New York City is home to almost 8.2 million people. That is according to the 2010 census. And the racial make-up of the city is changing. Asians have the highest growth rate at 32 percent. The ethnic group with the second highest is the Hispanics. But just up by 8 percent. Commentator Larry Tung says Asian New Yorkers are a very diverse population but many people often lump them together because well, as him explains, they all look the same.
My friends always tell me that I should be an actor. And that’s not because of my leading man good looks. It’s because I have a generic Asian look—I am 5-9, a square face, light facial hair and small eyes. I could be a Chinese deliveryman, a Japanese businessman or a North Korean soldier in one of those James Bond movies.
Growing up in Taiwan, nobody thought I was Taiwanese or Chinese. People always thought I was Japanese. Back in the 80s, anything Japanese was popular in Taiwan so I never minded. I actually took it as a compliment. When I was in college, Korean drama became big hits, and all of sudden people thought I was Korean.
I moved to New York a decade ago. There are several Chinatowns, a couple of Koreatowns, and an unofficial Little Tokyo on St. Mark’s Street. We are everywhere. Whenever I meet new people, the question of my ethnicity always comes up. But often time, people would just look at me and say “You’re Korean?”
I am not, but I do love Korean food. However, a trip to Koreatown usually involves me pretending to be Korean. At restaurants, the waiters used to give me dirty looks when I ordered in English. They thought I was Korean but tried not to be fobby-”Fresh off the Boat”. So to keep waiters from spitting in my food, I ordered in Korean- calbi for barbecue short ribs, pa-jon for seafood pancake, and chop-che for sweet potato noodles. Yum.
Occasionally, people confuse Taiwan with Thailand. And the conversation would go like this:
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Taiwan.”
“Oh, I love Thai food!”
I used to get upset about it because Thailand is a poor country. Now I just smile and say “Me, too!”
So obviously many New Yorkers don’t really know much about Asians even though we are the fastest growing racial group in the city. But can we tell the difference amongst ourselves? A few of us decided to take a challenge. We found a website called Alllooksame.com. Get it? All look same. Even the name of the website makes fun of us. The site offers an online exam where you have to identify Asian New Yorkers by their ethnicity – Chinese, Japanese or Korean. As we went down the list, we thought we nailed it. Well, the joke was on us because we ended up getting only 8 out of 18. I guess we Asians get confused, too.
All in all, I really don’t mind it when people get confused about my ethnicity. In fact, I enjoy telling people about Taiwan. But, believe it or not, from time to time, I do get asked if I am from New York. And I take that as a compliment.
Larry Tung lives in Brooklyn, New York, and hopes the city will one day make the Asian Lunar New Year an official holiday.