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Sonn: An Asian-American in Iowa City

BY BARRETT SONN | JULY 22, 2013 5:00 AM

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I was born on May 27, 1992, in Evanston Hospital, Evanston, Ill. Or so I thought. On my 18th birthday, I discovered I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the United States when I was 6 months old. Apparently, my parents thought the difference was negligible and never bothered to clarify that little piece of information for me until I was forced to find out on my own.

And my parents were right. The difference really is negligible. Regardless of where I was born, I ended up in the United States at such a young age I’m more proficient in the American version of almost everything than the Korean version. I “speak” Korean, but there’s no way I can wax tight rhymes and write ethereal lines of text like I can do with English. I’m more comfortable shaking hands than bowing. I tend to find brunettes the most attractive (hello, ladies). The list goes on. I will say this though: Korean food is the best in the world, and you’re a fool if you say otherwise.

If you’ve been outside at any point in time in Iowa City, you’ve probably seen at least one Asian individual somewhere. The University of Iowa Registrar’s Office, this past spring, reported that there were 963 Asian-American students and 3,604 international students. I may be wrong, maybe to a crazy extent, but it’s how I perceive the situation: it is more likely that the Asian you see is an international student than an Asian American.

People have mistaken me for an international student, which is only mildly irritating and actually somewhat justifiable because if you aren’t familiar with things like differences in fashion or don’t bother to pay attention, you can make that mistake. But there have been times where people have treated me like an international student, and there’s a big difference between the two.

Racism is not selective, in that it doesn’t matter what your citizenship is. It is based on looks, essentially. But again, from my own experience, this is what I see: If a person thinks you are an international student, you are more likely to be subject to racism and general crassness. I submit as evidence what happened on Saturday night.

I was walking home from the Bread Garden Market when I crossed paths with two white guys and one white girl. As I walked in front of them, one of the guys blatantly said something racist with no attempt at all to either lower his voice or generally disguise his racism in any way. And no, none of them were drunk. As the three of them laughed, I kept walking with my groceries, knowing that if I turned around, there was a very real chance things would get ugly.

I suppose this is situational, but would he have been so obvious if he knew I was actually not only an Asian-American but somebody who is pretty proficient in English? Would he have been so obvious if he knew I was this close to turning around and giving him a tongue-lashing that would make even Samuel L. Jackson quake in his boots? Who knows, really? But it sure seems like even the implication of being an international student is bad in some way. Or maybe it really is about being something other than white.

Recently, I’ve been looking for an apartment with a deadline looming, and I’ve noticed an interesting — and frustrating — trend. I’ll talk (in a virtually accent-free voice) with potential roommates over the phone (individuals who are looking for one last person to equally divide the rent in an efficient manner) and arrange a meeting time.

Almost every single time, I will be standing at the front door, it’ll open, and the person standing there will do some kind of spastic double-take before hesitatingly asking, “B … arrett …???” Then I see the apartment as I sense a lot of reluctance around me. I go through the formalities, as do they, before I leave, never to hear from them again.

Normally, I would find even malicious racism (racism purely for evil) a little amusing. Stupid people will be stupid people. But being Asian this past month has been a surprising obstacle in a place where it’s been mostly accepted. My frustration mounted little by little, but it was compounded exponentially by what happened last Saturday night.


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