Fitting a melting pot into a census box

March 20, 2000|By Hannah C. Feldman

The new census is under way, and this year, for the first time, individuals will be able to list themselves under more than one racial category, a nod to the United States' ever-increasing multiracial population.

I will not be checking the box marked "Chinese." I will be checking the box marked "White," which makes sense since I am white and in no way could be mistaken for someone of Asian descent. If you were to guess my ethnic background, you'd probably choose Jewish. And you'd be right. Sort of. But only half right, or maybe a third right. The truth is, I am American, and in the new millennium that's not something that can be easily quantified.

The thing is, I'm also Chinese.

Let me give you the background: My father is the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. My mother, who is white, was raised Southern Baptist. My stepfather Kevin, with whom I have lived since I was 10, is Chinese-American. Because much of his extended family lived in Seattle where I grew up (while my own lived across the country in Florida), my experience of family has been shaped in great part by my experience with Kevin's tightly knit Cantonese clan.

It's an odd thing, to be a stealth Asian like this. I have been party to some of the most racist comments -- often involving missing pets -- made by relatively politically correct individuals who would never have said any such thing if a visibly Asian person had been in the room. And I've grown used to the puzzled look that invariably greets my first mention of "my Chinese family" in conversation.

On the flip side, I've sometimes caught strange looks from racially Asian people as I casually slip into an imitation of my step-grandfather's heavily accented English, or make joking reference to icky Chinese vegetables. My family is no more functional than any other, and the only way to survive it is to cultivate a healthy sense of self-deprecatory humor. I have to remind myself, however, that to strangers this can sometimes sound disturbingly close to the missing pet jokes.

But it's not all angst and identity crisis in the Realm of Racial Ambiguity. One of my favorite stories involves the time I started getting homesick for dim sum, a traditional Chinese form of restaurant meal where you order little plates of appetizers off carts that attendants roll past your table. My step-grandfather worked at a Chinese restaurant for most of his life, and the whole family used to meet there one Saturday a month to eat steamed dumplings, sweet rice in lotus leaves, and the occasional chicken foot.

After years of living without dim sum in Baltimore, I heard of a restaurant just outside of town that served it, and persuaded my friend Kerri to come with me. Kerri grew up in a white, meat-and-potatoes family in New Jersey, but she's Korean by birth -- her parents adopted her when she was a baby. She's very open to new experiences, which was important because dim sum is a pretty intimidating experience if you aren't familiar with the food. I was, and for me, dim sum is comfort food, and I was ready to return to my roots.

At the restaurant, I was in charge of the order. But then things got weird: No matter what I ordered, the cart attendant would doublecheck it with Kerri. It didn't matter if I knew the names of the dishes, while Kerri kept eyeing the next thing to hit her plate with slight skepticism. To everyone else in that restaurant, Kerri was the native guide, and I was the clueless foreigner.

Similarly, even on the new and improved census forms, Kerri will be classified under an Asian category, and I will be classified white. I know this and am content to check my one uncomplicated box when I get my questionnaire.

But I also know that whatever data this census gathers, it must necessarily fail to show how truly complex our ever-more-melted pot has become. Because there is a sense -- a very real sense -- in which Kerri is white, and I am Asian. No census in the world is going to be able to explain that.

Hannah C. Feldman writes from Baltimore.

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