Very rarely am I conscious of the fact that I’m Asian living in a non-Asian country. Yes, there are times when I am reminded of this reality, such as when I go shopping for clothes (I get it, I’m short!), or when I’m getting my nails done and my Vietnamese technician asks me questions I don’t know the answers to about Korea. Or when I buy make-up (I think I’ve finally figured out how to blend the perfect liquid foundation shade but God did it take a lot of trial and error), but other than that, I’ve been very fortunate to feel no different from those around me most of my days. (I very much credit this to living in Washington, DC which truly is an international city.)
But last week, for the first time in a long time, I suddenly felt like a stranger in a strange land. It’s kind of funny, I guess, and I blame my (adoptive) father for getting me into this situation in the first place. Last week two musical legends performed in DC: James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt. Now if you are under the age of 60 and know who I’m talking about, it’s probably because like me, an older relative introduced you to their music when you were a kid.
I was raised on James Taylor music. My fondest memories as a child are Saturday mornings when my dad would make me my favorite pancake breakfast while James sung “How sweet it is to be loved by you” on the record player in the background. And then later as a young adult, when I was serving in the Peace Corps, far, far away from the comforts of home, muchless the familiarity of the US and my family in Minnesota, my dad sent me a care package that included a mixed tape of James Taylor favorites. I would fall asleep over there in Kyrgyzstan at my service site right on the Kyrgyz-Kazak border, deep in the Chui valley with mountains in three of the four directions surrounding me, and fall asleep in my down sleeping bag listening to James Taylor on my Walkman sing, “Pray for the forest pray for the trees, pray for the fish in the deep blue sea/Pray for yourself and for God’s sake, say one for me…”
Yes, James has been with me pretty much my whole life, so when I heard he was going to be in concert here in DC, I obviously had to go.
It’s worth noting that I’m not a big concert-goer to begin with, so you can imagine how meaningful this opportunity was to me, especially since I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to join. (James who?) I get it. If you’re anywhere near my age, you aren’t expected to know who he is, and if you or your parents did not grow up in the US in the ’70s (as many of my friends are from other countries), you’re forgiven for not knowing who this great folk legend is.
But that did not stop me from going to see JT perform live. I was prepared for the awkwardness of going to a concert alone. I was prepared for the erratic weather (intense heat and humidity followed by a downpour and then a perfect summer evening). But I was strangely not prepared to feel so out of place because of my ethnicity.
Even in a cosmopolitan city like Washington, DC, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt are almost always going to attract a primarily Caucasian audience. As my Latino roommate said when I played for him some of their songs, “Oh, this is white people’s music. It’s not bad.” Of course, I never thought of that until I got there and saw just one black couple and another Asian guy, who like me, appeared to be at the concert alone, sitting several rows behind me. Other than that, it was a massive audience of Caucasian “Americana”—basically my parents surrounding me in every direction I turned with the occasional millennial in sight.
No one ever said or did anything to me to make me feel uncomfortable; it was my own insecurity that made me suddenly feel self-conscious. Never before in my life have I ever felt awkward being the only non-white person in a place (usually I never notice it), but for some strange reason, I felt it Friday night there at the concert. It’s really hard to describe; it wasn’t a negative experience, but it was pretty strange and very noticeable. I suppose it didn’t help that I was at the show alone. But I could feel it…curious but not unkind looks from the strangers surrounding me.
Why is she here alone? She seems too young to know who these performers are. How does she know of James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt? Are they big in China/Korea/Japan?
I don’t blame them. I’d be curious too. I did kind of stick out based on more than one demographic. I suppose it’s a) unusual to see someone at a concert alone and b) surprising to see an Asian (of all ethnicities) enjoying American folk music from the 1970s. Yet there I was among people who would normally be my parents’ peers. Kind of humorous, I know.
After the concert—which was amazing—I shared an uber ride home with some fellow concert-goers, an older couple that appeared to be an adult daughter and her elderly father who had memories of seeing James Taylor perform live during his college years. Anyway, we were talking about the concert in the car, and I mentioned how I was raised on this music and how it was my father who introduced me to both James’ and Bonnie’s tunes. The woman in the car was flabbergasted. She clearly did not see that one coming. “Really?” she asked in amazement. Then after some brief contemplation it was less of a question and more of a statement. “Really,” she decided.
I admit, I was kind of jerking her around. I knew she was curious to know what kind of earthly combinations formed to make this happen, but she was too polite to ask. (I wonder if, like many of my friends before they got to me know me, she assumed my dad was an American GI and my mom was an [insert Asian ethnicity of choice.]) Anyway, I intentionally withheld the fact that my father is a white guy a few years younger than her own dad, that I was adopted from Korea and that I grew up in rural Minnesota and it was through this combination that I came to love James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, but it’s not like the conversation provided an opening for such sharing of personal information. Still, it was kind of funny, watching her trying to figure it all out in her politically correct mind.
Anyway, it was a great social experiment on many levels, and I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to see what was an incredible show that brought back lots of childhood memories for me. Too bad my dad was several states away and could not join me for the concert. Then again, wouldn’t that sight mess up people’s minds? (An old white guy with a young Asian woman?) Now that would have been hilarious!