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I am a writer, not your ethnic guessing game

not not true

Last year when I was interviewing a source for an article, he gestured toward me while saying something about “Chinese.”

I swallowed my anger. I am not Chinese.

Growing up, microagressions and even straight-up racism were normalized for me. I often recall a moment in fourth grade when my science class was designing a food web. One student put “human” above “cat” in the food web, and other students shouted at him that humans don’t eat cats. 

“Wait a minute,” the teacher said, “Some people do eat cats—right Isabelle?” She looked at me. Everyone’s eyes followed.

Cat eater, small eyes, always Chinese. Never mind the fact that I was born in America and my parents are decidedly Vietnamese. I thought that these things would stop when I grew older. 

Last year when I went to go pick up a paycheck, I was waiting in a lobby with someone else. That person asked me about the Great Wall of China—had I ever been there? I was absolutely bewildered when he thought he could just ask any Asian-looking person on the street about China, as if we were Lonely Planet travel guides.

My first year, when I was shopping at a store on Ninth Street, the cashier told me pointedly about the Chinese daughter he adopted seven years ago.

This semester, while I studied abroad, I drunk men in Rome shouted “I love Chinatown” in caricatured accents. Strangers in London greeted me with “ni hao.” Uber drivers told me that I looked Chinese. Maybe their certainty is somewhat better than all the times that people thought it would be fun to try and guess my ethnicity like they were trying a mystery Dum Dum flavor.

At some point during my college career, I realized that it is not normal to brace myself for a comment about my ethnicity, to brace myself for a ‘where are you from?’ or a reference to something something China. When I hear these comments or see these things, it reaffirms my sense of otherness.

You can imagine, therefore, how nice it is to write an anonymous column where no one will look at my face and pass a judgement. I wanted to write just to write, because this is one of the few ways in which I can speak and people will listen to my words alone.

And what a pleasure it has been. As Monday Monday, I’ve been able to try new formats outside of the usual column. I’ve been able to write a quiz and old-timey Fix My Campus posts; I’ve forced The Chronicle to publish the word “yak” and narratives from the perspective of grass.

However, the most exciting part was being able to write for The Chronicle in a different capacity after serving three years on the news staff. Leah approached me about applying for Monday Monday while I was still news editor. Was this even possible? Could a journalist turn into a humor columnist?

I consulted many people to find this answer. People like Nathan and Cathy were ever-present sounding boards for my ideas and jokes. Other friends found out along the way—like Kevin, who determined that only I would write a tiny love story about Alex O’Connell—but encouraged me nonetheless. And of course, Leah, a gem of an editor, was always there to inject extra humor into whatever I wrote.

So the answer to my question: yes, I could. I love to write and I love to tell jokes, so combining the two was natural. There may not be many female Asian-American comedians, but I think I was able to add a little bit to that space. 

And I know that for every humorous effort made by someone like me, it is somehow met with an equal and opposite racist force. Like a few months ago, when Saturday Night Live hired Bowen Yang—the first cast member of full East-Asian descent—at the same time as Shane Gillis, who likes to make fun of “chinks” and the “Chinee.” Or last year, when stars like Ali Wong and Awkwafina rose at the same time that Louis C.K. returned with jokes that mocked Asian men.

So I understand. But this is my effort. I will be funny, and I will simultaneously be met with the racism I have always encountered. I will write, and I will have a source assume my ethnicity.

I will still write.

My name is Isabelle Doan, and I’ve enjoyed being your Monday Monday.

Isabelle Doan is a Trinity senior. She served as V. 114 News Editor and the Fall 2019 Monday Monday.

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