Post Election Pleas from the Ethnically Ambiguous

“Calm down Taryn, it’s not the end of the world.” “We will be okay.” “Have a little faith in the American people.” “Most of the people that voted for Trump voted for him in spite of his hateful comments not because of them.” 

I truly hope that is true. And in keeping with that thought, I have a request for the Trump Supporters: 

I don’t know many of you. I live in a little bubble of like minded individuals. Even in the south, I happened to select a group of friends that come predominantly from the same neighborhoods in California that I lived in for 22 years. If you are reading this you are probably just as devastated as I am with the election results. But if even a few Trump Supporters read this, then it’s worth saying. 

I understand that not all of you are  sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, racist abusers. I understand that there have been undercurrents in the American population that we as “the urban elite” have ignored for far too long. I am sorry for ignoring you. I am sorry for writing off your problems. I am sorry for judging you and your way of life. I understand that you felt Trump was the only option you had to be heard. I understand because we are finally listening. So it worked.

But in choosing him as our president you empowered the minority amongst you who are in fact sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, racist abusers. By condoning his statements, you are glorifying a hateful mindset that is rooted in unrest and violence. And while I do not understand how that is a sacrifice you were willing to make, I accept that you do.

I only hope that in your triumph, you are responsible with the power you’ve been granted. Please do not ignore your vicious minority. You are accountable for them. Their vitriol and their violence has gained momentum and political backing because of a decision you helped make. So instead of telling me that you don’t stand by what Trump said throughout the election, show me. 

In the last two days alone countless minorities in America have been threatened and physically attacked in the name of Trump. Do something about it. Make it known that as a Trump Supporter you will not stand for that. Maybe they will listen to you. I know damn well, they won’t listen to me. I voted for Hillary after all so I don’t understand.

This election pitted Americans against each other more than I ever thought possible. I watched my side of the divide mock your side. I didn’t bat an eye when Clinton called you deplorable. For the last year, I expected literally nothing good from you. And now here I am asking for your support. Ironic, isn’t it? But as an ethnically ambiguous young woman in the south, I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that all the slight micro-aggressions and vaguely sexist/racist comments I’ve received over my life will no longer be micro or vague. I’m afraid that “Where are you imported from?” will become “Go back to where you came from.” I’m afraid that “you’re so exotic” will become “you are not one of us.” I’m afraid that “you don’t have to be such a bitch” will become “give me what I want bitch.”

And I need you. I hate to admit it, but I need you.

I am not asking you to change your political views. And you should know that I will do everything in my power to elect a new president in 4 years. I don’t expect us to all sit and kumbaya together. In fact, I am glad that not everyone in America agrees about everything. Competition and disagreement ensure that progress continues.

But the kind of hate our president elect embodies is not acceptable on either side of this divide. So please, be better than we expected you to be. Prove to us that a Trump presidency is not the apocalypse we expect it to be. Prove to us that you did not cast your vote out of spite and intolerance. Every non-white/cis/het male is now your charge. Be good to us. 

The Lost Generation

There is an undeniable phenomenon of college graduates traipsing around Asia. Like seriously, there are a ridiculous number of them (actually I suppose “us” is more accurate).  In fact, I have a bunch of friends who moved to Asia after graduation  As such, this is not meant to be a blanket statement in any way.  However, in my encounters there were three general types of young foreigners in Asia.

A small portion legitimately move to Asia to experience the culture before they return to their home country, eventually. They go and do humanitarian work or try to learn a new language.  They explore nature and small villages on the weekends and do home stays.  They hang out with the locals and try to assimilate as much as possible. They are often by themselves when you meet them.

Then there are the gap year kids.  Even though I was only abroad three months, I’m consider myself one of these.  I would also classify most of the young professionals in Hong Kong in this category.  We have a short specified amount of time that we need to kill before moving on to our real goals in life.  For the most part we teach English (except me) while we apply to law school, med school, grad school, corporate jobs, etc.  We try to pack a lot into our weekends and are constantly moving.  We appreciate the break from reality and the new cultures we get to experience but know that ultimately we are not meant to stay.

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A stretch of beach lined with hostels and bars

But a surprisingly large number of the young foreigners in Asia are more like drifters.  They have no idea what they are doing with their lives and no idea when they might go home.  They are adventurous and live for the moment but ultimately seem a little lost.  And apparently all of them end up in Thailand at one point or another.

There is an island called Koh Phi Phi off of Phuket, which is so small that there are no roads and you can walk from one end of the village to the other in like twenty minutes.  It is absolutely beautiful and apparently the Bermuda Triangle of western millenials.  Most of the people visiting the island were young college graduates looking for a good time and only staying for a few days.  About half the “locals” were also young college graduates looking for a good time, but staying indefinitely.  I encountered quite a few of them in my two days and they seemed to have a lot to say. They also all had jobs, which entail getting tourists to do an activity through a mixture of flirting and flyers.

There was: the boy from New Zealand trying to get us to scuba dive, the guy from California trying to get us on a boat tour, the girl from the UK and the guy from Germany tag teaming us to try to get us to go to a bar, and the guy from, well I dont know where, but he was sleazy and white and had an anklet (enough said) trying to get us to go to a pub.

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The same stretch of beach full of alcohol and bad decisions at night

Now it sounds really condescending but I found them fascinating and spent perhaps an annoying amount of time asking them questions.  I just couldn’t comprehend why someone would spend years, yes plural, living in a dirty (this isn’t subjective, they are dirty) hostel, on a tiny little island, barely making enough money to get by.  They all touted the whole “living in paradise” “one with the island” mantra, but didn’t really live it.

So what made them just forsake their home countries? Oh that’s right because the job market is atrocious! What does it say about our economies and our nations when so many intelligent, personable young people literally have NOTHING that ties them to their home?

I was struck by an overwhelming gratitude that I do not feel rootless.  My roots might not be cultural but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t real. They aren’t aren’t national; there are definitely times where I don’t feel particularly proud of being an American. They aren’t geographic; I’ve lived in a dozen different houses and apartments in 3 cities.  Instead, my roots are made up of the people I love and the traditions that we have built.  And they make it impossible to just peace out and go live on an island, no matter how beautiful it may be.

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It is undeniably beautiful!

Expats.

While I was in Hong Kong, I went to get drinks with my travel buddy and a friend of mine that lives in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately these really annoying guys crashed our catch up session and would not take a hint.  They asked where we were from and in my annoyance I told them to guess because I really didn’t want to play along.  One of them stared at me for a solid minute and then said “Zimbabwe.”

What?

Now at the time, I just thought he was a moron and I was already filled with the disdain that only a girl, who doesn’t want to be hit on, can have.  Poor guy.  Anyways, in retrospect I can see now why he might be confused and have no idea where I was from despite my accent.  I still don’t know why Zimbabwe was at the top of his list, but in Hong Kong it really is impossible to tell where people are from based on appearance.  You can thank the expats for this.

ImageI would like to preemptively assert that I went to Hong Kong to visit a friend (The redhead with me in the picture to the left) who moved there a little over a year ago and whose parents have lived there for eight years. Also two of my friends from my program grew up in Hong Kong and discussed it with me quite a bit. My conjectures are therefore not solely based on my week as a tourist.

 

Hong Kong is a kick ass place to do two things in your career:

1. Start a business. I guess there are very few stipulations you have to fulfill before being able to call yourself a business. 2. Get a job out of college as an English-speaking foreigner. No seriously, if you hate your job and like to travel, find a company in Hong Kong to hire you. They will pay you to move out to Hong Kong, pay for your apartment and help you deal with international taxes. Score!

Because of these two undeniable facts, over the decades a bunch of business tycoons, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and young professionals have moved to Hong Kong from all over the world to catapult their careers.  They are called expats, short for expatriates. Expats are exactly what you think: someone who leaves their home country to settle in another.  My friend says that Hong Kong is so saturated with expats that if she was to learn another language to help her in Hong Kong it would be French, not Cantonese.

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Now there are a few things I find interesting about the term expat

1. If you are not Chinese you are absolutely an expat in Hong Kong, no matter how long you have lived there.  This means that even though a lot of those business tycoons and venture capitalists moved to Hong Kong and started families, their children are still expats. So despite the definition, it’s not really about the move itself is it?

2.  Unlike most labels, it didn’t really seem to have a positive or negative connotation. Everyone that I heard use it said it like it was a running joke. Like “Oh, haha none of us really belong here but we don’t really care because we are expats” and “Oh yea they don’t get it, haha, because they don’t belong here but it’s okay they are expats.” I wasn’t really sure whether or not I was allowed to use the term because it suggests an other-ness, which should be bad, but everyone seemed to act like it was funny.

