My Foreigner

This is a personal short story that I wrote in 2007. It is about my partner at the time, who made an honest (and telling) comment to me, which contributed to me later breaking up with them.

My reason for sharing this story is not related to the topic of dating. It is related to race and culture, as I ponder knowledge and ignorance with an improviser mindset.

I share this short story for three reasons. I share this in response to Michael Luo’s An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China.

I share this in support of fellow improviser, Peter Kim, whose experiences with racist audiences led him to quit his “Dream Job” as a comedian at iconic Second City Theatre in Chicago.

“We cannot continue to explain away hate as ignorance. We cannot continue to accept mediocrity from our friends, family, and co-workers just because we don’t want to ruffle any feathers.” 
— Peter Kim

I share this as part of my evolving thoughts about culture, self-identity, labels, and ignorance as I navigate how to creatively express Colorized Improv.

I am an improviser in the San Francisco Bay Area. Conversations about culture, race, diversity, equity, and bias in performing arts—especially in improv—have been one of my deep dives. Where imagination and co-creation intersect to serve as part of the foundation of improv, I believe improv has the power not only to bring laughter and comedy to audiences but also knowledge.

As I navigate expressing colorized improv, I see the opportunity not only to entertain audiences but also to contribute more than a visual representation of diversity — to spark an improv movement expressing social, cultural, personal experiences — cultivating equity.

And then I read Peter’s experiences (deep breaths). And I got cranky (more deep breaths). And I realized audiences can be garbage. Who wants to be around garbage? I don’t.

While I have not personally experienced someone yelling racially-charged statements at my friends or me during an improv performance, I have experienced and witnessed racially-charged statements throughout my life. Who has not?! (If you have not been a recipient of such statements, then ask yourself if you have been the person who has made such statements.)

“Since September 2015, people in the audience have hurled increasingly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments at me and my castmates: comments demeaning my Asian ethnicity, using the f-word to degrade my homosexuality, and shouting “whores” at the women. But this time, he was attacking another audience member, and that felt like a whole other level.”
 — Peter Kim

While I have not quit a job because of offensive office or customer behavior, I have been reprimanded by a manager that my assertiveness was “not what was expected from an Asian woman.” (By the way, for fun, I have worn a mustache to work, and for real, I relate to Sarah Cooper’s “9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women” — the “threatening” parts.) I also have been prodded by a co-worker to translate English words into Tagalog, a Filipino language that I do not speak. (Hey coworker! Stop asking me. My initial answer of “I do not know …” is not going to change if you ask me the question a second or third time.)

I realize I walk through life with unspoken expectations — expectations that Michael Luo should not have to pen an open letter to a stranger, that Peter Kim should not have to leave his dream job, and that I should not have to question my identity based on the ignorance (or hate) of others . . . and yet I did, in 2007.

“… and maybe it’s their culture … but they are here now … don’t they … these foreigners … oh. uh … no offense. you know. and …”

I was less than 7 feet away from him in his less than 500 square feet studio apartment. It was midnight. He slowly paced back and forth in front of me, justifying why he asked his neighbor to refrain from talking loudly. I agreed. It was disrespectful of his neighbor. I was inside sitting on one of three chairs — four chairs, if I counted the ottoman. He stood between his doorway and me. This would be the first and last time I visited his apartment.

I was certain I heard him say,

“… oh. uh … no offense. …”

Who might he have offended? His door was closed. His neighbor did not hear him.

He waved with what I later understood to be a preemptive, pacifying, left hand gesture toward me, while he paced back and forth and continued to talk. When he exclaimed about the need for foreigners to adapt and assimilate to American culture, on occasion, he looked over his shoulder at me.

He really did say,

“… oh. uh … no offense. you know. and …”

Was I not to take offense? And his hand gesture? I knew I was American — Filipino-American. He knew I was born in Florida. Certainly there was no reason for me to take offense. I knew I was not a foreigner. Would a foreigner, however he defined one, be offended by his statements? It’s simply bad manners to be disruptive at midnight.

He qualified his statements about adapting and assimilating. His context seemed credible, to explain the reasons behind his statements, to assure some rational thought. He was clear and specific. In fact, I believed he had valid perspectives. At least, for several minutes, he sounded educated and informed.

“Uh, wait. What the hell? Do you think I’m a foreigner? You know, don’t you, that I’m not a foreigner? Right? I’m not a foreigner.”

Born in the United States with a father who always extolled the virtues and opportunities of being an American citizen — I voted. My parents raised their family as bi-cultural, with the American slant more prominent. He? He was a European mix. He was American. He, too, was not a foreigner.

“oh? right. uhm…”

With an awkward silence, his pacing stopped. Then he faced me, shoulders squared-off, about 5 feet away from me. “well…” I interrupted him,

“You understand that I’m not a foreigner. Right?”

More awkward silence as he stood still.

“well, you know what i mean? …”

He stepped back a few feet — resuming his pacing, rationalizing, and explaining. And that was when I realized I knew what ignorant meant.

I interrupted his explanations, for the last time.

“I hear what you think you mean. I hear. I understand.”

I began to explain what I understood. I believed I would convince him of what he did not understand. Then with my voice trailing off, suddenly, I realized my disappointment. I knew I was not a foreigner. He did not. I no longer commented. He had his stage. It was his home. This was his soliloquy. I was his audience, very eager to leave his chair for the first and last time.

While he spoke again, I began to realize that I was someone else in his eyes, in his mind, and perhaps in his heart. My “looking different” and “being different” from him, which he often expressed as part of his strong attraction to me, afforded something else.

Often he would say,

“Your eyes are different. You’re cute. Your skin is different. You have a different look than me, which I find sensual. You grew up differently. Look how small you are. I know you are more than Asian. I like that your dad raised you American.”

What I had understood to be observations and compliments began to have different meanings. Foreigner.

I might simply be that someone to adapt and assimilate to standards he held, and until then, he might consider my actions, my convictions, my values, and my beliefs as foreign to him — not to be shared with him. I  was  not someone to be understood by him, not someone of equal value to him. He was not someone who respected me, not the someone I believed I knew. That night, he became my foreigner.

No offense.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

By Shirley Rivera

Shirley is, by night, an improvisor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her pursuit is creating and bringing "Colorized Improv" to the light of day. To support her creative expression pursuits, she passionately spends her time as a consultant on air quality and energy issues and as a behavior designer and habit coach on shifting workplace cultures. How are these all related? She's making it work while figuring it out.