Essay: Blind Spot
I'm white and he's Asian. Coupled, everywhere we went people assumed we weren't together
By Heather Lowenthal February 14, 2023
I could be at the supermarket with my husband, in line at a movie theater, or looking for furniture at Crate and Barrel, and people assume we aren’t a couple. Assume we’re strangers even. Salespeople, mechanics, hair stylists, real estate agents, and even our neighbors, at first, look confused. Until we stand close together or hold hands. Then we always get an apologetic, “Oh. I didn’t realize you were together.”
At some point early in our relationship, my husband, leaned in and whispered to me, “They don’t think we’re together, because I’m Asian and you’re white.”
“Really? Why?” I said incredulously.
We were certainly an unlikely pair. He was either the president or captain of every group in his life; I had to practice introducing myself in the mirror before attending any event with more than three people –– anxious I’d be caught tripping over the pronunciation of my own last name.
But no one I knew had ever said anything directly to me about our mixed configuration or how unusual it appeared.
I had discovered a blind spot in my perspective; I realized I didn’t have any firsthand experience with racial bias. In the 1980s,I’d grown up in Bellevue, a white suburb of Seattle. My high school social studies class had covered the subject of racism as though it was an old idea. A terrible mistake in American history. One with a beginning, middle, and end. Like the Vietnam War or Watergate.
I started to look around for examples of other couples like us and I discovered that my husband was right. We were rare.
I noticed lots of Asian American women coupled with white men. Sometimes I would see African American men with Asian women, and Asian and white LGBTQ couples were everywhere, automatically assumed to be together. Like Barry and Michael, friends of ours, a gay couple who lived in Palm Springs, who never seemed to experience our issue. Unless they were out with us. Then the restaurant hostess would try to seat us together, me with Barry, and my husband with Michael who was also Asian American, compelled to color coordinate us like pairs of socks.
To eliminate confusion, my husband and I took a proactive measure and stood with our arms entwined whenever we walked into a restaurant. But if he arrived late, forget it. The host would try to seat him with the only Asian woman, or Asian family, in the crowded bistro. I’d wave frantically to get their attention, and watch as he broke away from his guide, blazing his own trail, pushing passed tables and servers to get to me.
Often when we knew we would have to arrive someplace separately, well aware of the trouble we caused at The Home Depot or Costco, he would look into my eyes, hold my shoulders and say, “Whatever you do, stay alive. I will find you.”
But nothing compared to the airport. From baggage check to security, followed by immigration and customs lines. In each instance, one of us needed to point out that we were together, not a security risk or stealing our own child. Finally at the gate, if I didn’t grab my husband’s arm, and make eye contact with the airline employees taking our tickets, they were certain to assume my husband was travelling alone. So I’d announce loudly, enunciating the fact that “we” were together. Admittedly, my motive wasn’t to gently point out unconscious bias. With my husband’s superior mileage status, he was certain to be upgraded to first class while I was packed into coach for five hours, solo, with our teething toddler. The image of him stretched out, sipping complimentary champagne from a real glass was intolerable to my sleep deprived brain. If I’m honest, I wanted our travel suffering to be equal.
Years later, my husband and I were out at a small holiday party with the quiet nerdy artists from the Seattle design firm where I’d just started to work. I was thankful my husband was with me. He was socially confident and effortlessly outgoing, a great plus one for introverted me. That evening, he was like a Labrador let inside the gated “shy” pen at the dog park. By the time I returned from getting us drinks at the bar, he had already introduced himself to everyone and was in the midst of a discussion with the one designer guy who was also Asian American. I was the one woman in our small design firm. Together, the Asian American designer guy and I provided the office diversity.
I pretended to listen to their conversation about cars. There was a pause, then Designer Guy took a sip from his whisky glass, turned to me, and said, “You know, I just want to tell you that I think you’re pretty cool. I mean, I didn’t know your husband was Asian. Honestly, we never see a couple like you two.”
His wife, also Asian American, nodded in agreement. Another couple who matched, I noted. Momentarily I was on the outside looking in, but that was quickly steamrolled because I’d been described as “cool.” I wasn’t sure how I’d done something cool on purpose though. I was only ever cool by accident. And if he was giving me credit for something, I didn’t feel right accepting it. I had little to do with it.
When I had met my husband, he was living on a completely different plane from mine, with tech geniuses and corporate VPs. I was shocked when he asked me out. He was handsome, tall, and stylish –– with terrific hair that I mention often in essays like this one.
I had to hand it to Designer Guy. He was taking a risk sharing his opinion like that, considering how sensitive, even divided, people in Seattle could be about social issues. I mean, just criticizing bike lanes could lead to a fight in the parking lot behind the locally-sourced artisanal brewery.
Gesturing at me with the hand that still held his empty glass, he continued. “.… And whenever we did see a couple like you two, we always had to talk about it.” He sounded mystified by his own fixation. “It was so uncommon to see a white girl with an Asian guy,” he said as he looked again to his wife for corroboration.
I knew exactly what he meant. Truthfully, my husband and I did the same thing.
I felt a little thrill of excitement whenever we spotted a hetero couple configured like us, as though we’d sighted a pair of rare White-Winged Flufftails hidden in the far reaches of Ethiopia. Or in our case, Ballard.
“Look at that. Did you see them?” my husband would say, trying not to point from where we were sitting inside the café.
“Those two. Right there. That couple. Walking across the street together. Quick. You’ll miss them. I think they’re coming in here,” he said, using his menu as camouflage.
“Oh, yeah. You’re right,” I’d say, marveling at the Asian guy holding hands with his white girlfriend. They were young, attractive, and clearly smitten in that unmarried way.
We watched them from inside the coffee shop and hoped we wouldn’t be seen, afraid of interfering with the course of nature, or just coming off as weird and creepy.
“Well, I just think it’s really cool,” Designer Guy said, giving me a small nod, a stamp of approval that signaled this was all he had to say on the topic.
But I needed to know more. I’d never had this conversation with anyone else until then, so I pressed him.
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “White women just don’t seem to go out with Asian men.”
His blank acceptance of the status quo was admittedly a letdown. But there was a finality to his statement that made me think this was a bigger problem than I had realized. I didn’t want my husband and me to continue through life occurring as unusual. Outliers. At least not based on this detail. I wanted us to be mainstream. Not because I cared that much about what other people thought of us, or whether they were judging us, but because I’m busy, and well, a little lazy. We’ve been married a long time now, twenty years, and I’m kind of weary of the extra work involved in clearing up other people’s disbelief. And the thought of trying to find a way to help the rest of the world catch up to our reality is tiring.
So while other people get used to the idea of us, I’ll fantasize about a time when my husband and I are patiently standing in a long, slow-moving line at the DMV. And when it’s finally our turn to get our license plate for our travel trailer, we are directed to the window as a pair. Without a hiccup of confusion over what we look like. He isn’t asked to step back, there’s no awkward apology, and no need for me to carry a laminated, wallet-sized marriage certificate as proof of our union. In the meantime, I’ll keep holding his hand.
Heather Lowenthal is a Pacific Northwest local who writes about stumbling over the blind spots in her cultural perspective. She also shares Seattle’s trusted treasures and hidden delights in the Seattle magazine Fave Five column.
Join The Must List
Sign up and get Seattle's best events delivered to your inbox every week.