We woke up late-ish on a slow Sunday morning. John doesn’t want to make breakfast. It is rainy, outside. People are over at his apartment looking to move in when he moves out. There’s two of them; one of them, the louder of the two, wears an even louder leopard print coat. Her shoulder-length brown hair, slightly matted from the rain, makes her look almost ratty. The other is blonde, quieter. Soggy ex-sorority sisters, probably.
I pass these judgments as I rub my eyes and walk to the bathroom in one of John’s t-shirts and the boxers I borrowed. I know how I must look; my hair is short, recently buzzed, and artificially bleached blonde from my naturally silky-black hair. My eyes are puffy, small without makeup. At first glance, I probably would pass as a small Asian boy.
John and I dress to leave and grab food at Essex Market, the two women still clamoring outside his thin door. We’re about to leave but the one in the leopard coat stops us as we’re waiting for the elevator, asking John about his opinion on the layout of the place. They look over me as I stand next to him, listening to them talk about the new kitchen, how they want to rip the stove out from the wall and move it to the living room, get counters put in place. 5 minutes pass and the elevator has come and gone. John’s nice and too good at small talk. I lean on the elevator door, hungry and impatient, staring at the brown-haired girl’s ugly pink flats. There are water stains at the toes.
When they finally let us go, we go into the elevator and I joke, “Karens, am I right?” He tells me to stop and shushes me, tells me that the elevator echoes, so I yell up the elevator shaft “KAREN!” He freaks out, telling me they’d be able to hear. I tell him could care less. He says I don’t need to be so cold and hostile. I tell him I’m not cold or hostile, just not here for bullshit small talk.
“Just be nice,” he sighs. “It doesn’t hurt and you never know, this could’ve been a networking opportunity.”
I never liked it when people told me to be nice. Part of me knows it’s just me, my antsy disposition, my overthinking and pessimistic outlook, noticing too much to talk and jumping fast to judgements. I always find myself scanning the demographics of a room, seeing how at ease I’m allowed to be, who I can really relate to. In that room with John, the two scary white women, his white landlord and white roommates, I felt hyperaware.
I always wondered if it would be like to walk around in this world in a different skin, a little lighter. Give me a taller nose bridge, naturally blonde hair, and the assumption that I’m not an “other.” I’d probably act differently if I knew I wouldn’t be immediately seen as a perpetual alien in a country I only half identify with.
John is a white boy, tall, brown-haired, charismatic and talkative. I am a short Asian American girl. We come from extremely different backgrounds. Not quite dating yet, but exploring and hitting some obstacles along the way.
I grew up in a white suburb in New Jersey. Most of my teachers were Karen-esque, more often and not, people who peaked in high school and came back to relive their adolescent vicariously through their bratty students. Lovers of meaningless small talk. They were all terrifying to me.
I surrounded myself with the few people of color in my school. We were called the “Asian Clique.” We were asked why we only hung out with each other. A teacher once asked my friend and I if we were gossiping about her in Chinese we were whispering in the hallway alone.
I wouldn’t say I felt targeted, but I worked under a certain set of unspoken expectations. Asian students at my school were the ones who populated higher level classes. They were award-winning, musically and artistically talented students, science olympiad kids, meritorious but quiet. I can’t say that I fit this mold well, and I can’t say that didn’t make me resentful.
John, on the other hand, is from Alabama. His school was half-white, half-Black, and his town was full of Trump supporters he dreamed of escaping for all his high school career. In New York, he’s comfortable in his skin, and subconscious about his Southern accent.
I tried to explain to him why I was snappy with the women in his apartment, the long history of my distaste of condescending white women that can make me come off as cold. He tells me to be gracious, have a growth mindset, and part of me feels like he’s telling me to outgrow my skin, to outgrow racism. I say I am trying to fix my biases, trying to be less fearful. I try to explain where I’m coming from, that I’m not being a bitch for the sake of being a bitch; that I have baggage, experience, and valid fears.
I never thought I would end up trying to explain this to my significant other about this. From a young age, my parents indirectly told me that finding stability was the goal. That entailed finding a nice Asian doctor, lawyer, dentist, or academic was what they would support. I dated one Chinese boy for most of high school and after him, gave up on his entire demographic, which I now acknowledge isn’t right.
After that, I grew an immense fear of having a “type”, working overtime to address any of my own implicit racial biases in my dating life, but deep down, I always related more to other people of color. We have an unspoken foundation, an acknowledgement that we are seen a certain way, that we don’t reap the privileges of being seen as “normal” in America. And there is comfort in that painful shared experience.
Part of me avoided white men in fear of Yellow Fever; the white boys who say they love “Japanese Urbanism” or speak Mandarin better than I can, or coincidentally have dated three Asian women in a row. Men who say almond shaped eyes and long Black hair are sexy. Men who love a demure Madame-Butterfly type. I’ve heard it all.
With John, it’s a bit different. We have our biased perceptions out on the table. We talk about his experiences addressing race in Alabama and how it’s changed since he’s gotten to New York. We talk about him growing up with Black stepfather and white Trump-supporting biological father. We talk about my alienation from both my extended family in mainland China and my white surroundings in America.
We talk about the racist mentors I’ve had in the past who made ungrounded, stereotypical assumptions about my language skills and academic motivations. And I can’t say it’s easy or fun to retell the traumas from my past in order to explain why the way I act the way I am, and I can’t say it’s easy listening to someone poke holes in my conceptions of the racial world, who point out the fallacies in my flawed, fearful logic. We argue about the differences of being a poor white man in America versus a woman of color from a middle class background. And in some ways, our struggles line up. In others, they don’t.
There’s growth to be done on both sides of us. I don’t think I’ve ever really blatantly labeled us as a “interracial couple” and part of me doesn’t want to categorize it that way. We talk about race and our experiences because it’s important to know each other’s fears and dreams, perspectives and blindspots.
One night over dinner on his apartment floor, we’re arguing again. I feel unheard and he keeps refuting my claims to victimhood, re-traumatizing myself with stories of being told to “Go back to China,” or not pursuing my dreams of writing because I was expected to do STEM. He makes us tea as I continue to berate his back turned to me from the stove about whether he’s really considered all the privilege he’s reaped from looking the way he does, how many of his friends of color has he really talked to deeply about the topics we talk about.
When he comes back, he puts down a mug of Rooibos tea and sits next to me. He looks tired and we both realize how long we’ve been going back and forth, and getting nowhere. Neither of us feels heard, and he points out that it almost seems like I’m testing him in a way, trying to pigeonhole into my fear of a racist. He says he’s not going to pretend to “know” my experiences, because he’s never going to truly understand what it’s like to be a person of color. He concedes that he could be more sensitive, work on listening more, but he also points out that so could I.
Not all interracial couples talk about the elephant in the room so openly, and I’m thankful we’re both the type to speak our minds and stay open minded. Especially in a time like this, with the nationwide racial reckoning, I’m glad to have met someone to grow and think together.