My awkward encounters with mistaken identity

Lisa Schroeder is one six reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Lisa Schroeder is one six reader columnists for The News Tribune. News Tribune photo

I’ve been in many first-meet situations where the encounter is slightly awkward.

The reactions I get to having a “white name” – and a German name at that – have been varied, but the intent is still the same. A lot of people are surprised and confused to meet a Korean-American person with the name Lisa Schroeder.

(Disclaimer: I’m changing the circumstances and names in this column to protect the identities and feelings of real people.)

Having the wrong name for my ethnicity was once made very clear to me by a new acquaintance:

“What’s your last name?” Eric (a white frat boy) asked after we had met in a college class.

“Schroeder,” I answered.

“Schroeder?” he replied incredulously. “How’d you get that name?”

I just drew a blank stare, thinking, “What the (blank) did this person just say to me?”

I tried to laugh it off and said that I got my name from my dad, like most people. But the dude kept pushing.

So I had to explain myself as I’ve had to do many times: “I’m adopted.”

“Oh yeah, what’s your real name?” he smirked.

“It’s (with a Korean accent) Eff Fa Yu.” (Well that is an imagined comeback.)

Another encounter happened at a job interview where the interviewer took one look at my Asian face and told me point-blank:

“Sorry there is no more job opening,” and then in his white mind kept saying: “for people who misrepresent who they are by having a name that suggests they are a cherubic, blonde, German goddess but then show up being a dark foreigner.”

Or so I imagined in those few seconds after his initial words.

The worst encounter, though, was with someone who should’ve understood me the most out of anyone I’ve met for the first time:

“What’s your name?” asked Jeff Cohen.

Jeff was another Korean adoptee and he was hosting the adoptee party we both were attending.

“It’s Lisa Schroeder,” I said.

Jeff started laughing uncontrollably: “Lisa Schroeder, ha ha ha, that’s a good one.”

I was trying to work out in my mind if his reaction was OK or if it was just as bad as a non-Korean-adoptee’s reaction.

I wondered if it was like the whole “n-word thing” where it’s completely unacceptable for non-African Americans to say, but OK if African Americans say it.

Inside my head, I questioned whether Jeff’s reaction was the Korean-adoptee community’s taking back of the “surprised-reaction-to-a-white-name-on-an-Asian-person thing” by “owning” the reaction.

Or was I overthinking it, and Jeff’s reaction was hurtful and annoying to me?

Or is it really a funny thing for me to have a name that people think belongs to someone else?

Because of all my life experiences with having a name that doesn’t fit my face, I try not to assume too much by people’s names either.

But even I’ve been in the awkward position of expecting one thing before meeting a new person and then being greeted by the unexpected.

The last time this happened was especially awkward because instead of just keeping my unexpected thoughts to myself, I blurted them out:

“Oh, I thought you were a woman,” I said to a male executive whom I had just met to interview for an article.

His name was Tracey and the only other people I knew with that name were women.

Anyway, Tracey sort of looked at me with a blank stare. I knew that look well.

I’m sure behind the stare was the thought of: “What the (blank) did this person, who I thought was going to be a white woman but is really Asian, just say to me?”

Lisa Schroeder of Tacoma is a retired journalist, full-time parent, and part-time writer. She’s one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2019. Reach her at lischro@gmail.com.