Thursday, August 04, 2005


When I was in Italy one morning buying an espresso, the guy at the register said to me, smiling broadly, "Cinese?" I shook my head. "Japonese?" Shaking no again, I responded with an equally broad smile, "Americana!" and walked over to the bar to get my little cup of caffeinated heaven.

I suppose in my last entry, I didn't think at all of how this blind date of a city would receive me, as besides this short episode, I have never really encountered such attitudes during the remaining stay in Italia or my two trips to England.

Sure, Tony Bourdain has no problems adventuring around the world - he is white and he is a man - simple statements with considerable still-yet-even-now much nonchalant power. He will do fine in France; he's part French. Mosh, on the other hand, receives heckles of "La Chinoise!" (What is the point of this? If she were Chinese, it's not like she wouldn't know this. And the heckler, most likely, is just going to get it ignoramus-ly wrong anyhow. Just shut the hell up. You don't go around yelling at pedestrians on the street pointing out "Woman!" "Teenager!" "Dancing Bear!" like a two year old pointing out squares and circles. All either obvious or wrong, so what's the deal?)

Friend JI, who just came back from two years in Germany and various European locales, got asked often about her favorite korean author, her views on N. and S. Korea, etc. While she could have spouted off something about Hegel (Hegel!!!) or other some such political philosophy - and in German !!! - these were not questions quite up her alley, despite korean descent. This was the case with KM too. Whilst he was in Italy, his boarding Nonna did not truly ever believe that he was American because he is brown.
To most Europeans, "American" means White. Even more so than in America itself. I'm not saying that this doesn't happen here. But there seems to be a different sort of stubbornness of beliefs. Perhaps this is due to the different histories of these areas. America, race problem riddled as it is, is a very young nation of, and founded by, immigrants. Europe is a place where you can find buildings and formations still standing from ridiculously low-numbered years like 1200 and below, where you can still have an estate and castle that belonged to your ancestors whose family emblem is flying high in that turret by the moat (but alas, no dragons. Sad) and that's what it takes to be considered national.
So what is the reception towards minorities in Europe? Are Asians from London considered British? Or are they exasperatedly (made up word?) asked, no, where are you really from? On this question, is England different from Finland, from Greece? Remaining on that question, forget Europe. What about the rest of the world? What is their concept of 'American' and what is their concept of ethnic minorities within their national borders? Is there that same external judgment that arises when faced with the choice of who to root for at the Olympics?
I've read (and obviously experienced) much more on race in America and maybe none about race in other geographical contexts. Thus the barrage of questions. Any recommended readings? Experiences? Do share.
Rick Steves message board on minorities travelling abroad.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

Being asked where I'm from perplexes me more than it annoys me (although it also annoys me). No one is happy with the answer, "New Jersey". ;)
I can't imagine asking random people where they're from, or what their ethnicity is. If I heard some people speaking a foreign language that I didn't know I might be curious to know where they're from, but that's not like someone asking you what you are because of how you look. And I've never actually asked any tourists in NYC where they're from.
Once in the elevator at my school's library a guy asked me if I was Chinese. Now THAT was random!
I feel bad when I'm in Asia (Chinese speaking places to be exact) and act as the painfully non-Asian Asian-American who doesn't speak Chinese. I guess they'd see me more as an American as people who actually live in America? :p