3. It is the only unifying term for like half the population of Hong Kong and 90% of the population on Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong itself doesn’t really have a unique cohesive cultural identity. They have a very distinct Chinese culture, and a very confusing hodge-podge of other stuff, with little pieces that are obviously a melding of the cultures.  But really it’s not like in America where, despite all the cultures, there is the overarching idea of “America.”  Here, people identify themselves as Mexican-American or African-American or just plain old American because there are too many ethnicities tossed in there to count. In Hong Kong there didn’t seem to be such thing as French-Hong Kongese.  No, the person is just French and happens to live in Hong Kong.  There is a separation between the location they live in and the culture they claim.  And because of this confusion the word expat has come to prominence.

I kind of like it.

The people I interacted with in Hong Kong really held on to their cultural identity.  This doesn’t mean that the Germans in Hong Kong only eat German food and don’t associate with non-Germans and long for the motherland.  It just means that people there have a strong sense of heritage while still wanting to go out into the world and explore other places.  I was impressed.

Also it was nice to know that everyone in Hong Kong has to start their conversations out the same way: “Where are you from?” “What are you?” It isn’t a given there.  There is no standard.  It was liberating.  I felt like it was one of those places where I could claim anything and people would be like awesome! Good for you! I actually contemplated making up stories with the girl I was traveling with, but we’re scientists and the imagination/lying/story-telling part of our brains isn’t as skilled as the logic/puzzles part.  The furthest we got was fake bar names.

So thank you to the expats! I’m glad the only thing that separated me as a tourist was the map in my hand.

Side note: the urbandictionary definitions of expats are pretty funny… http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=expat

But it’s Just a Sweet, Sweet Fantasy Baby

IMG_4709Tokyo is a fantasywonderland.  Anything you could possibly dream up in your head to make your dull, ordinary life more exciting, they probably have. Wish you had a girlfriend to come home to and talk about your day with? There are Maid Cafés for that! (I feel like I need to clarify this one; it is not maidan escort service. It is literally just a café where you pay to have a girl bring you food and listen to you talk about your life. I would call it more of a friend service.)  Wish you had time for a pet? Well they have Cat Cafés where you can drink coffee, eat pastries and unwind with a feline friend for a while.  Are you a Dungeons and Dragons addict? Well, there is a weird 3D picture place where you can pretend to battle dragons or be a genie for 7 yen.  Sci-fi fanatic? Robot café.  Anime fiend? Don’t even get me started.

Seriously, it’s like Total Recall out there, but without the invasive mind control part.

A friend explained to me that because the Japanese work ethic is so intense and so rigorous, they utilize fantasy and services such as maid cafés to supplement their lives.  Now, I believe this with regards to the businessmen in Tokyo.  I saw far too many of them eating dinner by themselves at 9:30 at night and checking into capsule hotels for some shut-eye.  I understand why they might want to take a break from that life style and pretend to be, well, anything else for a couple hours.  But it’s not only businessmen that make believe.

Just take a walk down Takeshita St. in the Harajuku district and you will see store after store selling clothing and accessories that allow you to change your entire appearance. IMG_4711 They sell contacts that can make you look like a cat, hair extensions in more colors than Crayola can even imagine, and clothes that can only be described as costumes.  And no, this isn’t some far-out Haight-Ashbury street where people come to buy Halloween costumes and outfits for Pride.  This is the every day apparel of a generation of girls in Tokyo. These girls (I say girls because I have no clue what age they are, but they present themselves as young) wake up every morning and turn themselves into, for lack of a better word, characters.  harajukuMost of the girls running the stores looked like cartoon characters themselves and I can’t begin to count the girls casually wandering through Tokyo with their faces painted to look like dolls (white powdered faces, rosy cheeks, newly created eyes big as saucers).  And with each one, I would have absolutely no clue what the girl actually looked like.

Note: The girl featured to the left is from Ukraine but the make-up is pretty typical Tokyo style

This probably seems completely non sequitur to the topic of the blog- cultural identity- but think about it.  I could’ve been anything I wanted to be in Tokyo and no one would ask questions, no one would pass judgment, no one would care. And if I changed my mind the next day?  Well who is to say what is true and what is not? Only me.  That is a frightening possibility.  In a city where you can pretend to be whatever you want, how do you define who you are?  How do you determine who everyone else is?  You can’t.

In no way, am I passing judgment on this lifestyle.  I wish I was a character in Harry Potter more often than I care to admit.  At least the people in Tokyo are honest about their fantasies.

10 weeks of fame

It’s a good thing I am not a self-conscious person because right now there are probably a lot of photos of me on QQ (Chinese social media).  I’m in someone’s pictures from Beijing, from the Great Wall, from Hua Shan, etc.  It’s weird to think about, because I won’t ever see them, and it won’t ever tie back to me, but they exist, if not on the internet, then at least on someone’s hard drive.  Another person, someone perhaps modest or humble, would find this very disturbing.  All I can think about though is “Dang. I wish they would ask so I can at least be smiling when these grace the internet” and “I wonder what they caption this… ‘look at me with the strange American I found!!!’”

