The Obvious Foreigner

As a Chinese person, I stood out when traveling in Europe and in Morocco. There was no way to hide it, as much as I wished I could blend in.

I’ve had this post partially written for a while. Reading what Eric wrote about the way he was treated as an Asian-American while studying in Paris has prompted me to finish this and publish my thoughts.

He said:

Suddenly, my slightly slanted eyes were more than just for seeing. It became a representation of myself, a physical manifestation of my identity. One that would permanently bind me to a single community with a sheer glance on the metro or the troittoir.

Paris became the first city where I had someone yell “Chink” to my face and describe the demerits of my race. The first city where I was told to go back to China. And the first city where I became acutely aware of my race.

He ended with, “It is important to have dialogues and discourse on race and its implications for students that may not quite fit the mold of the typical student studying abroad.”

So here are my two cents on the experience of being an obvious foreigner:

Part One

To fully explain what I want to talk about, first I need to give some background information. I was born and raised in Southern California. Although my parents are immigrants, they both came to the US when they were really young (ie: 5 years old) — so I’m practically second generation. While yes, I’m Asian-American, as far as my culture and background go I’m pretty much just American. There are a few hints of my Chinese heritage sprinkled throughout my life, like celebrating Chinese New Year, using chopsticks at some meals (well, I try) and eating Chinese food quite often. If I hadn’t been such a stubborn child, I would be bilingual and play the piano and violin (how’s that for stereotypes? but really though…).

Although Asians are a minority in the US as a whole, I’d never lived in a place where I was part of the minority. I grew up outside L.A. in a city named Monterey Park, also known as “Little Taipei” or the first suburban Chinatown. I went to college in Irvine, which is more diverse than the San Gabriel Valley, relatively speaking: almost 50% of the population is Asian. So as you can see, I’d never been one to stand out because of my ethnicity.

Until I studied abroad.

To quickly put things in perspective: in my own study abroad program, there were probably 5-10 Asians in a group of ~170 students.

Being Asian didn’t raise any issues within my program, but when I was out in Barcelona. I wasn’t used to the attention. I didn’t notice anyone obviously gawking at me and nobody asked to take my picture, which was a relief because I don’t know how I would have reacted. Both are common responses to Western foreigners in certain places in Asia, for example. But I didn’t experience what Eric described, either.

For me, it a more subtle version of attention: people were more curious and wanted to talk to me because I was Asian, which was fine if it was a nice conversation. Inevitably it turned to the question, “Where are you from?” which lead to, “Are you… (guess my ethnicity here)?” Other times, people would say things at me in passing. That wasn’t as fun.

I found it surprising that it happened in Barcelona, since there’s a decent amount of Chinese people in the city. There are many Chinese stores and restaurants. There was even a small festival to celebrate Chinese New Year, although it was more for the tourists or curious folks. The neighborhood El Raval is informally known as the “Chinatown” of Barcelona. It’s not like Chinese people are nonexistent here. So what gives?


Chinese New Year festival in Barcelona


One of the Chinese restaurants around the city

I didn’t find the answer. The way I was treated wasn’t dangerous and certainly not as racist as it could have been; it just irked me. I found this post from my old Tumblr discussing my frustrations:

This morning I had a dream that I was outside my house with my brother, and some people came up to us and said they wanted to buy some souvenirs. I became really angry and told them we don’t have any souvenirs; we are “a regular Chinese family!”

This dream was undoubtedly related to my recent pondering about being an Asian abroad in a place where I (we) are the minority. This isn’t something I’ve ever experienced because I have always been surrounded by Asians as the majority. I don’t know what it is lately that makes me feel self-conscious about being Chinese/Asian in general.

Maybe it is…

Having men say, “Ni hao,” to me as our paths cross, if I’m walking alone. I don’t know if it was intended as friendly or what, and for all I know they were tourists [not Spanish]… but the fact that it has happened more than once makes me angry, especially because I don’t even speak Chinese!

Having someone thank me in Chinese after taking their photo in Portugal — after I was clearly speaking with them in English (honestly I was offended by this one)

Having other [Chinese people] especially approach me and ask for help in Chinese

I always replied with an awkward apologetic shrug and shake of my head. Then they would repeat the question like they thought it would make more sense a second time, or else gesture emphatically. I felt a little guilty for not knowing how to communicate, like they were really happy to have found someone to get help from but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I constantly surprised people with the fact that I speak English – and fluently! (This was always followed with, “Where did you learn to speak English so well?”)

