Sometimes, I wonder if the world is like a giant high school, where we’re all just trying to fit in and not be singled out.
A few months ago, I visited the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the last to enter the Soviet Union in 1940, but the first to leave in 1990 and 1991. The trip started in Vilnius which I loved. Ever since visiting Budapest for the first time more than a decade ago, I’ve grown fond of hidden-gem cities. Budapest is no longer under the radar these days, therein allowing a capital like Vilnius evermore lovable. An Old Town so small that not only it’s conveniently walkable, I could also visit all the main sights in simply one or two days. Somehow, I slipped right into Lithuania’s biggest city, unnoticed yet well-received without an ounce of preconceived notion.
Though the kind of preconceived notion – that I’m unfortunately referring to – surfaced a few days later, when I was seemingly the only Asian woman witnessing the rowdiest day of the year in Riga. Latvia’s ice hockey team had just won bronze at the world championship which it co-hosted with Finland. By defeating the United States, Latvia gained its first-ever world championship medal and it inspired the Parliament’s decision to declare a public holiday.
Needless to say, the city was at an all-time high. Citizens proudly sported Latvian flag like superhero capes while their faces were painted in bold red and white. Roaring chants and boisterous songs blared in competition with cars honking and drinks freely flowing on every street. By the time I reached The Freedom Monument, several men already unwelcomely approached with crowds of strangers around, staring in amusement, including lines of security guards, watching me awkwardly rejecting and walking away as kindly as possible.
If the city wasn’t on a gigantic endorphin kick, if these men weren’t clearly tipsy, if strangers weren’t staring like all they were missing were popcorns – but more importantly – if I wasn’t the only Asian woman in sight; I probably would’ve felt less uncomfortable and “othered.”
A few minutes later, I was being followed again. This man was complimentary at first, so I thanked him, just to be polite. But he didn’t leave me alone, “Where are you from? How many days are you staying here?” The usual questions.
I remained polite but felt bothered, “Have a great day!” I said, this was my typical cue, leave me alone. So I marched faster.
“Wait,” he also picked up speed as we crossed one of the largest boulevards in Riga and more locals were gawking like we were performing live in a theater. “Are you scared or something?” He asked, touching my shoulder.
“I’m not scared,” I spoke louder, extremely annoyed at this point. “Please don’t touch me!” I shouted the latter phrase. Frowning, eyebrows arched.
“Don’t be scared,” he continued. “My ex-wife is Japanese!”
I stopped walking and stared dead into his eyes, “And? So?” Was he just lumping us Asian women all in one sexualized and submissive basket? Never mind the offensive undertone he JUST blurted about my race and gender.
When he disappeared then suddenly approached once more by tapping my left shoulder AGAIN, I felt three bodies swiftly grappling my arms, rushing me to the side of the street.
“Where have you been?” One girl said.
“We’ve been looking for you everywhere!” Another girl shouted loud enough for the man to leave us alone.
When we rested away from the crowds, I realized three high school girls saved me from an incredibly distressing situation. “How did you all notice what was happening?” I asked, thankful but frazzled.
“Everyone was watching!” One of the girls named Laura, explained. “All of us could see that he was scaring you and was being quite aggressive. He was so weird!” The ladies waited by my side until we were sure that he was nowhere to be seen. When we finally parted, I gave each of them a long hug followed by a group embrace.
After Latvia, I arrived in Estonia where I was marinating in an I-am-so-over-this energy. Tallinn was breezy and cold in early June, cooling down my passion for exploring yet another Baltic state. I saw a few more Asians in this city, compared to either Vilnius and Riga…combined. But let’s not kid ourselves, there weren’t buses full of Asian tourists flocking the streets of Estonia. Whenever I heard French or Americans speaking in a bar or a restaurant, I couldn’t wait to chat up a storm. While I was deeply missing diversity and multiculturalism in Paris, I remained an anomaly in Tallinn and growing angry. Despite the joy of traveling is to immerse ourselves in completely different cultures, it’s also exhausting to be the different one. Being stared at all the time, feeling othered on a constant basis. Sometimes, I wonder if the world is like a giant high school, where we’re all just trying to fit in and not be singled out.
After spending a few dismal nights in my hotel room, I decided to spend my last day in Tallinn with a brand new attitude: If I was the only Asian anyone was ever seeing in real life here, then I was going to show them the best of my race. They were going to notice how beautiful and unique we are. Some of us also speak English with an undeniably Californian accent and some of us also live in a dazzling European city like Paris.
Because I opened myself back up, Estonia ended on a fun note. I had the best night barhopping with new friends like Joe and Josh, who reminded me a piece of home in America so I felt less “othered.” I figured, if I wasn’t ever going to return to the Baltics again, I would leave my mark in the most charming way that would make my people proud.