RRecently, standup queen Ali Wong announced her separation from her husband of eight years, Justin Hakuta. Sad news for the couple, who have two young daughters. And sad news for uninvolved bystander randall parkwho, by virtue of having co-starred with Wong in the breakout Netflix romcom Always Be My Maybe, found his face splashed across the internet in breaking-news posts by Parade magazine and MSN – both of which used photos of Park in place of Hakuta.
I don’t know what it was like for him on the day the story of Wong’s divorce hit the headlines. I imagine him driving home from a long day of being hilarious on TV, when all of a sudden his phone begins buzzing like a bag of angry hornets. He pulls over and looks at his messages from him. They’re from concerned friends and relatives, asking what he had to do with the breakup of his close friend and co-star’s marriage. He’s not on Twitter, so he messages back in panic asking for context. And then the phone rings, and it’s his wife, and honey, there’s some ‘splainin to do …
It’s an unsettling reminder that there can be real-life consequences for those who get randomly hit with the “Sorry, Wrong Asian” stick, which, if you’re Asian – any Asian, every Asian – you’re probably familiar with yourself. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Uh, I think you’re looking for the other Asian. Not me, you want the person down the hall who looks nothing like me, has a different last and first name, and is Filipino. By the way, I’m Taiwanese. Also, I’m male and she’s female. Easy mistake though.
Sometimes the awkward exchange ends with a profuse apology from the person who has mistaken you for Totally Different Asian Person. Sometimes the person insists you’re lying to them (about your own identity!) and stomps away dead mad. Either way, welcome to the club: you’ve just been Sorry Wrong Asianed. It’s embarrassing. It’s dehumanizing. It makes you wonder if the people you work with or hang out with or go to school with ever really pay attention to you as more than just a kind of vague Asian blur.
Randall Park didn’t deserve to be blindsided by a random Sorry Wrong Asian barrage from sloppy celebrity media. He’s widely known to be one of the nicest guys in Hollywood – the kind of guy who sees a PA trying to take notes outdoors on a stack of flapping papers and spontaneously leaves the studio to go buy her a clipboard. (I heard this myself from the PA in question, the day it happened.)
But then again, none of us deserve it.
Because the roots of the Sorry Wrong Asian phenomenon lie in some of the most pernicious stereotypes of Asians – the ones that strip away our individuality and represent us as teeming hordes, as a faceless hive of interchangeable vermin. The ones that erase our unique features and replace them with cartoon signifiers: for some, narrow eyes aligned at a 45-degree angle, black bowl-cut hair, chrome yellow skin. For others, an enigmatic ambiguity that comedian Erick Esteban refers to as “Miscellaneous Brown”.
Sorry Wrong Asian is why a rising tide of hostility against any of our diverse communities reverberates across all of us. No one stops to check ethnicity or nationality before cursing, spitting or taking a swing. The “anti-Chinese” hostility of the pandemic era (which, if necessary, I will remind you is still going on) triggered attacks on and harassment of Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean and Filipino Americans. The most infamous episode of anti-Asian American violence in contemporary history, the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit, allegedly occurred after the assailants blamed him for the woes Japanese imports had wreaked on the US auto industry, shouting at him that “it’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work”, before beating him with a baseball bat.
Still, despite the ugly history and occasionally horrific consequences of Sorry Wrong Asianing, we tend to do our best to respond with rueful humor when it happens to us (because what else can we do?). I asked fellow Asians to share their most memorable funny-not-funny stories of being confused for other Asians, and here are some of the gems.
The flubs are occasionally dumbfounding: “I was mistaken for Margaret Cho in the women’s room of a NYC theater … while attending a performance by Margaret Cho,” said the podcaster Kristen Meinzer (Korean American, but not resembling Margaret Cho in any fashion, and why would Cho be using the public women’s room of a show she’s headlining?).
They might get people fired: “A primetime TV booker asked if I’d do a debate panel with [former White House chief of staff] Reince Priebus. I said it wasn’t my wheelhouse and I couldn’t get down to the studio in time. She insisted and arranged a satellite truck to come to my house. She’d meant to book Neera Tanden,” said the TV correspondent and radio host Nayyera Haq.
Sometimes they get called out by other people. El actor Lee Shorten said: “Gonna use fake names but it was on a show and the camera operator was like, ‘Peter, can you move to your left? Peter. Peter. Move. Peter, can you move?’ This goes on for a bit. Then he turns to the second assistant director and says, ‘Why isn’t Peter moving?’ And my scene partner says loudly, ‘Probably because it’s not Peter. It’s Lee.’ Peter being another Asian actor on the show.”
Other times they don’t get caught at all: “At my old studio we used to have food catered in for late-night work,” said the video game producer Josh Tsui. “One night we got a ton of sushi brought in. Being budget-conscious, I asked the caterer, ‘What the hell?’” Apparently he’d mistaken one of my [other Asian] employees as me and asked him what the next night’s order should be.”
Sometimes the Asians involved eventually develop a system: “For about a year I had a colleague at the White House who confused me with another Asian co-worker so often that the other Asian guy and I would frequently trade notes given to us by the colleague but meant for the other,” said Ronnie Choformer associate director of the office of public engagement under Barack Obama.
Sometimes there isn’t time to even figure out what’s going on: “I was doing an event that had a couple of chefs involved – [Momofuku’s] Dave Chang and [Kogi Taco’s] Roy Choy. We were all on stage speaking and I was DJing,” said the legendary producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura. “Sitting down to eat, someone – pretty recognizable! – waved me over and started the conversation with ‘Thank you, chef!’ I wonder who he thought I was…”
I’ve had my own share of Sorry Wrong Asian incidents. It doesn’t help that I write in somewhat adjacent spaces to another famous Jeff whose name is two letters different from mine – jeff chang, author of the history of hip-hop Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, and arguably the better, more prolific and more talented Jeff _ang. We’ve gotten compliments meant for each other – I’m sure I get more intended for him than vice versa. I’ve had to turn down at least one speaking engagement because it was clearly intended for him (although, damn, it was hard to say no to the trip and money, and I think I could have faked it for long enough to meet Jay -Z). We’ve even spoken at an online summit together and had the host introduce us in reverse – everyone just went on with the agenda, pretending it didn’t happen!
Fortunately, because my editor is also Asian, I’m pretty sure he actually intended to assign this piece to me …
Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now by
By Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang is out now
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism