Awhile ago I was at a house party where one of the guests was inexplicably standoffish with me from the moment we met. Now, I don’t need everybody I meet to love me (I just really really want them to), but it’s disturbing when someone takes an immediate disliking to me. As this happens rather infrequently, these moments tend to stand out in my mind.
I was there with my boyfriend (Asian, of course), and this guest was a complete stranger to both of us. I mention this only to establish that there was no history with this guy, no sexual tension, nothing but a smile and a hello, but I hadn’t even said my name, and he was already giving me ‘tude.
The mature choice was to waste no more of my time or attention on him because who cares what one random guy thinks of me? But being the egomaniac that I am, I decided I’d talk to him all night until he realized that I’m actually a really cool guy. (It’s worth noting that this approach has worked for me before.)
In the midst of our lighthearted conversation, I mentioned that we had driven over an hour to reach the party, and joked that my boyfriend had to drive so we could get there faster, even if it meant I had to close my eyes most of the way.
Haha, yeah I’m a wuss who closes his eyes on the freeway. I waited for the joke to land… OK, it was a pretty lame joke (really lame joke). I knew I’d have to do better to win over this tough crowd, but I certainly didn’t expect what came out of this guy’s joyless mouth next.
Him: “Why’d you have to close your eyes?”
Me: “Uh… because he was going fast.” I thought that was clear in the setup…
Him: “A lot of people drive fast. You saying he’s dangerous?”
Me: “What? No… we just drive differently.” I was starting to regret the whole try-to-win-him-over thing at this point
Him: “And why do you drive differently?”
Me: “I don’t know… Maybe it’s because he wants to get the most out of his high performing engine, and I drive a used 4-cylinder Elantra and don’t give a shit?” Why was this guy so obsessed with my boyfriend’s driving?
My answer hung in the air as he scrutinized me like a human polygraph test. Finally he broke the self-created silence (but not the self-created awkwardness)…
Him: “I thought you were gonna say he’s a bad driver because he’s Asian.”
Are you freakin’ kidding? That’s what this whole weird conversation was about? Race-baiting!?
What started out as part-compliment to my boyfriend for getting us to the party on time and part-self-deprecating joke about my timidness, was interpreted, in this guy’s mind, as me making an offensive race joke. The thought had never entered my head, so even as he asked all those painfully awkward follow up questions, I just became more and more confused.
I’m not colorblind, but I don’t tend to think of most things in terms of race — I know that’s ironic coming from a self-proclaimed rice queen, but when it comes to negative stereotypes, it’s the truth.
Admittedly, I wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, anything shocking or slightly racist seemed funny. When a lowered Accord coupe with tinted windows, custom spoiler, and dual-canister exhaust cut me off, I’d say “Asian drivers” and laugh hysterically with my high school buddies as I likely swerved into the other lane.
“Asian drivers” — that was the whole joke! It was about as clever as “Homework is so gay.”
But as I’ve matured, I’m not so easily entertained, and offensive statements in and of themselves are not a joke. You’ve gotta try harder than that to earn a laugh out of me.
So are there any cases when I would still find bad Asian driver jokes funny? Absolutely!
Even though the stereotype is out there, there seems to be a complete dearth of empirical data to support the idea that Asians are worse drivers than any other group of people (according to my one Google search).
But perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered, is that the stereotype seems to be propagated, at least in part, by Asians themselves.
I’ve noticed this in my own life as well. When I get into my Asian friends’ cars, the ride often starts with, “Don’t mind my driving,” or “I’ve been in 7 accidents, but 6 of them weren’t my fault,” or “D is for ‘Drive Backwards,’ right?”
Another friend told me not to make him laugh while driving because his eyes will squint too much and he won’t be able to see. Funny when you’re pulling out of the driveway. Horrifying when you’re going 85 MPH on the freeway, and it actually happens.
They laugh, I laugh, we all laugh. It’s still a little bit racist, yes, but the joke is in the execution; it’s original, and most importantly it’s self-deprecating. The one person who has the right to be most offended by the joke is the one telling it. It’s win-win.
Like any joke that plays on a stereotype there are good ones and bad ones; offensive ones and harmless ones. I think the most important thing to remember, whether telling or listening to those types of jokes, is that they are just jokes, not facts.
I’m sure everyone knows some Asians who are bad drivers. I’m sure everyone knows some white people who are bad drivers, or gay people, or Scientologists. The point is, the bad Asian driver thing is just a joke, Asians are not the only or the largest group of bad drivers.
We all know that honor goes to women.