My First Time in San Diego

by ursavoice

Denny Chan

One of the reasons I came to UCI Law School was to live in California. Although I am proud of my Midwestern roots, I craved leaving the quiet suburbs of Michigan. Some of my college friends, also native Midwesterners, graduated and moved out here. They would call me to constantly praise the wonderful weather, progressive political values, and vibrant communities of color. I just had to see for myself if the hype actually matched reality. (In all fairness, my friends did warn me that Irvine, as the exception to the rule, would probably be bland. I later found that to be true.) Although I do not really understand the hype, I have come to appreciate some things about California, and I have committed myself to getting outside of Irvine as much as possible before graduating.

Over fall break, a few classmates and I took a day-trip to San Diego. It was my first time going to San Diego, so I was eager to explore the local restaurants and do all the things that tourists typically do. I set my alarm clock for 7:00 a.m., not expecting to be reminded during my day-trip of one of the key factors that informed my decision to leave Michigan.

While in San Diego, we visited a museum with a guard who made me realize that as a nation we lack racial sensitivity. The museum guard probably did not intend to be racist, but intent is rarely dispositive. He possibly thought he promoted acceptance and multiculturalism by uttering “ni-hao” (hello in Mandarin) as my Vietnamese American classmate passed through the museum’s doors in Balboa Park that afternoon. My classmate quickly corrected him, stating that he was not Chinese. Although I did not witness this exchange, I am too familiar with the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that many Asian Americans face on a daily basis. So when my classmate retold the incident to me once in the museum, I nodded emphatically and expressed displeasure and frustration.

As we left, the security guard once again uttered, “zai-jian,” (Mandarin for good-bye). I froze. Not knowing what to do and deeply disturbed by his repeat offense, I did what I do best: laugh uncomfortably. In the debriefing afterward, my classmate and I turned to humor as a coping mechanism, jokingly declaring the museum as the “ni-hao museum.”

The implications of the “ni-hao museum” incident are significant. I reflected on the incident during the ride home, conflicted about my own response. I could have taken a moment to explain the egregiousness of his actions or ask why he thought his remarks were appropriate, but I am unclear as to how receptive he would have been. As a normative matter, the burden of this psychological dilemma should not fall on the shoulders of those wronged. A man says two words, and suddenly I am left pondering over my response during a one-hour car ride. That is simply wrong. Some, especially those who claim America is post-racial, probably would argue that the guard is only one man, and he does not reflect the attitudes of most Americans. However, it only takes one incident to make people feel like they do not belong. Furthermore, all “ni-hao museum” incidents taken in the aggregate are more than sufficient to demonstrate an urgent and continuing problem.

I suppose one thing is quite certain after my trip to San Diego: California, like much of the country, clearly still struggles with issues of racial and cultural sensitivity.