The other day I ran into an acquaintance in town. We don’t know each other well and hadn’t seen each other in several months, so I reminded her of my name.
“Yes, of course!” she said. “Didn’t your book just come out?”
I laughed. “No, not yet.” And then it clicked. “You’re thinking of Brenda Nakamoto,” I said.
“Oh, you’re right!” she said. We both laughed, then shared a few pleasantries before going our separate ways.
I know people who would have been offended by this encounter. There goes another white person thinking all Asians look alike and are interchangeable, etc. But I just couldn’t muster up any indignation over it. In fact, I was amused and even a little pleased.
For one thing, Brenda’s book, Peach Farmer’s Daughter, just out from Roan Press, is a beautiful memoir of growing up on a peach farm in northern California. (You can watch Brenda reading an excerpt from the book here.) I did not resent an accidental association with the book or its author.
Second, I can see how someone who knows both of us only casually might confuse us: We’re both petite and Asian and spectacled and around the same age, and we both write and hang out with the same writerly folks in our not-so-big town.
And anyway, I’ve made this mistake myself.
I used to run a once-a-week after-school creative writing program at my sons’ elementary school. One year I had nearly 50 students, and at the end of the school year I was still confused about who was who.
There was a group of five or six Asian girls who always sat together and were mostly named Anna or Amanda, and damned if I could keep them straight. I did the same thing with the white girls in ponytails, many of whom were called Emma or Hannah.
In my community college classes, I often spend the first two or three weeks of class trying to distinguish among the three Latino guys in baseball caps, the two overweight white guys, or the two women who look completely different from each other except for their shared penchant for wearing pink.
I also have trouble with same-sex couples if I meet both people at the same time and they bear some physical resemblance to each other (as so many couples, both gay and straight, are wont to do). Ditto for straight couples with gender-neutral names. (Is she Kelly and he Drew, or the other way around?)
I guess my point is that when we’re becoming acquainted with people, we have little to go on besides superficial physical characteristics, many of which end up falling along broad racial or ethnic (or gender) lines, and maybe we should just give ourselves and everyone else a break when we goof.
The woman who mistook me for Brenda wasn’t being racially insensitive. She just didn’t know either of us very well. What she did remember was that a local Japanese writer had published a book.
Likewise, when I was struggling to distinguish the Annas from the Amandas and the Emmas from the Hannahs, it wasn’t out of some racial blindness. The problem was that there were too many kids in the class and I only saw them once a week for an hour. I never got past a superficial familiarity with many of them.
Don’t get me wrong. The leniency I’m advocating here only applies to new or casual acquaintance. The boss who confuses her African-American employees with each other even after working with them for years is just an asshole. Ditto the professor who confuses his two Indian advisees right up through graduation. And don’t even get me started on people who cannot—or will not—learn to pronounce the non-Anglo names of the people around them.
I’ve heard people complain about the being-mistaken-for-someone-else thing as if it were something only white people do. It’s not. When I lived in Japan, I found that many Japanese had trouble telling apart white people who I thought looked completely different from each other.
In fact, when my husband and I lived there right after we got married, we were frequently mistaken for brother and sister. “But you look so much alike!” people would say when they learned we were a couple. This was very strange to us, especially as I am half-Japanese and he’s a blue-eyed gaijin. But it happened so often that I had to accept that this was, in fact, how many people perceived us. (You can make your own judgment based on this photo from that time.)
Brenda and I happened to have dinner together a week or so after I’d run into our mutual acquaintance, and I got to tell her I’d had the pleasure of being mistaken for her. We laughed about this, and she told me that since her book came out, she’s often asked if she knows David “Mas” Masumoto, the well-known author of Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm.
“Well, that’s not surprising,” I said, “seeing as he’s also Japanese and writes about peach farming in California.”
“They want to know if I’m his daughter,” Brenda said.
Is there some odd transitive property of ethnicity at work here, whereby, since Masumoto’s a Japanese-American peach farmer and Brenda is also Japanese and the daughter of a peach farmer, therefore she must be his daughter? Maybe this is more a matter of general cluelessness (and evidence of not having read the authors in question) than of cultural insensitivity, but I’m not sure. I’m guessing Loretta Lynn doesn’t get asked at gigs if she’s the daughter of George Davis the Singing Miner.
But if she were to show up in my class along with some other big-haired brunettes, it might take me a few weeks to fix the right names to the right faces, and I hope she’d be patient with me while I figured it out.