The first time I traveled to London in 2006, my sisters and I were browsing at an outdoor market. It took me a few minutes to realize that someone was trying to speak with me: “Konnichiwa!” I turned to see a guy a little older than me — he was not Japanese, but Caucasian — who smiled widely now that he finally had my attention. He must have been repeating that word for a while. “Um… I speak English.” (And I’m not Japanese.) “Oh, you do?” “…Yeaaah.”

In Rome, there was quite a lot of staring. (It could also be that Italian men are very forward.) While watching a parade for Carnevalea woman behind me tried to get my attention by addressing me as “Signora China”. A simple “Scusi” would have sufficed, so I chose to ignore her just because of that.

In Morocco, workers in the stores wanted to know my ethnicity. I was approached by being asked, “Corea?” (Korea) or “Japón?” (Japan). Other times, the fact that I am Chinese superseded the fact that I am American. I was asked if I knew Jackie Chan. It was assumed that I was friends with or related to other Asians there, because there were so few around that we must have known each other. (You know, bonding over being Asian and all that.) That I loved rice, which was fine if it meant I got more food at dinner. Even Carissa seemed exasperated on my behalf. I took it in stride as best I could there, knowing some of it was only joking with our new friends. But on the streets, someone leaned in really close and hissed the word “china” (Chinese girl) while walking by. That one stung me like a slap in the face and I texted my sister back home, upset.

In Berlin, we met some guys on their gap year. One was from Hong Kong and had studied abroad in Canada. He was Asian too, and immediately asked if I was Chinese. (Finally! Someone got it right!) Then he asked if I could speak any Chinese. I said no, and his instant reply was a disappointed, “Oh. Most ABCs don’t.” ABC. American-Born Chinese. Just like that, I was labeled. (On a side-note, I know plenty of ABCs who are bilingual…. pffft!)

It was a very strange experience, being automatically given an identity that I myself don’t really associate with, to be defined by what I look like and have it pointed out. It was at times hard facing all of these stereotypes about Chinese people, and the way people thought I should be as a foreigner (except not the type of foreigner they were expecting).

I don’t know what to end this with… so how about this tweet referring to Eric’s original post:

#StudyAbroad helps change perceptions; ppl CAN learn that #Americans come in EVERY shape/size/color via @studentsgg

— Laura Kempe (@Laura_AHAIntl) April 17, 2013

By studying abroad, we learn firsthand about other cultures and can help to dispel stereotypes when we bring this knowledge back to our home countries. More than that, we can help to shed the stereotypes about US and show exactly who we are.

ETA: Just wanna share this here…


Part Two

Writing this made me think of identity, belonging, and the fact that I’m different.

In my Spanish class while abroad, there were a few students from China. Upon discovering that I don’t speak Chinese at all, Shu asked me, “But you are Chinese?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Yep.” “So… your parents are from China? And your grandparents?” It was almost as if he didn’t believe I could be Chinese without speaking the language, and I wondered how much of an anomaly I was.

While almost all of my Asian friends are first generation like I am, when I consider carefully I realize that many of their parents are not completely fluent in English like mine are. Most of my friends’ first language is Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. and they speak that at home. I feel oblivious to a lot of history and culture that I “should” know — even simple things like smileys. When something puzzles me or is new, my friends laugh and say, “I always forget how non-Asian you are.”

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a high school friend who recently moved out of MPK and hadn’t been back in a while. He told me that he didn’t like it here anymore because it “feels too Asian.” I knew exactly what he meant. I don’t know how to explain it but I’ll try: I don’t feel comfortable here because it’s typically assumed, mostly by the older generations who disapprove and by people who don’t know me, that I’m extremely “white-washed” or “AmericanIZED” instead of simply American. I’m living in a culture I didn’t take in as my own, but rejected when I was young. And I’m judged for it. I know I don’t belong here, that I won’t stay forever, and I won’t really miss it when I’m gone. I visited China once when I was 8, and at this time I have no desire to go back. If I decide to visit, I’d still look different (I too was able to pick out this blogger as the foreigner immediately) and be treated differently. I couldn’t blend in while in Europe, where I felt comfortable with myself more than ever before. I guess I’ll always feel a bit displaced, like I don’t belong to either east or west. It wasn’t a learning experience I’d been expecting to have while abroad, but it definitely opened my eyes and has made me think.


One response to “The Obvious Foreigner

  1. Pingback: On studying abroad | just give guts·

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