Experience in Chicago raises questions about stereotypes

My trip to Chicago last week for the Unity Journalists of Color convention drew some parallels the “Across Asian Middle America” feature in the Road Trip Issue of Hyphen, which hits the streets in August.

Chicago is a great city and has a sizable Asian American presence, but it’s nowhere near Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco, where I live. Maybe a generation ago, an Asian American writer from Chicago could have written a piece for Hyphen magazine’s “Across Asian Middle America,” a series of vignettes in The Road Trip Issue about living in places that are far away–geographically and spiritually–from areas where there are large populations of Asian Americans. Chicago is changing and no doubt the Asian American population is growing. A couple of mini-vignettes from my time in Chicago made me wonder if I would have experienced the same thing had I been in San Francisco.

Panhandlers are common in San Francisco, so I’m used to people coming up and asking for money. My first night in Chicago, walking on a downtown street to a restaurant, a young black man in his 20s comes up from behind me and hands me a copy of The Onion newspaper and starts telling me about a charity that helps the poor he’s collecting donations for and then he gives me two postcards with featuring Chicago tourist sites. I’m sort of half listening to his pitch and half wondering why I’m holding The Onion and two postcards and quickly realizing this is a clever panhandling ploy.

Eventually, I politely decline his offer and for a half a city block, I’m berated for wasting his time and not only that, I’m a “racist” for not giving him any money.

Where does that come from? How has his view of Asian Americans been formed? I’ve experienced my fair share of aggressive and even rude panhandlers but I’ve never been called a racist.

When we finally get to the restaurant, my friend and I, both Chinese American men in their 30s (though my time as a 30-something runs out soon) sit down at a table. The waitress, who is white, comes by and asks us what we’d like to drink. We ask, “what’s on draft” and she runs through the options. We both make our choices (I had a hefeweizen), and she asks us for our IDs.

Even at my advanced age, I still get carded occasionally, and for me it can be a compliment. But it just seemed that, in the waitress’s eyes, being the only two Asian Americans in the room, we didn’t look “man” enough to order a beer. The stereotype about Asians looking younger than they are is out there. I’m sure there was no malicious intent on her part, but again, perhaps her views of Asian Americans are shaped by her environment.

My Onion-wielding friend accused me of being racist, but I would by no means characterize Chicago that way. Like the places you’ll read about in “Across Asian Middle America,” Chicago and the rest of the country is changing. Attitudes about Asian Americans and race in general are changing. It’s not an easy road, but we’re getting there.

A version of this post can also be found on Hyphen magazine’s blog.

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