When my father immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s, there were still places that “discouraged” Asians, especially restaurants and hotels. He does not talk about those years much, but once in a while, he drops hints of what it felt like. When he brought us over, my brothers and I enrolled in schools where the teachers — and the students — had never seen or encountered Asians before. We were “Orientals” back then: we were slanty-eyed, buck-toothed, yellow-skinned aliens. It was an interesting, if appalling, experience, but kids are resilient.
My parents accept racism as part of life; they keep to themselves, they expect it of others. It has been years since I experienced overt, or even covert, racism — but then, I have always used my intellect to protect myself. During my psychiatry rotation, my preceptor, who had been practicing for 40 years, gave me a pearl I have never forgotten: what you feel when you walk out of a patient’s room is the diagnosis. When I finally walked away from my “unfortunate encounter” with the salon owner, I felt awful — but it was more than just having been blindsided. Something was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The woman is a racist. She would deny it, of course; she would be the sort who tells you that she has friends of other races, and be completely sincere about it. But, she is a racist, and unless you are on the receiving end, you would not ever realize it. I had somehow forgotten that for some people, I remain an “other.”