My experiences regarding my race as an Asian-American during the time I’ve spent in Europe thus far.
Traveling is and should be an empowering, enlightening experience for anyone who undertakes the journey. But we also need keep in mind that not everyone experiences the world the same way. By this I mean that based on your gender, class, racial identity and/or physical appearance, your travel experiences may be much different from those of someone else, despite visiting the same places. In this article I will focus on my experiences regarding my race as an Asian-American during the time I’ve spent in Europe thus far, and yes the topic of racial identity and privilege is uncomfortable but that’s exactly why I’m going to talk about it.
The two primary places in which I spent most of my life are Hawaii and California. I had the privilege of growing up in Honolulu where people of color, mainly Asians, are the majority demographic and there was high visibility of minorities in Berkeley and Los Angeles where I spent most of my legal adult life. This semester in Spain is my first time being completely surrounded by white people wherever I go and I was not prepared for the disorientation nor discomfort associated with being the only person of my racial group in public spaces.
All the guidebooks and study abroad brochures about the wonderful things Europe has to offer failed to let me know that I would also encounter the following on a daily basis. Whenever I walk down a big, commercial street I am greeted with “Ni hao” at least 5 times and sometimes when I open the door or pay people they respond with “arigato”—neither of which apply to me given that I am Korean-American. Despite having told my host mom this several times she still refers to me as Japanese. At the club, some guys approached my friend group and asked where we’re from and one immediately pointed at me and said “you’re obviously from China.” And then at another club some guy came up to me and told me that I’m beautiful because he loves the shape of Asian eyes. Thanks guy, I’m so incredibly flattered.
Now I’ve experienced racial insensitivity back home in the states, where people automatically assume I’m Chinese or hit on me saying that they love Asian girls. But given that other than in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, Asians make up less than 1% of the population in all other European countries it’s not surprising that there is a high level of unawareness and ignorance around people of Asian descent on this side of the Atlantic. Especially since most Europeans’ contact with Asian folks are with tourists and small business owners. I thought I couldn’t stand racial stereotyping in the States but here I am exhausted by getting stared at all the time, being made to feel like I don’t belong anywhere ever and sometimes when I’m having a really rough day I don’t even feel like a real person.
This is the first time that I have been hyperaware of my racial identity. Something we all need to acknowledge is that if you are a white person, you will be greeted with a substantial amount of privilege in most countries you travel to around the world. If you are a person of color, your experience may turn out to be quite different from what neutral, colorblind travel guides tell you. But that’s not to say that people of color shouldn’t travel or that white people have a splendid time wherever they go, because there are definitely countries where one encounters difficulty for being white. Racialization is a process that varies depending on localization, history, demographics and geography. As travelers exploring the social dynamics of one part of the globe to another, we need to be conscientious of this and that therefore not everyone interacts with cultures in the same way.
Traveling is a great way to learn about your identity and privilege, on an interpersonal and global level, as you observe the ways people treat you—and others—in different locations. Despite the racial transgressions, I have much privilege due to the fact that I’m a young woman who appears upper-middle class, therefore people are nice to me and willing to help. There are hierarchies and representations that exist on a global level and traveling allows us to experience them for ourselves. In order to be good world citizens we need to be aware of how history and structural processes affect each of us differently and how certain groups are affected more negatively than others, depending on time and place.
Before you go to another country, look into its recent history, demographics and social stratification so that you have a better idea of how to be a respectful visitor. Before you talk about how wonderful your travels to a certain country were and how nicely you were treated, think about the facets of your identity that may have facilitated your experiences and how this may differ for other people. If you are in a study abroad program, check in with other students about how they are doing and don’t just assume that everything is A-Okay because you are having a good time.
Countries don’t simply exist to receive you with open arms and show you a good time. If you truly want to learn about the world and its people, go beyond the surface level of seeing the sites and delve into the history and structural reasons why the world is the way it is. As travelers, we especially have to be wary of such issues because we are active agents in transmitting patterns of human interaction wherever we go. Learn to be aware of your unique privileges as well as how to be a considerate world citizen and fellow human being.