I asked my friend for some advice about topics she would find interesting to read about and the first thing she said was “why don’t you write about how it is traveling as an Asian?”, and my immediate reaction was “isn’t that kind of ridiculous?”, but in fact… It really isn’t! The more I think about it, the more I remember certain situations that happened to me just because I am Asian.
First of all, there’s the “Nihao” that I get almost everywhere I go. Morocco was completely insane, I think everyone greeted me with “Nihao” and asked me several times if I was either Chinese or Japanese. If I weren’t any of those nationalities, I had to be American. There was no way I was anything but one of those three. This is usually what happens:
- Nihao, Nihao!!! No?? Konnichiwa!! No? Ehm.. Arigatou!!!
- WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
- Sweden? Where is that? Oh, Ibrahimovic… But you’re not blonde and blue eyed!
- WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?
When this happens, I always go through 3 stages: First, I think it’s funny so I laugh and just say no, I’m from somewhere else. Then it starts getting a bit more annoying so I just stop responding. Then the third stage is when I get pissed off and asks them to “SHUT IT OR ELSE”. Sometimes I have to remind myself that they probably assume I’m from China because there’s so many Chinese tourists there. Still, it annoys the crap out of me.
It’s not just Morocco though. I remember in Bolivia in 2012 when me and my friend walked to our hostel and a car just stopped in the middle of the road, rolled down his car window and yelled out on the street for everyone to hear “CHINEEESEEE”. These situations are just straight up bizarre so we just laughed and continued. When I backpacked in South America, tourism hadn’t developed as much as it has now, so they weren’t used to tourists as they are now, and maybe especially Asian tourists. It’s still such a silly situation to be in.
In South America, the locals favourite game was “guess the nationality” and it just got more intense by the day. I got: Hawaii, Japanese, Chinese, Colombian (yasss), Brazilian, South Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Canadian, Peruvian, France and of course my all time favourite: Palestine. I still wonder what went on in this Colombian guys mind. Somehow it was extremely important for them to know where I was REALLY from. I couldn’t REALLY be from Sweden, could I.
But it’s when I’m traveling in Asia that things get really odd. I knew when I left for my backpack trip in Asia that I would encounter some difficulties because of the way I look, but the most embarrassing thing was when I was going home with Tom and the receptionist thought I was a prostitute. EHMM, how freaking insulting? Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean that I am… ANYTHING! And especially a prostitute, just because I am with a white dude. And that’s where the problem lies. All the stereotypes and prejudices against Asians are projected to ALL Asians – and I have to say, it’s mostly towards girls. Either I’m a prostitute or a gold digger who’s dating a 40 year older man. GREAT!!! I do sometimes feel uncomfortable walking around with a guy that’s not white in Asia, because I don’t wan’t want people to think I’m “one of those girls” looking for a white dude to make all her dreams come true. I know this is a terrible thing to say, and I’m sure a lot of people will be offended by this, but it’s just the way I feel sometimes when I travel. I hate it.
I’ve also been approached by expats and backpackers in not just Asia, but other places in the world too, assuming I must like white guys because I’m Asian. What… The…. NO??!
The conversation always starts light – where are you from, where are you going, what are you doing here? And the more beer they drink, the more they start telling me about their Asian ex girlfriend and how they just love Asian girls so much because they are “exotic”, but perhaps more importantly, “submissive”. Look, I don’t want this post to be about bashing people, nor do I think all men share these views or opinions, but this is something that has happened to me more than once. It makes me feel uneasy. Like when I say I’m Vietnamese and they respond with “Oh, I used to have a Vietnamese girlfriend”, hmm okey? I don’t walk around saying “Wow, you’re from Sweden? I had a white boyfriend once actually” – see what I’m saying?
But the prejudices go far deeper than that. People have also told me how different I am from “other Asians” because I act in a certain way. I’m more “Westernised” apparently. Ugh. Whatever. Not even sure what to say about this. Can I just be me?
Then we have the Asians who always mistake me for being from their country. Whether I was in Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan or even Indonesia(!!!), they spoke to me in their own language. This I thought was very flattering to be honest and I loved it. I was just offended when the only country they spoke English to me was in Vietnam. My own damn home country. How ironic. But when they do find out I’m from Sweden, it’s like a barrier is built between us. I’m no longer Asian, yet I’m not looked upon as a Swedish person either. It’s hard to explain… It’s like you’re given an identity by other people and that’s what bothers me. You’re put in a box because of the way you look.
I do have to say that I’ve never felt really uncomfortable. I’m used to the looks now but I also know how much worse it can be. I’m proud to be Vietnamese and Swedish and I try not to let these things get to me. It’s just sad that our society has fed people with prejudices against Asians. We are all Chinese, loud, obnoxious, prostitutes, hungry for white men, weird and… Rich. Which a Portuguese guy told me so nicely when I told him my favourite neighbourhood in Lisbon: “Of course the Chinese likes the most expensive area”, eh, whatever dude.
So yeah, traveling the world with an Asian look means you’ll have to face a lot of stereotypes. Some are downright hilarious, some are extremely offensive (like that Russian man who grabbed me in Bosnia and told me he wanted an Asian wife) and some are just… weird. The thing is, you’ll always meet people who are ignorant towards people, regardless of ethnicity. That’s sadly how our world works. But that doesn’t mean it’s okey. It’s very important to put your foot down when you feel like people take it too far.
And as for all the assumptions people make about Asians? Hm. I only have two words: F- them!