In high school, I wanted to study psychology, which made my dad panic. He didn’t know any Chinese psychologists.
Whether I was chatting about my high school debate team, seeing a movie with friends or choosing universities, my parents and grandparents always ask if “there are any Chinese.”
I used to scoff. Why did it matter? I’m American, not Chinese.
Being abroad lifted a layer of colorblindness. Now I know that I am Chinese-American, I am Asian and my race matters.
Here at home, I have always had the privilege of a Chinese- and Asian-American community to fall back on. I was born in Flushing, Queens, raised in Jericho, Long Island and now attend Duke. I had never felt like a minority, even as a person of color.
But abroad, I was alone—in the country and in my program.
Argentina is an incredibly white country—97.2 percent are European (mostly Spanish and Italian descent) or mestizo (mixed European and Amerindian ancestry). In 2010, Argentina had 120,000 Chinese—summing the number of those born in Argentina and immigrants.
There were no other Asian-Americans in my program’s group of fifteen, though there was a girl whose mother is Japanese. She identifies as mixed and can often pass as white, but strangers here have gestured at her eyes and asked, “What are you mixed with?” But I still couldn’t identify with her the same way I could with full-blooded Chinese children of immigrants.
Before going, I tried to prepare myself, reaching out online about what my experience as a Chinese-American or Asian might have been like.
Advice for study abroad students on racism or discrimination only addressed the Black experience. I didn’t know any other Asian-Americans who had studied abroad in Argentina, or even in South America. When I reached out to an Asian-American alum of my program, she told me she was catcalled “chinita,” but understood it as more of an attempt to get her “attention as a young woman, rather than an expression of racial prejudice.”
Despite knowing how white Argentina was, I was still surprised at first. I only saw Asians running buffets or supermarkets, unlike the Asian students I see scattered across campus. Argentinians assumed that my friend Piersen, who is Black, was asking for money when she was just asking for directions on the street. Those of you reading who have never felt like a minority will not understand.
So I fled to comfort, to people who would look like me. I was so excited the first time I went to Barrio Chino. My friends and I walked into a restaurant filled with white people, none Asian. The Chinese owner immediately singled me out. No one would ever do that in New York or North Carolina—Asians are not unusual enough.
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“Hablas chino?” Do you speak Chinese?
“會，” I answered in Chinese. “這裡。。。好吃嗎？”
“還可以，但是不地道。想吃地道，去隔壁！” he said. I stared at the man, who had just told me to leave his restaurant for a more authentic one next door.
From the point of view of my friends, who didn’t speak Chinese, a Chinese man was just yelling at me. Stunned, I translated and led my friends next door, much to the confusion of the non-Chinese staff. The Chinese community there was not even large enough to fully staff itself.
“Qué pasó?” they called after us. What happened?
After scurrying next door to the recommended restaurant, I let everyone order for themselves. While they ordered, I chatted with the Chinese waitress for clarification on some of the dishes written in Chinese on the menu. As an ABC—American-born Chinese—I don’t know all of the characters or even the names for the foods of my childhood. To my friends, it looked like I was conversing completely fluently. But a “real” Chinese person would never ask what I was asking.
When the food came out, I realized what a mistake I had made. All my friends individually dug into their plates of lo mein and fried rice while the two vegetable dishes that I had ordered sat alone. It never occurred to me that my friends had never ordered family style before, nor that the typical non-Chinese imagination for Chinese food is limited to lo mein, fried rice and General Tzo’s chicken.
That Chinese restaurant may have been the only time that my friends on the program and I were not asked “De dónde sos?” Where are you from?
Others in my program complained about it.
“I’m so tired of being asked where I’m from. Can’t they just leave me alone?”
I guess I was doubly tired of it then, because I alone was asked “de dónde sos?” a second time. Where are your parents from? Do you have Japanese ancestry? What’s the origin of your last name?
My host mom explained that people in Argentina ask those follow-up questions because I confused them. America does not include my Asian body, so they asked until my appearance was explained. Oh, her parents are from China and Taiwan.
With the double “de dónde sos?”, I am a double foreigner: foreign not just to Argentina, but to the West in general. I think the Chinese restaurant didn’t ask where we were from because they were “foreign” too. Only natives feel the need to to “place” Others as foreign or inferior.
Catcalling is another way Othering happens. Last summer in England I got race-related catcalling and last semester was no different.
One Saturday night in Palermo walking to tango, I heard: “Annyeong haseyo!”
I pointedly threw him a glare before continuing to walk. The last time an Argentinian threw an unsolicited “ni hao” my way, I tried to explain—in Spanish—why what he said was problematic. It fell on deaf ears and a dumbfounded face. No longer worth my time, no longer my responsibility, to always explain that catcalling is wrong.
You are watched and your privacy means nothing, is what catcalling says to me. My friend Piersen was literally stared at on the D line here. By the end, she stared back.
Sometimes people didn’t even have to ask “de dónde sos?” twice to find out my background. Once, an American friend in the program, who is a white woman, introduced me to people she had met at a bar.
“This is my friend Grace, who’s also an American student here, but her parents are from China and Taiwan.”
I’ve since talked to that friend. She apologized profusely.
Calling people in is important, even if it’s not always my responsibility and even if those other people are also marginalized.
This summer, I am continuing my work with the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF), a non-profit in Chapel Hill and Durham that works with people to transition out of poverty and homelessness. Many of our clients, or “Members” in CEF-speak, are Black, including the man last week who said “xie xie” to me after I gave him a bottle of water.
“How did you know I spoke Chinese and not Korean or Japanese?”
“Just a feeling,” he said, a little bashfully.
“Well, it can be really uncomfortable when people assume that I speak Chinese.”
“I just wanted to say thanks...” he looked a little guilty.
Later on, when ruminating on the conversation, I thought maybe I should have added, “People assume things of Black men all the time.” I don’t know if I should have or not. As people of color, he and I both face racism, but anti-Black racism is a whole different animal than the racism Asians face.
For an earlier draft of this column, my editor suggested more “connective tissue” between these stories I tell about race and that I deploy the stories to support my overarching thesis: my race matters. But, as you can see, this piece is still pretty disjointed.
These stories on identity don’t fit in a clean, linear narrative or well-structured, evidence-based argument. With “race mattering” at the center, my scattered reflections roam. The Chinese diaspora is amazingly developed in America. Non-White bodies are catcalled and stared at. Asians are perpetual foreigners to the West, a West that includes Black people.
I could go on and on. Can you? Does your race matter?
(I promise, even if you’re white, that it does.)
Grace Mok is a Trinity senior. Her summer column about studying abroad will run weekly on Thursdays.