One element of the Asian stereotype in America is that people who are yellow are seen as linguistic others. Although Asian-descended people have been living in the United States since the early nineteenth century (see the work of historian Ronald Takaki), people with yellow skin and/or slanty eyes are often assumed to be immigrants. And whether or not they are assumed to be immigrants, it is often assumed that they speak an Asian language and have a questionable claim to English fluency or the English literary tradition. This is contributes to racial discrimination insofar as linguistic competency in the dominant language is heuristically correlated to one's competency as a person overall. It's only a speculation of mine, but one worth considering, I think, that one reason technical fields have been more open to hiring Asian Americans than others is because they depend more heavily on alternate sign systems (like computer languages or mathematics) than on English.

One thoughtful exploration of this issue is Myung Mi Kim's experimental poetry book Commons. For a slightly less thoughtful meditation, see below.


The background information you need for this story is that I am of mixed race (incidentally involving no Filipino or southeast Asian ancestry), with darkish skin and slanty eyes. I was born and raised in America. I am a doctoral student in a top English lit program.


I went up to St. Mary Magdalen recently to have my photo taken for the church directory (I'm Roman Catholic). Fr. George insisted; I guess I'm the proof that the 20-something demographic is represented in the parish. The church staff were warm and friendly, and the photographers were fine, even though they did insist on pulling me into several unnatural positions that resulted in some fairly hideous photographs.

The problem was the woman who showed me the resulting photos, a blonde ivory-suited woman who oddly resembled an aged Meg Ryan. For some reason, she felt the need to make small talk of the random useless sort before getting down to business. It was obvious fromthe Barthes and pencil in my hand that I was a student, so before long she asked me, "what do you study?"

"English," I said.

Blonde Woman: "And where are you from?"

Me: "Virginia."

Blonde Woman. "Virginia. Really?"

I nodded and gave her an I-am-not-amused smile, because from years of getting asked where I was from, I knew her next comment was not going to be about her aunt who lives in Poquoson. I wasn't, however, quite prepared for the form of her next comment.

Blonde Woman: "So it's not English as a second language that you're studying ...?"

Now, we'd been chatting for a good couple of minutes by this point.

Me: "Does it sound like English is my second language?"

Blonde Woman: "No, no, of course not, but ... forgive me; I was looking at your nationality, and I thought you might be from the Philippines or Thailand or something."

Or something.

Me: "Nope, I'm from Virginia."

Which makes my nationality American, you pinhead.

She quickly retreated to her mouse-clicking.

I wonder how this woman's managed to live in California all this time. Is she sheltered by a cabal of carefully-chosen white people who protect her from the frightening knowledge that thousands of her fellow Americans have slanty eyes? Does she think all those yellow people walking around the San Francisco Bay Area all day were just imported from Asia last week? Does she live under a freaking rock??

English as a second language indeed.


(By the way, I've the utmost respect for people who do learn English as a second language. The point of this writeup is rather that no matter how well an Asian learns English, or his or her American-born children speak it, their yellowness will inevitably mark them as linguistically other to a select dimwitted portion of the population.)

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