So the other week, Lucy Liu was under fire for her comment on David Letterman’s show about how she looks “a little Filipino” when she tans. Although Lucy has already apologized, a number of people are unsurprisingly still offended by the comment. The funny thing is, it’s not so much of an issue of ignorance as it is about cultural exposure. In the northern Philippines and parts of the south, there are light-skinned people who look Northeast Asian; in southern China, there are dark-skinned people who look Southeast Asian (Malay like some of the people found in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia), and to the west in Xinjiang, some have blue eyes and “white” skin.
It all comes down to the question of diversity that many have a million answers to, but don’t ask enough questions about. Yes, it’s known that Asia is a continent and a region, with a myriad of cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. The ones who make up Asian America, however, are only a small sample of that diversity from each country. The groups who have immigrated to North America historically reveal that it’s not just the melanin level that defines their dark or light skin, but social classes too.
In short: when people in North America think of Filipinos, they think “dark skin” and when they think of Chinese, they think “light skin” to the point a Taiwanese friend said to me “I’ve realized Filipinos are really just dark-skinned Asians,” which puzzled me a bit as I took the time to process that. Why does it puzzle me? Because it assumes that “normal” Asians have light skin–which means that non-Aryan Indians (a large segment of India) and much of South Asia is not “normal” and this is a frighteningly common misunderstanding, especially within Asian America.