If I were to write a personal ad, it would go something like this: short male, black hair, brown eyes, caramel-colored skin. Then I would probably go on at length about my sculpted body and model looks. You’re thinking Latin male, right? What if I added slightly oval eyes, like large almonds? What would you think then? Asian? In South Florida? No way. There are no Asians in South Florida.
Perhaps not many, but there are.
Yes I’m Asian. More specifically, Vietnamese. I moved to South Florida after finishing college in New Orleans, where you couldn’t walk a couple of feet and not bump into another Asian. That’s not the case here, where every once in awhile I spy another Asian. Then a slightly awkward exchange occurs.
First there’s that moment of disbelief. Did I just see another Asian? After a couple of double takes confirming that the person is indeed Asian, a serious stare-down ensues. A silent game of guessing the nationality commences. (Side note here: For those who say they can distinguish the different Asian nationalities, you can’t. I get mistaken for Filipino all the time.)
After the stare-down, a couple of things can happen. Both parties do nothing or give simple nods acknowledging each other’s presence. Maybe they pretend to find a spec of dirt on the floor interesting so one party can move in closer. If greetings are shared, the indubitable questions are asked: Where are you from? How long have you been here? You know there aren’t a lot of Asians in South Florida, right?
In South Florida, people are divided into two categories: Latin or not Latin. If you have the slightest resemblance of being Latin, you’re presumed to be so. People approach me all the time speaking Spanish at full throttle. There’s no point in saying, “Yo no hablo español” because the response I receive is, “Sí, tu hablas español!” In no time, I learned the importance of saying “Mira” and “Ay, Dios mío.”
So what I usually do nowadays is point to my eyes, the obvious sign that I’m Asian. Sometimes that’s enough to convey I’m not a Spanish speaker. But more often than not, the person looks up and continues to hurl Spanish words at me. Confusion sinks in. Should I be offended that they’ve ignored my Asian identity or impressed that they are so willing to accept me into their culture? No salsa or meringue auditions. No flan-making test. Who knew that the mere utterance of “Qué tal” is the Spanish equivalent of “open sesame”?
As an immigrant myself, I find that I have more in common with my Latin and Caribbean neighbors than I ever thought possible.
The chorus of the immigrant song is a familiar tune no matter where you are from. Some immigrants have escaped oppressive regimes. Others, who at any costs, risked their lives to ensure brighter futures for their families. It’s why I understand the push for the Dream Act. When mothers recount their struggles to get their children to the United States, I see my own mother. Fathers are channeling my own when they talk about overcoming insurmountable obstacles. I see Haitian refugees on rafts, and it reminds me of the throngs of Vietnamese refugees who escaped after the war.
What if my family were turned away? Where would I be today? Even though I still find it hard to add “American” after “Vietnamese” when describing myself, I’m grateful that I have the option. Many would gladly change places with me.
So I have chosen to live in South Florida where the nearest Chinatown is a thousand miles away, and perhaps I don’t see people that look like me very often. But I’m OK with that.
Latin spices, Caribbean flavors, beautiful beaches – in retrospect, I’ve gained more than I’ve lost.
Ly Nguyen is a writer living in Wilton Manors. He grew up in New Orleans, hence the affinity for spicy food and stories. Find more of his writing at aslantedview.com.