I just got back from a heated discussion with a girl friend about racism over coffee. Dealing with racism is not new to me as an Asian American but having another Asian foreigner whose formative years were spent in the UK defend the actions of these racists really ground my gears, more so than the actual events. I am still replaying the conversation in my head wondering “What the heck? Did she never experience racism in her country? Why are we not helping each other out as fellow Asians?”.
So here’s the story I brought up— my most memorable moment experiencing racism was traveling to Paris, France as a teen with my family. We opted to visit a cafe when we first arrived. I was taking French as a second language and was so excited to be soaking up all the culture I learned about. The waiter had just brought us to our table and before we even sat down, the entire place paused, turned and stared at us like zoo animals. All fifty or so patrons stared at us silently while we awkwardly stood there. After what seemed like forever, they turned and the normal din of plates and chatting returned.
Did you ever have that nightmare where you are caught at school with your pants down? That is what I felt like in real life. My mother still sadly brings up what I said at that point, “Mom, did we do something wrong?” because she felt she could not protect her child from racism. My family strived hard to give me everything: good education, middle class income, swim lessons, vacation to Europe to expand my mind and were not able to shield me from this. That turned out to be the first of many racist stares and mutterings in France and Switzerland.
The hard staring was a form of micro-aggression and while nobody had pointed and shouted “Chink! Go back to where you came from!”—it was clear to me. The silence shouted “You don’t belong here” and “Go back to where you came from, probably China or somewhere, you heathens”.
Excuses my friend offered me— “Well it’s just typical French rudeness” (all the patrons at the cafe?), “The place was probably too nice and you were dressed inappropriately”(lunchtime at a cafe and certainly not a 5 star restaurant), “You were acting inappropriately” (my parents are English-speaking, college graduates in America and no we didn’t even get to talking yet). The more excuses she made, the angrier I got.
At this point, I felt like I was being victim-shamed: we dressed like hobos, too loud, too obnoxious, uneducated, and just too dang Chinese. Up to then however, I had only experienced racism it from classmates and not adults. I had boys say to my face “your skin is yellow from the snake venom you eat”, “how can you see with your slanted eyes?” “eww, why do your people eat dogs?”, “all you chinese look-alike”— I think you get the point. “Ching chong ling long” is not exactly creative here. My teachers never once came to my defense, at most smiling and saying “that’s not nice” or “don’t say that” amusedly while everyone else looked on.
Now that I look back on it, I wonder if the children said all the things that adults themselves longed to say but couldn’t? I knew from that point on, no authority figure, whether teacher or parent could help me but myself.
The hilarious part was, we were watching The Diary of Anne Frank at the time and my biggest bully was a Jewish boy who was lamenting over how sad and horrific the genocides were. WHY?? Why do we do that? Why do us fellow minorities bully and look down on each other? I remember wondering why I’d always get bullied about for being Chinese but the blacks and Latinos never, ever had anyone say anything to them. Of course, now I realize that they have it much worse in some ways. Asians get the outward, in your face racism while black and Latinos are more likely to get followed in stores or pulled over. Neither is right.
While being angry at my friend for the excuses she made, I self reflected and realized that I was guilty of trying to defend racism as well. My Filipina girlfriend works as a professor assistant in a prestigious University in Hong Kong and was telling us how she felt sad that the professor would only talk to the chinese assistants but obviously ignore her. We tried to find excuses to explain away his behavior, such as maybe his English is not so good but its pretty ridiculous when Hong Kong professors have a fantastic grasp of English and teach in the language.
Thinking back now, although my intentions were not bad but I was trying to make sense of it, to hope that racism couldn’t possibly be from an educated professor and for to not feel like a victim. Instead, I believe she seemed to shrink in on herself and feel worse. Why couldn’t I just take my friend’s word for it and offer comfort? I still have to come to terms with these internal conflicts.
To this day, I still have a lot of anxiety when thinking about returning to Europe, especially Eastern Europe where Asians are rarely seen at all. I’d get excited when looking at photos or blog posts from caucasian travelers but wonder if I would have such acceptance when I visit.
I came to four decisions for future travel:
- Do your research and travel to open-minded areas. I am glad that my parents took me to Europe because it was educational to see what real life in other countries is like even though some parts made me sad. Feeling more racism in a few days in France and Switzerland than I ever felt in my whole life as an American, says something. Of course I can’t tell you what life would have been like in the deep south but I figured Paris was a multicultural city that had seen it all? This idea might be controversial, but I also believe you shouldn’t feel a need to throw your hard-earned money at places where you feel constantly threatened and harassed just to prove something. The keyword is constantly, since I realize there will always be small-minded people everywhere. The world we live in is enormous, there is no shortage countries to visit so I’d rank more open-minded places first. While I’d never give an absolute no, everyone has a limit to how much they can take before feeling worn down and we should travel to enjoy ourselves.
- We need to defend ourselves. Asians rarely ever stick up for themselves. A lot of our parents brought us up in an environment of fear— only teaching us to ignore bullies. I learned the hard way, that ignoring does not stop harassment. Asians are seen as wealthy, educated, model minorities so they should JUST DEAL WITH IT. Most recently, I participated in a yelling match in a quiet, Canadian coastal town. A woman tried to swat my mom with her cane while saying “you people are always in the way and behaving badly” when all my mother was doing was taking photos of crabs (she’s a funny lady). We left that day feeling better about ourselves for protesting rather than just meekly taking it. You may not win the fight or argument but trying will at least keep your ego intact.
- Make a stand for other races. “First they came for..” is a well-known poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller that we have all heard of in one form or another. It describes how cowardice prevents us from protecting others weaker than yourself will allow hate to flourish to the point where it will destroy you and there will be nobody left to side with you. I remember dining in an upscale Cantonese restaurant in an outer-borough Chinatown where no tourists go. They pretty much have one reigning dish that anyone in the know orders— the crab fried sticky rice that is fried it its own buttery fat (so delicious). A foreign, white couple had walked in and the waiters sat them right by the door exposing them to a drafty winter, despite other tables available. When the couple asked to be moved, they were taunted with, “want some lo-mein?”, “why don’t you go to Pizza-Hut!” and “can’t even speak english well”. HOLY IRONIES! Here are older immigrants making mockery of the fresher immigrants! I had enough, and geared myself to tell the waiters to shut it when the couple just decided it was best to leave. My biggest regret was not standing up for the couple earlier. Needless to say, I won’t be going back there. Ever.
- Don’t victim shame. You are not in that person’s shoes and could never fully understand. They need comfort and not further excuses from you. Some experiences are indescribable if you are not in that person’s shoes. A lot of racism is more slight, like waiters staring at you angrily in the eye while you try to get service for half an hour and then walking over to help patrons of a more acceptable race with huge smiles. If your friend feels it, chances are it happened to them.
Please let me know if you have experienced racism abroad and where.
I’d love to revisit Europe and see it through a fresh pair of eyes instead of what my teenage self remembers. Any advice on where to go next?
>>Also if you are interested in reading more cultural experiences abroad here is a great post on more of the subject from ExpatEdna.<<