Before we started dating, my boyfriend and I played this weird 36 questions game. In it, two people ask each other 36 questions and—supposedly—fall in love at the end. One of the questions was, “Name three things you like about each other.” My not-so-eloquent then-friend, after listing two things he liked about me and a series of stammers, scratched his head and said, “I like your skin tone.” I was speechless.
Of course, he later explained that he meant he liked my skin being soft and smooth, and that he wasn’t referring to my race at all. I had initially assumed our racial difference was just going to be one of those light-hearted jokes that we would poke fun at each other about. Regardless, that was the first time I realized that race was going to become an issue that we wouldn’t be able to ignore.
My boyfriend is white, Texas born and raised. I’m Asian and grew up in many places around the world. Like many couples, we met at a party and started dating. But unlike those couples, we had to soon become accustomed to all kinds of questions surrounding our ethnic differences: “Does your boyfriend have yellow fever?”, “Are his parents okay with you being Asian?”, and the worst, “Are you sure he’s not just fucking around?” Neither of us had expected the disturbing, habitual curiosity that everyone would have about our racial difference. Nor did we know how to solve the problem, as we both only knew our own, separate racial experiences; we struggled to navigate and fully understand the other’s anxieties and insensitivities. It takes time for all couples to learn about each other and understand who they are; but for us, in fact, the conversation needed to start with the most basic question—what are you?
When I was visiting him in Pittsburgh over the summer, we walked through the Ohiopyle State Park hand in hand. It was clear that everyone noticed us—noticed me—and our entangled hands. People don’t make it obvious, or at least try not to, but I noticed them regardless. It’s hard not to when their gazes linger ever so slightly before they look away, as if they were confused by what they were seeing. It was as if what I am is not enough to date him or be seen together with him. Their gazes didn’t last, but my discomfort certainly did.
This kind of fear peaked when one day in the middle of a casual conversation, my boyfriend shared with me an array of memes about the United Airlines passenger who had been dragged off the plane. The jokes were vile—captions ranged from “now offering Chinese takeout” to “drag me outside how bout dat,” and a sufficiently horrific one of a man with a face mask covering all of his Asian features, “complimentary flying equipment.” These jokes made their message quite clear: If you look Asian, you’re not welcome here. If you are Asian, you are not safe here. I do not deserve to be seen, or heard, or protected. My heart sank. Completely unaware of my thoughts, he laughed so hard and asked, “Isn’t that so funny?”
Loving someone who will forever be so different from you—a circumstance destined by birth—presents quite a dilemma, as neither side can do anything to remove the difference. Nobody will be able to ever change their skin color, so the only thing that can be done is to be fully aware of this difference and be able to empathize with the other side. When my boyfriend assumed that I would find the United Airlines incident funny, he assumed that I wouldn’t have seen it as offensive, racist, and violent—because he himself never needed to fear, or face, such treatment.
Our tiny little relationship problem, of course, reflects a broader problem that our campus and our nation shares. America’s rich diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds has existed since its founding; just as my boyfriend and I have set our minds to tackling the issue of race in our relationship, there are mixed households across America fighting to keep their families together.
At Columbia, it has become increasingly common to see interracial couples on campus, but the phenomenon also comes along with the doubts and accusations of fetishism, even on an ideologically progressive campus like ours. Being a mixed couple, on this campus, can often be a practice of empathy and patience—not only for our peers, but also for one another. Many relationships, after all, traverse the realms of racial, cultural, financial or social background, but essentially center on the common language of love we all speak. Ultimately, it is the ability of empathy—of our innate capacity to learn and understand—that we can find ourselves tracing back to during these difficult times. Eventually, I decided to have that solemn and heavy discussion with him about our racial differences; I told him the stories of my family emigrating to North America and how difficult it was for us to mingle into a white dominant society. I explained to him the outdated stereotypes of Asians and Asian culture. It was a difficult conversation; I cried and laughed and held words on the tip of my tongue, but it was worth it to make myself understood, to make myself heard. He ultimately apologized, and I chose to forgive him. I, myself, still have a lot to learn about him and his experiences. All we can do, after all, is take out the warm little portion of empathy in our hearts to communicate our insufficiency of experiences, to understand and bridge differences, to stand in each other’s shoes, to recognize that we are human after all.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and film studies.