A few days ago, I popped into Mollie Used Books (茉莉二手書店) to see if any of their bookstore cats were around. There was a library cart near the entrance stacked with old Chinese medicine textbooks. I took a peek at the illustrations because I love anatomical drawings.
When I got to this page, a little voice in my head exclaimed “Ooooooh look, he’s Asian!” Well, of course an illustration in a traditional Chinese medicine textbook would use an Asian person, but I’m so used to seeing Caucasian figures in anatomy drawings that it still registers as a surprise.
I’ve lived in Taipei for almost exactly five years now, but I still think constantly about how the experience has influenced my understanding of race and ethnicity—and how that in turn plays into the way I perceive myself and other people. Ron and I went to watch “The Hunger Games” a few months ago and afterward I remarked to him that I was struck by how many Asian extras there were in the movie, as competitors and residents of Panem and the different districts.
Ron, on the other hand, said that he felt there weren’t enough Asian actors in “The Hunger Games,” especially considering that the story is supposed to be about a dystopic version of the United States. I was surprised to hear that because my Asian-dar had been going off during the entire film: ping ping ping. My eyes kept bouncing back and forth across the screen, drawn to Asian faces. It was almost subconscious. I did the same thing during the last Harry Potter movie, practically squealing when I saw an Asian Death Eater. I know I’m not the only Asian American who does this—it’s called “Asian spotting.”
Growing up as part of a small racial minority group in the US (Asian people are still less than 5% of the total population, according to the last census) meant that I was always looking for people who looked like me in the mass media. It was a big deal when “The Joy Luck Club” and “Mulan” came out—especially the latter because I could finally envision myself as a Disney character! Claudia Kissi from The Babysitter Club books was more than a fictional character in an young adult series. She truly felt like my friend because she was another Asian American teenager who liked art, was bad at math and had a weird sense of fashion (though, in Claudia’s case, it was on purpose).
I’m pretty sure I would not have indulged in Asian spotting if I had grown up in Taiwan, because that would have been a little bit redundant. I’m grateful for my background and upbringing, but I’m always curious what it would have been like if I’d grown up surrounded by people who looked like me and had the same cultural background. What would it feel like not to be surprised by little things like seeing an Asian face in a textbook drawing? Is there any part of my identity and personality that hasn’t been influenced by growing up as a racial minority in a highly race-conscious society? I hoped I would find the answers to those questions when I moved to Taiwan, but I haven’t. But I’m getting to the point where I don’t think that it really matters if I ever do—part of the fun of living here is constantly turning these issues over in my head. It hasn’t always been easy, but at least the tension is illuminating.
I do know I would still have been obsessed with cats, though. Behold the lovely Mollie Books mascot: