Rrecently, standup queen Ali Wong announced her divorce from her husband, Justin Hakuta, who has been married for eight years. Sad news for the couple, who have two young daughters. And sad news for uninvolved bystander Randall Park, who, because he co-starred with Wong on the breakthrough Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe, splashed his face across the internet in Parade breaking news reports. magazine and MSN – both of which used photos of Park instead of Hakuta.
I don’t know what it was like for him the day the story of Wong’s divorce made the headlines. I imagine he’s driving home after a long day of hilarity on TV, when his phone suddenly starts buzzing like a bag of angry hornets. He stops and checks his messages. They belong to concerned friends and relatives, who ask what he has to do with the breakdown of his close friend and opponent’s marriage. He’s not on Twitter, so he’s panicking back and asking for context. And then the phone rings, and it’s his wife, and… baby there’s something ‘Splainin to do…
It’s a disturbing reminder that there could be real-life consequences to those randomly hit with the “Sorry, Wrong Asian” stick, which, if you’re Asian – any Asian, each Asian – you probably know yourself. Stop me if you’ve heard these:
Uh, I think you’re looking for the other Asian. Not me, you want the person in the hallway who doesn’t look like me at all, has a different last name and first name, and is filipino. By the way, I’m Taiwanese. I am also a man and she is a woman. Easy mistake though.
Sometimes the awkward exchange ends with a profuse apology from the person who mistook you for a Totally Different Asian Person. Sometimes the person insists you’re lying to them (about your own identity!) and stomps off dead. Anyway, welcome to the club: You’ve just been Sorry Wrong Asianed. It’s humiliating. It’s dehumanizing. You wonder if the people you work, hang out with, or go to school with ever really pay attention to you as more than just some sort of fuzzy Asian haze.
Randall Park didn’t deserve to be caught off guard by some random Sorry Wrong Asian barrage of sloppy celebrity media. He’s widely known for being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood — the kind of guy who sees a PA trying to take notes on a stack of flapping papers outside and spontaneously leaves the studio to 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 take away our individuality and represent us as teeming hordes, like a faceless hive of interchangeable vermin. The ones who erase our unique features and replace them with cartoon signifiers: for some, narrow eyes angled at 45 degrees, black cropped hair, chrome-yellow skin. For others, a puzzling ambiguity that comedian Erick Esteban calls “Miscellaneous Brown.”
Sorry Wrong Asian is why a rising tide of hostility against one of our diverse communities is echoing in all of us. No one stops to check ethnicity or nationality before swearing, spitting or rocking. The “anti-Chinese” hostility of the pandemic era (which I will remind you, if need be, is still ongoing) led to attacks and intimidation of Vietnamese, Hmong, Korean and Filipino Americans. The most infamous episode of anti-Asian-American violence in contemporary history, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, reportedly occurred after the attackers blamed him for the misery that Japanese imports had caused over the American car. industry, yelling at him that “It’s because of you little bastards that we’re out of work” before hitting him with a baseball bat.
Despite the ugly history and sometimes horrific consequences of Sorry Wrong Asianing, we tend to do our best to respond with remorseful 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 about being confused with other Asians, and here are some of the gems.
The flubs are mind boggling at times: “I was mistaken for Margaret Cho in the women’s room of an NYC theater…while attending a Margaret Cho performance,” said podcaster Kristen Meinzer (Korean-American, but in no way resembled Margaret Cho, and why would Cho use the public women’s room of a show she headlines?).
They could fire people: “A primetime TV booker asked if I wanted to do a debate panel with” [former White House chief of staff] Rein Priebus. I said it wasn’t my wheelhouse and I couldn’t get to the studio on time. She insisted and arranged a satellite car to come to my house. She wanted to book Neera Tanden,’ said TV correspondent and radio host Nayyera Haq.
Sometimes they are called by other people. Actor Lee Shorten said: “I was going to use fake names, but was on a show and the cameraman said, ‘Peter, can you go left? Pieter. Pieter. Movement. Peter, can you move?’ This goes on for a while, 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 is another Asian actor on the show.”
Other times, they don’t get caught at all: “In my old studio, we had late-night food,” says video game producer Josh Tsui. “One night we received a lot of sushi. Being price conscious, I asked the caterer, ‘What the hell?'” Apparently he had made a mistake in one of my [other Asian] employees like me and asked it what the next evening’s order should be.”
Sometimes the Asians involved eventually develop a system: “For about a year, I had a colleague in the White House who confused me with another Asian colleague so often that the other Asian man and I often exchanged bills given to us by the colleague. but meant for the other,” said Ronnie Cho, former associate director of the Office of Public Engagement under Barack Obama.
Sometimes there isn’t even time to figure out what’s going on: “I did an event that involved a few chefs – [Momofuku’s] Dave Chang and [Kogi Taco’s] Roy Choi. We were all on stage talking and I was DJing,” said legendary producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura. “Sitting to eat, someone – quite recognizable! – waved me over and started it conversation with ‘Thank you, chief!’ 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 talented Jeff _ang. We’ve received compliments meant for each other – I’m sure I’m meant for him more than the other way around. I’ve had to turn down at least one talk because it was clearly meant for him (although it was fucking hard to say no to the trip and the money, and I think I could have faked it long enough to meet Jay -Z) . We even spoke at an online summit together and the host suggested to us the other way around – everyone just went ahead with the agenda and pretended it hadn’t happened!
Luckily, since my editor is also Asian, I’m pretty sure he actually wanted to assign this piece to me…
… Turn right?
Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the 1990s to Now
By Jeff Yang, Phil Yu and Philip Wang is out now