Asian, unworthy of restaurant hospitality save for lukewarm tap water in a glass with a single ice cube. When a family who came in half an hour after us were immediately seated and serviced with menus, my grandmother called out to the owner in English and then shocked her by venting in Vietnamese. Maybe the owner memorized my grandmother’s heated introductions then tore through Facebook’s profile database until she found mine and sent a screenshot so, all the way in Ohio, you’d know if you ever saw my name on some piece of paper that I am definitely Asian. I am Vietnamese. I am a descendant of people who were born somewhere else.
Maybe the last name of the white person who signed in before me ratted me out. I hear it shout in my head, convincing you to view me as an “other” kind of presence. Watch out! it warns. I’m of Slavic etymology, sure, but THIS one’s from the EAST! It doesn’t even LOOK remotely Western! It was enough to stop you from asking that person the same question you had asked me, to momentarily erase us America-born children of immigrants and refugees from your mind. Would my Texas birth certificate have even stood a chance?
Of course, it’s highly possible this cultural transgression was just an honest faux pas. Slip-ups happen. It’s only human nature to make mistakes, right? You can’t possibly ask every person who walks in with a presumably non-American name if they’re from overseas, right? The international student population is pretty dense here. I bet you’ve been doing this for half your life and developed a gut feeling for just knowing who might not be American. Hell, you probably own an extensive collection of Employee-of-the-Month awards.
I must thank you, though, for not basing your assumption on my slanted, almond eyes or almost-black, curly hair or yellow-toned, tanned skin. How nice it must feel to know you’ve advanced to assessing a book by its title instead of just its cover art.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/cmh2315fl