Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
Growing up in Philadelphia, I watched my Korean immigrant parents try in vain to integrate into a society that told them they would never fit in. I tried to be as American as possible, to show everyone I was cheeseburgers, apple pie, and Little League. When kids would taunt my brother and me at school with “ching chang chong,” I never had a comeback. Now I’m a comic, and I pride myself on having a comeback for everything. That is, until I recently walked into a West Hollywood Starbucks.
The barista had a fauxhawk and an attitude—he greeted me by bowing his head with hands clasped as if he were in a kung fu movie. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, to which he replied, “You Asians always leave a lousy tip.” That stereotype is bunk, but here’s one that happens to be true: When Asian Americans are insulted, they often brush it off. We are taught to ignore prejudice and focus on being successful. That’s not what I did. In my stand-up act I sometimes perform a rap song about my reaction: I’m like, “Whoa! I’ll pretend I didn’t hear / Leave my coffee on the counter with the creamer near / I’ll forgive you if you say you’re sorry” / To which he said, “Oh, me so sorry.”
My friends have told me I’m obsessed with race and that it doesn’t matter—that in the age of Obama, we are postracial. As much as I’d like to believe that, I know racism will always exist and the only thing we can do is change how we react to it. Do we lower ourselves to the level of a racist, or do we stand defiant in the face of every ignorant comment? How do we pick our battles? I’ve chosen to fight mine by using humor.
Last year my parents moved to L.A. and opened a small restaurant. No, it’s not a noodle shop. Boo’s Philly Cheesesteaks and Hoagies in Silver Lake is their place, and the coolest thing about working the counter is seeing how customers’ reactions have evolved. At first their faces said, “What’s up with these Koreans selling Philly cheese-steaks?” Over time everyone from the Latina grandmother who comes in on Saturdays to the skinny hipster gringa who requests her chicken cheese-steak with “no bread and extra cheese” has begun to give my family respect merely for making delicious food. The fact that we’re Korean seems to have receded from their minds—not completely, of course, but almost. It’s more heartening than hilarious.
As for coffee, you better believe I think local. I only buy my mochas now at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which is L.A. born and bred.
Kat Ahn is a writer, performer, and comic in L.A.