Last fall, a sweet old lady came up to me at Draper Elementary and asked, “Sandra Yi? Aren’t you that news reporter for channel 5?” When I said no, she replied, “Oh! Well you look just like her. You’re beautiful, too.” Keep in mind that many parts of Utah are still predominantly Caucasian. To this sweet grandma, I (Chinese-American me) looked just like a Korean-American news reporter on TV. Maybe it was the long black hair.
Some days in China, I’d gladly take that comparison and adulation again. Frequently, people assume I’m The Circus’ Ayi or “domestic helper” (a very PC phrase for maid.) Women of all generations approach me in the stores, cooing over the girls. “They’re so beautiful.” Inevitably followed by a doubtful “You can’t have given birth to them!” or an incredulous “Did you give birth to them?”
I was mentally prepared for it, but the first time was still a shock. Two weeks after we arrived, we climbed in a taxi, The Hubs in front, and I in the back with the kids. The taxi driver admired my husband’s Chinese speaking skills and asked, “So where is your wife?” The Hubs looked confused. I told him in English, “He thinks I’m your Ayi.” The Hubs answered in Chinese, “My wife is sitting in the back.” The taxi driver then looked in his rear view mirror at me with a surprised expression, either of disbelief or disgust. It was subtle, but judgment glanced my way.
Disbelief and confusion, as in, Did he marry his Ayi? Think of all the scandalous stories they’re telling about us. Once a bread saleswoman grabbed me and spoke Shanghainese. I caught the gist of it. How did you catch a Lao Wai, eh? Cackling laughter ensued.
Or disgust, as in, She sold out. Yes, there’s been ugly stuff, too. I’ve received dirty looks from people but thankfully haven’t been subjected yet to the phrase “Mai guo,” as in You sold out your country. It doesn’t matter that I am American. To these people, I’m one of them.
Which often means blunt rudeness, barking and shouting (yes, I’ve been shouted at, as they’ve fawned over The Hubs) and terrible manners. It’s been recommended that I should wear more makeup. Or dressier clothes…and high heels. But it can neither be helped nor changed that my outside doesn’t match my inside. At this point, I’d need to be a different race. But what race? There is racism and prejudice everywhere. I realize America is far from perfect when it comes to race relations. But it could always be worse. Trust me. I’m at the bottom of the caste system out here.
There is an unfortunate side to Chinese culture that I’ve never understood. They care so much about saving face and will bend over backwards to treat foreigners well. But they treat each other like Huangpu River garbage.
And they think I’m one of them.
Some days, I’d rather be Sandra Yi.
No, I take that back.
Some days in China, I’d rather be a Laowai.
A fiery redhead.
Mom or maid?