An obnoxiously red banner with Chinese characters hangs in front of a small, unassuming diner close to home. I stroll inside Grand Lake, this bustling hive with waitresses scuttling hurriedly and tables shaking lightly, the din of laughter from families mixing with the aromas of Chinese food. A lady with a notepad impatiently beckons my family to sit at one of the free tables, and as soon as we’re all settled in, she begins addressing me in Mandarin - possibly asking what I wanted for a drink. I look at her blankly, and she returns the confused expression. “I don’t speak Chinese,” I laugh forcibly after a tense moment. She doesn’t find the humor in my apology. From thereafter, our order is taken in broken English, our chopsticks switched out for the standard fork and knife, and I feel the burning gaze of the waitresses judging my family as we eat our Sunday brunch in silence.
Cultural confusion is commonplace. Being born in Peru and raised in Venezuela makes no difference in how most people see and treat us. Focusing on my slanted, almond eyes and ebony hair, I’m automatically pegged as an Asian wherever I go. Touring Peruvian artisan markets is always a test of wit and cleverness, as vendors try to over-price items we’re interested in simply because we look Asian, and therefore must also have Crazy Rich Asian bank accounts. Pulling out a simple credit card at a Caracas mall once got us chased by three armed motorcyclists on the highway, and my mother risked collision as she wove in and out of the cramped lanes like a Formula One race car driver. Since when did my appearance jeopardize my life?
My ancestry traces back to both Chinese and Japanese roots, its imprint burrowed deep in my face and DNA. But I’m a third generation, Peruvian-born girl with the fire to prove it. Over time, our Asian culture diluted and was replaced with a vibrant, Latino lifestyle. With each generation, the immigrant language faded, folktales blurred, spices dulled, and all things Asian abandoned. I celebrated Noche Buena as a kid, not Chinese New Year’s. My favorite childhood dishes were anticuchos and papa huancaína, not onigiri rice balls or sushi rolls. Everyone assumes that I am a math prodigy, shy and antisocial, a black belt karate master, and a laughingstock on the dance floor. But actually, I struggle hardest in my math class, studying twice as much as others for the same grade. My personality, although sweet, is bold and gregarious. I am a three-year kickboxer and a five-year Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor. Turn on Marc Anthony and I may just get a spot on So You Think You Can Dance. I’m Latina, just packed in a cute, little Bento box.
There is one Asian stereotype that I fit into, even though its backstory is completely misguided: playing the piano. In reality, piano musician culture was not developed in any Asian region, rather in European countries with pioneers such as Bach and Haydn. Statistically, there is an equal amount of Asian and non-Asian musicians in the professional world. I came across the piano through my own curiosity and will, not through my parents bludgeoning me to play it like it’s portrayed with all young Asians. I actually studied South American music for an international piano competition in Peru, finished as a finalist, and grew to love the radiant and eccentric style of Latino modern music. But I digress-- my potential should be evaluated separately from my appearance.
I am a musician born by passion, not by race. I am a human defined by my achievements and experiences, not physical assumptions. Leave your preconceptions by the welcome mat and size me up by the sound of my Rachmaninoff sonata or Enrique Iturriaga solos, and let my character sing your first and final impressions of me.