The man behind the Publix counter stares as I pack my groceries. What? I want to ask him, but I am not quite that plucky, so instead I rustle my bags and say nothing. He’s middle-aged with leathery skin and after a minute, he cracks.

“Ni hao” he says. “Chinese? Me too!” He guffaws. “Just kidding.”

I don’t know why I am so surprised. I am standing in a grocery store in Miami, but those words are all it takes to plunge me back to different times in different cities, with men—for some reason, they are always men—shouting the same greetings and Bruce Lee sayings.This is all it takes to remind me that, although I think of myself as a student, an Australian, a young person who’s still figuring things out, my face represents something unanimous to some people, and that is: Asian. This is all it takes to remind me that, although I think of myself as a student, an Australian, a young person who’s still figuring things out, my face represents something unanimous to some people, and that’s Asian . “Ni hao,” the man at the register says, probably attempting to be friendly, and I don’t know how to tell him how uncomfortable it makes me—because that’s not my greeting.

It’s hard to explain the complexity of feelings that being an Asian minority encompasses, something that seems particularly prominent in the United States. The number of times that strangers have taken one look and greeted me with wobbly Chinese is astounding—and although I am always annoyed, I cannot quite bring myself to blame them. After all, although I think in English and my voice has the lazy vowels of an Australian, how are they supposed to know? Somehow I doubt that “stereotyping” and “racial profiling” are concepts often brought up in casual conversation, and while ignorance is not an excuse, it is also a product of our environment—and we live in one that is still flawed, where assumptions based on looks seem unavoidable. And I have begun to dread it when people ask me where I’m from, “ethnically”. I have learnt to replace “I’m Australian,” with “I grew up in Australia,” although both are true. One just leads to less confusion.

While Duke may be more sensitive about avoiding certain offensive generalizations, the dynamics of culture here can still seem restrictive. Perhaps it is only natural that people of similar backgrounds congregate together and self-segregation occurs. I like that there is vibrancy and dancing and music and color in the way cultural opportunities are presented. What bothers me is the way it can seem so divisive. What does it mean if I don’t like Chinese dance? Sometimes I’ll look around at a party, and realize I’m the only Asian there, and it’s jarring. Or I’ll walk past an event hosted by the Duke Asian Students Association and feel odd, peeking through the window, as if I'm spying on something I'm not meant to see.

I am not ashamed of being Chinese. My parents have tried to impart an appreciation for the culture they grew up with, and I think they’ve done a good job. I can write the elegant characters of my Chinese name, and I could never deny the special tenderness I feel towards pork buns. The stories they tell me are not so easily erased. Yet when strangers greet me in Chinese, well-intentioned or not, it's making an assumption about a past that they don’t know, one that reduces culture to a caricature. What of nineteen years in the Australian sun, learning to love mateship and cricket and Karl Stefanovic? And there are still parts of Chinese culture that I will never understand, because I have never lived it, and it is false to claim so. On a flight last summer, I stopped over in my birthplace, Shanghai, for the first time since childhood. My relatives found me dazed by the sticky heat and the sea of dialects in the airport. It was strange to imagine my mother pushing me into this garish city twenty-one years ago. I greeted my aunt in polite Chinese.

“You sound like a wai go ren,” she said. “You sound foreign.”

Later that evening, my family takes me out to a local seafood shack that’s supposed to be the best in the city. Outside on the street, people squat in their sandals, de-shelling clams, and the juices all run together in the street. Nobody tries to “ni-hao” me. A steaming, spitting tray of red crayfish arrives. I don’t know how to eat them, so I look around the restaurant as everyone crunches deliciously. The girl at the table next to me sits, small-shouldered and pale. She draws a puff from her cigarette and I accidentally catch her eye. I feel her appraise my deep tan, my jeans and my blond highlights. When we leave the restaurant, I sneak a glance and even then, she’s still staring, smoking and staring.

All of this is to say: culture matters, but being categorized to the singular culture I look like assumes too much that is false and denies too much that is important. Neither do I want to pretend that the distinctive black hair and brown eyes I have inherited from an ancient dynasty spanning millennia is meaningless. There’s still too much of the past that I don’t understand. Then again, maybe I should be grateful. Determining where I am from has to be less confusing than deciding where I'm going next.

Isabella Kwai is a Trinity junior.