Mistaken Ethnicity

August 17, 2007 at 11:05 am 4 comments

Over the course of almost five years of marriage, my ethnicity and the ethnicity of my husband have been in constant question. I am Caucasian, but my married last name in combination with my one syllable first name sounds extremely Asian. Before I met my husband and heard others referring to him as a lacrosse player from Virginia, I thought, “Funny, I didn’t know any Asian Mormons there in high school.” So I see where people can get the idea.

It has died down considerably since we first moved to this area, but we still get calls from various speakers of Asian languages on our home phone. Sometimes it takes up to three calls for them to decide that we really aren’t the Lees they’re looking for that night.

My old dry cleaner felt a kinship with me because we shared the same last name. I’m pretty sure she thought my husband was Asian because she’d always tell me she could have the clothes done a day earlier than I requested, giving me a kind of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, I’m-only-doing-this-because-you’re-almost-one-of-us” knowing glance.

At PBS, the back of everyone’s business cards featured an assortment of different head shots. Just to hammer home the point that we supported diversity, the profiles included a young African American man with dread locks, an elderly white woman and an Asian woman. I quickly learned to stop using the Asian woman cards because people at stations would finally meet me and 1) be confused about my identity and 2) have thought I was vain enough to put a huge stylized self-portrait on hundreds of business cards.

For those not familiar, in our church we have a visiting teaching program where two people are assigned to visit other women in the ward monthly. Last I heard, my newly assigned Asian companion who hasn’t met me yet was asking everyone if they knew a middle-aged Asian woman by my name. Someone corrected her and told her I was mid-twenties, white and blond, and she said, “No, but she’s married to a man who is also Asian.”

The irony of this whole situation is that Lee isn’t really my husband’s family’s real last name. Hundreds of years ago when his relatives were sailing to America, they arrived and thought that their last name of Nielson sounded too foreign and wanted to pick something more American. They couldn’t have picked a better name!


Entry filed under: Commentary, JL's Posts, Random, Work.

And the Card Attached Would Say… A Very Special Miller Monday – A Baby Boomer Gives In

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. lemare  |  August 17, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    I’m trying to think if I have ever met any other white “Lee’s”…

    When I was a freshman in college, I talked some guy into thinking I was fresh off the boat from Sweden because of my ethnic FIRST name…

  • 2. pammyshep  |  August 17, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    In th 5th grade it was cool to have multiple pairs of Lee jeans. I know an Asian man who’s last name is Loo and I had an Asian roommate in college who’s last name was Whitakker. That probably doesn’t help.

    Lecherous French and Italian men always think I’m Pamela Anderson because, well, there are 2 obvious reasons…

  • 3. Massimo  |  August 17, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    Famous non-Asian Lees: Ann Lee, Barbara Lee, Bernard Lee, Brenda Lee, Christopher Lee, Harold B. Lee, Harper Lee, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Jason Lee, Peggy Lee, Rex E. Lee, Richard Henry Lee, Robert E. Lee, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Spike Lee, Stan Lee

    If variant spellings were included the list would be even longer: Janet Leigh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Vivian Leigh . . .

    And let us not forget the man who made this conversation possible: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners_Lee

  • 4. jlee  |  August 17, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    I hear ya, at least we have stopped getting the- call china for 30cents(or something)- advertisments in the mail.


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