Asians Coming Through



Neighborhood: East Village, Union Square

The first time I was called a chink was in New York City at the beginning of my freshman year of college. 

Having grown up in Irvine, California, America’s seventh safest city, where boba cafes were as common as Starbucks and Korean BBQ was the only thing to do on a Friday night, I was sheltered but fully adjusted and integrated into my community. Often described as a bubble, Irvine has a population that is forty percent Asian. The other sixty percent is a multitude of different ethnicities, making the city a “melting pot” ideal. My childhood cultivated a belief that Asians weren’t really a minority, a belief that made me ill-prepared for what was to come.

In high school I had read a few novels with identity crisis narratives, like “The Woman Warrior,” “No-no Boy,” and “American Born Chinese.” They had common themes—rejecting immigrant parents, being too embarrassed to eat non-American foods at school, and not knowing whether to identify as American or Asian. I had no sympathy. Just eat your damn noodles, I thought. Ungrateful children. I was secure in my place in the world, a security fostered from growing up as part of a large community and never having been ostracized for bringing fish sauce or wrinkly tofu skins for my school lunch.

I moved to New York at eighteen to attend college. People on both coasts badgered me about whether or not I had experienced a culture shock and how I handled the change in pace. I always cited the more obvious discrepancies—weather, food, popular mass store chains—but I wasn’t thoroughly shocked until the end of my first year there.

I had been in New York for only a few months before the man called me a chink. I had been in Union Square, maneuvering through throngs of pedestrians, trying to make my way back to my dorm. Horns honking, street vendors peddling bagged mangos and pop-up cards, conversations all around me, and then “chink.” I looked around and made eye contact with the culprit, a frail old man with dark skin, flaky white from dryness. His elbow joints protruded from lean arms, which were pulling a little cart that got stuck in each crack in the sidewalk. He continued babbling, some of his words incoherent as he yelled aimlessly. Every effort to get his cart over the tiny caulked hills was strained.

My mild surprise lasted about two seconds, and then I felt a small sadness, not for myself but for him. His yelling was slightly distressed, his steps were hobbled; he didn’t seem to be in a good place. I thought nothing more of it, but noted the event as the first.

Later in the year I traveled to Ohio to watch a friend perform at the University of Dayton. Dayton is demographically one percent Asian, a statistic I looked up after the fact. The overnight bus I took from New York’s Chinatown raced against the coming dawn, dropping me in U.S.A. Central while it was still dark. I called an Uber, and a car pulled up to pick me up. The driver was a black woman, and I remember my initial surprise at having a female driver. There never seemed to be any in New York.

I sat in the back seat as she pulled onto an Ohio “highway”—two lanes across, no barriers, flanked by uninterrupted fields on either side. She was friendly for four in the morning, asking why I was visiting, talking about the weather and things I could do in the area.

“It must be a lot different here than where you’re from,” she said, and I could feel where the conversation was going.

“It’s a lot quieter here,” I said, purposefully keeping my origins vague, testing her. “A lot more open space and nature, too.”

“Was it hard coming to the U.S. from China?”

It was my very own stranger in the village moment, but I was more amused than offended. Already I was thinking of when I could tell my friends, laughing as they rolled their eyes and shook their heads at the expense of the woman’s ignorance. I wasn’t angry but felt a small grain of pity for her—living in the middle of nowhere, in a city outside of cultural influence, where any Asian was assumed to be from China. Her bubble must be so small. At least she had preempted her question with conversation, and seemed genuinely curious to learn more. I gave her five stars on the app.

As the end of freshman year came to a close, my friend and I began looking for new roommates. She knew of two people who were interested, and we all convened at Big Gay Ice Cream in the East Village. We were a group of four Asian girls, and couldn’t all fit into the crowded store. After receiving our cups and cones, we meandered down the narrow sidewalk, trying to pass through flocks of people waiting for brunch.

We filed into a single line to squeeze past a group loitering against a fence, their hands causally stuffed into pockets—three white men and one woman. The men had on khaki shorts that were cuffed above the knees, sunglasses, pastel polo shirts, and looked like they were about to go boating in Connecticut. One of them wore a smirk on his face.

“Asians coming through,” he said as we walked past, purposefully raising his voice so we could hear.

My friend’s head snapped, and we exchanged glares. There have been few times in my life when I have been thoroughly angry, but now I was fuming. I wanted to throw my big gay ice cream all over his big straight face. But I am not a fast thinker and spent the rest of the day in regret. I kept replaying a scenario in my head, one where I was quick to react to aggression. The salted chocolate cone would splatter all over his pressed shirt, leaving runny, sticky brown tracks down the front to match the piece of shit he was. He’d start tossing obscenities and his pale face would become flushed, and in a perfect American accent I would say, “Sorry, no English,” and run away.


Mai Tran is a student at New York University


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