Blank-American: But where are you REALLY from?

Once again, one of the struggles that I face every time I travel is my identity as both Chinese AND American.

In China, I was able to take advantage of not always immediately being perceived as an outsider. I wasn’t stared at and I may have benefited when shopping and bargaining for prices. However, with my limited Mandarin Chinese ability, speaking with locals was difficult with their rapid-fire responses and criticisms of my language skills when I stared back with a blank face and/or had to tell them I didn’t understand and/or spoke English to seek clarification or convey confusion. The focus growing up was English and, even if I did learn Chinese at home growing up, it would have been Cantonese…

(I was told: “You need to work on your Chinese” or “Your Chinese is really bad” vs. gushing praises of “Your Chinese is SOOOO GOOD” when a white friend would say “Ni hao” and order fried rice.)

Thankfully, I didn’t notice many problems throughout my travels in Europe. My ex’s friends were a bit disappointed to learn that I had a very ordinary name (Christina? – it even sounds Spanish) instead of a Chinese name… Also–strangely–of all the places I was “ching chong’d” by men on the street, it was in London, a city with a large Chinese population.

In Morocco, I was heckled by dozens of men throughout the medina.  Tons of “Konnichiwa’s,” “Ohayou’s,” “Japan? Korea?” – even a guy shouting CHINA! at me. I didn’t know if I should be more offended if they got the wrong Asian, or that even if they correctly assumed that I’m Chinese… I’m from America and I speak English. I only know the limited amount of Chinese that I do because I took the initiative to take Mandarin language courses in university.

Don’t get me wrong – I am proud to be Chinese (and I am proud to be American). I just hate that so many people assume based on appearances.

In India, it will usually go one of two ways.

Scenario 1:

I am trying to avoid being ripped off. “Where are you from?” I answer China.

Reply: “Ahhh, Ni hao!”

Scenario 2:

I’m with my roommates, and a stranger or auto driver asks. “Where are you from?” They say America, I say America.

Reply: *double-take* with a confused look. Maybe they’ll point at their face, near their eyes. “Huh?” (Because, you know, America is all white faces, blonde hair, blue eyes.)

Me: I’m Chinese.

Reply: “Ohhh!” *look of satisfaction* “Ni hao!”

California girls

And when they do actually believe that I am from America, and California in particular, I feel like it alters their perception of me as a female even more. It’s bad enough when I feel like the men here objectify women in passing and in relationships. But American girls, and especially California girls are perceived as “easy” and men I have encountered often feel they are entitled to some sort of physical favor in return for the grace of their presence or a second of their time showing me their work. NO. You do not get a hug, a kiss, and/or a boob graze just because I am a female from California. 

Just one photo

It’s very common for many Indians to come up and ask me (and my roommates) for “just one photo” or a selfie together. I can’t help but wonder WTF are you going to do with the photo if I actually oblige?

It’s quite annoying (especially when they follow you around and pester more than once). But it’s also quite sad that seeing someone “other” is such a novelty for so much of the population that they feel they have to whip out their smart phone cameras and giggle while they decide who will be the one to ask the foreigner for a photo.

I am privileged to have been born in America, and especially San Diego, where interacting with people of different skin colors and cultural backgrounds is the norm and not the exception. And I know that the ability to travel to such culturally diverse cities is just not financially possible for much of the population.

The future

I know that my interactions cannot be half as frustrating as those of my brown and black male friends.

But I also know that there are others who will be able to relate to my experiences.

I suspect that many more young Americans will become more “white-washed” and lose touch with their mother tongues and the history of their ancestors as time passes.

At the same time, I hope that others around the world will be able to see the great diversity in cultures that exists, appreciate these differences, understand that it is normal, and STOP ASKING FOR DAMN PHOTOS.



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UC San Diego grad with a double major in Economics and International Business. I was born and raised in sunny San Diego, but I love to travel (and eat) around the world.

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