The Curly Cue
It started on my first day of kindergarten, at Lindeneau School in central New Jersey. I was sitting on the floor stacking building blocks with the other kids and shamefully pretending to drink out of a carton of milk (I'm lactose intolerant, a common condition among Asians) when my teacher, the rotund yet cheerless Ms. S., came and took me by the hand. She escorted me from her classroom and into another one with decidedly less "Romper Room"-esque decor, where a second teacher sat me at a desk and started quizzing me with a series of flashcards. What color is this? What kind of animal is this? Can you count to 10?
I answered all of the questions correctly. This kindergarten stuff is cake! Bring on first grade! Then I looked around. There were older kids here -- first- and second-graders. About a dozen of them. All Latino. All speaking Spanish.
This was an ESL class. I'd been brought here to be tested on how well I could understand English -- which happened to be my first language. Another Asian American kid might have wondered why he alone -- not, say, any of the Korean Americans in the class -- had been shuffled off for testing. But I, even at age 5, looked around and knew.
It was my hair. Tightly curled, like that on an idealized Greek statue or, frankly, a poodle, it had clearly said "Latino" to my kindergarten teacher. Or, at the very least, it had stated, "Not Asian!" and left Latino as a default. (Why that automatically meant a trip to the ESL room, I'll leave for someone else's essay.)
I hadn't even taken a nap yet, and my hair was already causing identity havoc. It couldn't have been the first time. And it certainly wouldn't be the last.
At a college party, someone once described me as looking "vaguely pan-ethnic ." In fact, both my parents are from Thailand, which makes me 100 percent Asian American. But riding public transportation, I've seen enough people staring above my forehead to gather that most don't expect to see Shirley Temple locks above an Asian-looking face. At parties, my hair is often a topic of discussion -- an ice-breaker. Not a month goes by without someone asking permission to feel it, what hair products I use or whether I've gotten it permed. My hair is fairly novel -- even to me. Until I was 7, the only other Asian with curly hair I knew was my father. Then I met my grandfather.
If I were white, Latino or black, the texture of my hair -- curly, wavy or straight -- wouldn't be such a defining feature. But a big part of being identified as Asian is being plunked into a box labeled "You guys all look alike." My slight deviations from what people expect -- eyes slightly rounder than those of most Asians, skin slightly darker and, most visibly, the hair -- have been enough to turn me ethnically ambiguous in people's eyes. About 25 percent of the time, when they guess my ethnicity, they're completely off the mark: They think I'm Latino or native Hawaiian. Another 65 percent of the time, they figure I've got to be mixed: half black, half Asian, for example. Only 10 percent of the time has anyone pegged me for Thai.
Of course, it wasn't always this way.
Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when people were less ethnicity-savvy, they seemed to have no doubts about what I looked like: I looked Chinese American, just like Asian celebrity du jour Michael Chang.
At the time, Chang was burning up the tennis courts. In 1989, he was the first American to win the French Open since 1955. He was everywhere. I'm sure any Asian American guy doing anything athletic back then was, at some point, called Michael Chang by his friends. That I didn't mind. What I did mind: when people said I actually looked like Chang.
"It's a compliment. Michael Chang is very good-looking," a friend's aunt explained. That would have been reassuring -- had I looked anything at all like Michael Chang.
The real Chinese American kids in my community seemed to agree with me. I'd say one-third of my high school class was Asian, with the Chinese and Korean kids forming pretty tight cliques. But I was never really accepted in them. I only had one Asian friend growing up. As for Edison, N.J.'s, Thai community -- at the time, my family was the Thai community. There were no other Thais for miles.