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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Cabinet of Curiosities: Racismos Peculiares

Replacement Graphic for JAKE Ren's column "Cabinet of Curiosities"
Graphic by Olivia White

I grew up in China, and ironically, my first taste of the modern American flavor of racism came from a Chinese American. It has a subtle taste, with a pinch of passive aggression and the type of aftertaste that makes you unsure if what you just encountered was racism.

It happened while I was at one of Tufts’ dining halls for an early dinner. Food trays were out, but few had utensils. Some waited around in a vague, dispersed cloud. Unsure of the reason behind the wait, I took a tong from one of the trays with little squares of chicken and grabbed some broccoli with it.

“You know you’re not supposed to do that, kid.”

I looked up. A Chinese American dining worker strutted out of the kitchen slowly, like an eastern Clint Eastwood. I was confused but put down the tong anyway.

“At a buffet, don’t use the tongs from one tray to grab food from another. You’ll contaminate the vegetables,” they said. “If there aren’t any utensils, wait.”

I didn’t know, so I apologized. I took a step back. They asked if I understood them. I nodded.

Then, perhaps it was the lack of salute and lack of euphoric enthusiasm in my response, but they leaned in.

“Do you speak Mandarin? Do you need me to translate it into Chinese?”

I smiled rigidly and shook my head, but they seemed to be going off a rehearsed script and were rejecting improvisations because they proceeded to translate their whole spiel into Chinese. I thought they’d stop mid-sentence upon seeing the magnitude of my nods, but they were determined to finish, and they did.

The incident reminded me of an encounter a few days prior, outside the Porter Square Star Market. The man was white, with a Marine Corps hat that was too new to be real and a Target trolley that carried items clearly not from Target. From behind a bus stop, he rolled out suspensefully, like a narrator coming out from the curtains, and delivered what has since become my favorite conversation opener of all time:

“So are you really Chinese?”

There’s an almost Hemingway-esque quality to this opener, like starting a book with the word “and.”

Dying to hear more, I said yes, to which he responded by telling me exactly how I would lose to him in a game of Chinese chess. What surprised me wasn’t the topic, but more so that he actually knew the rules of Chinese chess. He then talked about how he learned the game, which somehow led to the religions he hated, then cults he’s been a part of and finally the graves that only he knew the location of.

He eventually spiraled into ramblings of billionaires and conspiracies like an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” (2009–present), so I said “Have a nice day!” when I caught him taking a moment to breathe, and walked away.

Despite both individuals’ shared disregard for my responses and confusion about my nationality, I vastly preferred the latter. Unlike the first guy, who didn’t really seem to care if I was Chinese or not, the second at least seemed genuinely keen to meet a Chinese guy to play metaphysical Chinese chess with.

Nowadays, every time I see the dining worker, I walk by just a little faster, but whenever I exit the Porter Square Star Market, I always look around the bus stop, vaguely hoping to see a new marine hat and a stolen trolley.