Tuesday, March 9, 2010

TWA: Traveling while Asian

For those of you who actually know me--know my real identity I should say--then you know that I've been traveling non-stop since Thursday. As I alluded to in my previous post, I have left my Southern college town for a big urban city, and then left that place for a small college town and then headed home, only to hop in my car the next morning, with Southern Man at my side (we had to leave our dog "B" at home, but he's being well taken care of by our dog-house sitter "J") and we hit the road to explore THE SOUTH.

Well, actually, this is what happened. I got grant money last year to develop a course on Asian Americans in the South (coming to Southern U next Fall!) and part of the development funds allows you to include a travel component. So I am visiting various sites that relate either to the works I'm teaching or because I'm curious to see if Asian Americans have been at all involved or included in certain parts of Southern history--like the Montgomery bus boycotts. My guess is no--but you never know. In my limited experience in doing this kind of research, you find Asians in the South popping up in the most unexpected places.

I've got a still camera and a flip camera and will be recording parts of my journey--some of which I'll share in this space. But for now, I want to leave you with part of an essay (the first 2 paragraphs) I wrote for a Southern U. campus publication because it explains, very succinctly, the dangers of TWA: traveling while Asian. And I must tell you that already I've had the experience described below happen last night night at dinner--but I'll save that for another post (although I have written before about why asking someone who looks like me where you're from becomes such a fraught question in this post and again in this other one):

"The question that I am asked most often and that I most often dread is a seemingly innocuous inquiry: Where are you from? While this question appears context driven, 99% of the time, even while traveling abroad, what the person really wants to know is: What is your ethnic ancestry? What type of hyphenated, immigrant, ESL Asian are you? Indeed, this is the question that almost everyone who is Asian in America has usually been asked at one time or another. If my interlocutor is familiar with the “brand” of Asian I claim, what typically follows is a litany of everything they have experienced about that particular Asian culture. In my case, because I am Chinese American, I have heard about the trips people have made to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Or their favorite Chinese dishes. Or they will practice random Cantonese and Mandarin phrases with me, expressing keen disappointment when I confess that I speak neither language but have, instead, as a native English speaker, studied French and Spanish in college.

I dread these inquiries and subsequent interactions because they are not designed to find out about who I really am; instead, these questions feel like an interrogation into how well I represent my race. Does my reality as a Chinese American woman match my questioners’ idea of what it means to be Chinese in America? Will I live up to their understanding of what it means to be an Asian person? Do my answers jibe with their previous notions of who Asian Americans, Asians in America, or perhaps simply just Asians are?"


Anonymous said...

In my better moments, I like to think that those kinds of leading questions are genuinely asked to find a sort of common ground. Of course, that assumes that because of our skin we'll have nothing in common otherwise - but it's at least not maliciously intended, so I can usually take it with a grain of salt.

It's the folks who get offended when I decline to answer or somehow don't give them the answer that they want - i.e., saying "San Diego" and then repeating if met with "No, where are you really from?" type inquiries - that get my back up. No one is entitled to that information, I do not owe anyone an explanation of who I am or where I come from, I am not here to be somebody's token Pinay, just another story told to some other hapless API later ensnared in the same song-and-dance.

I wish you luck in your travels, and safety.

Eurasian Sensation said...

As someone who takes a real interest in other cultures and all that stuff, I always like to find out where they are from or what their background is.

So I know that in many cases, there is no ill-will meant when people ask this question; it can often be mere curiosity and actually taking a genuine interest in you.

But obviously not always, and there are certainly many times when it's just an ignorant remark (often accompanied by "Gee you speak English so well" and the like). Obviously it's not nice when people are asking just so they can judge you according to whatever stereotypes they can think of.

My tip is to give the questioner the benefit of the doubt initially, and see where it leads from there. If you are too quick to get your nose out of joint, you might be dismissing a pleasant and interesting interaction with someone.

I get asked where I'm from all the time, probably because I'm racially ambiguous looking. (White/Indonesian mix, but look more like some kind of Latino.)

FB said...

At least when they ask, these people are somewhat informed because they are not assuming you are any particular "brand". I can understand that these questions can be conversation starters particularly to those that do not live in communities with many Asians.

While traveling in Western Wisconsin on business, I pulled up to a fast food drive-thru. To my surprise, the guy at the window was Asian and he looked at me with a surprised expression on his face and asked, "don't I know you?". He must not see his relatives that often for him to mistake me for someone he knew. I chuckled about it later.

I think we all should just ask people were they are from regardless of skin color. That could be a good conversation starter to find out someone is of Irish, Scottish, or German descent. It may make them feel a little bit like it makes us feel. That could be a good thing.

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for your comments--I just wrote a post explaining what prompted me to re-print part of that essay. I think, in general, I don't mind giving people the benefit of the doubt--but lately, maybe because I'm getting older and crankier, I've become increasingly annoyed by the question when it's clear that the person isn't interested in knowing who I am or even anything I have to say about "my culture"--which would be problematic in itself. But increasingly my sense is that I get asked where I'm from in order for the person--always older white men--I kid you not--to tell ME what THEY think about MY CULTURE. And that just pisses me off.

Isabel said...

This exact scenario happens to me allllll the time. Especially when I'm traveling. Mostly it would bother me because they would ask "where are you from" and I would tell them "Canada" and they would ask "where are you REALLY from?" as if because I am Chinese, I'm not REALLY a Canadian, despite being born and raised there.

It used to bother me, but it comes up so much now that I just reply that I was born in Toronto but my parents are from Hong Kong, but also my grandparents and I guess my background is from Shanghai. It's a short answer, and gives people the answer they really want to hear... And then I go on a rant about how much I love Shanghai food. Haha!

Jennifer said...

Hi Isabel,
Thanks for your comment--I really can relate and am glad you have found a way to cope with the annoying questions!