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My first encounter with the mobs. This family turned out to have another 4 members who also wanted photos.

But really… what do they do with these photos and why take them at all?  I know the basic reason is because I’m not Chinese, but that doesn’t really tell me anything.  Who cares if I’m not Chinese, is that interesting enough to warrant a photo shoot?  Being the scientist that I am, I decided to observe patterns and form a theory of my own.

My first observation is that there is no typical age range for the people who ask to take photos of me.  I’ve posed with small children, my peers, a couple preteen boys and even a pair of middle-aged women.  The only demographic that hasn’t asked for a photo with me is older men and, let’s face it, that’s because it’s creepy.

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Her mom asked for a picture after this little girl stood in front of me staring for about 15 minutes.

My second is that one picture is never enough.  No matter who asks, or how politely they ask, it’s never just one picture.  It’s funny because, at first people are so unbelievably shy!  I can see them staring at me as I walk past and then every once in a while, one person will pluck up the courage to ask for a photo.  Then once I accept, a bunch of Chinese people come out of the woodwork and it becomes a full on photo shoot. I get yanked around and posed and placed with this person and that person from this angle and that one.  And just when I think it’s over, they have another camera.  And of course there are group shots and then solo shots and then a couple awkward selfies, just for good measure.

My third is that the further away I am from a metropolitan area the more photos are taken of me and the less discreet people are.  When I went to Shanghai for example, the only photo I had to pose for was with a bunch of Korean tourists.  In Beijing, which is a little less urban, I’ve only posed once but I do notice people taking pictures of me.  They think they are being surreptitious, but I can feel them staring.  And sure enough when I turn around, there they are, holding their cameras poised waiting for the moment I look their way.  I imagine it’s like the relationship between zoo animals and zoo patrons.  There is no actual interaction due to a safe buffer distance, but we both know what’s going on.  At the Great Wall, about an hour or two north of Beijing, I was asked a few times for photos and a couple people took some discreet pictures.  And then in Hua Shan- the most remote area I’ve been to thus far- I was asked on 5 separate occasions in a 27-hour time frame to pose for a picture with someone.

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This one was actually totally normal since we spent the whole day accidentally running into this kid!

My fourth is that people are very enthusiastic about these pictures.  It’s not just like a “hey, can I take a photo?”  People are genuinely excited to take pictures with me!  A group of college kids had their program director take about a million pictures of me with every imaginable combination of them.  When I finally insisted that I had to leave, one girl said to me “I love you I’m coming to California to find you!”  I mean that’s a bit stalker-ish and creepy, but I’m chalking it up to a language barrier.  The next day, a guy asked me for a photo while I was scaling down the side of the mountain in a harness and then proceeded to climb up to where I was to take it- now that’s commitment.

My fifth is that they don’t take photos with every foreigner they see, so there is something about me, and the small subset of foreigners they do ask, that makes them excited.

My sixth is that people always ask me where I am from when they take pictures with me.  And more often than not, they are surprised by my answer.

Combining all these observations together, I have deduced that, yes, the basic reason is because I am not Chinese.  But more than that, I think it’s because I am also not distinctly anything else.  This is why they ask me where I am from.  This is why the further away I get from metropolitan areas the more pictures I get.  People in big cities are more exposed to people like me (especially cities like Shanghai which are swarming with foreigners).  That must be why they take pictures.  I am a novelty to them- like squatting toilets are to me or oceans are to someone from Kansas.  Does it bother me? Not really.  Do I find it flattering? Not really.  It just is.  The only thing it makes me feel is that I do not look like an American.  But then again, who does?

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In Shanghai where I was properly ignored!

Ambiguous Faces

Aside

Back after a lab hiatus…

So my friend back home does stand up comedy and he has this one bit about having an Asian ex-girlfriend.  The truncated version goes something like this… He had an Asian girlfriend that dumped him when they came to UCLA.  He then goes on to say that the break-up was really hard because everyone at UCLA (notorious for the number of Asian kids) reminded him of her.  He then starts pointing in the audience, saying that  “that girl” “this chick” “you right there” “that guy over there” all look like her.  It’s hilarious (trust that it’s better in person by a pro)  and might be a little bit racist, except for the fact that there is a running joke in American culture about all Asians looking the same.

I never thought it was culturally insensitive, and neither did any of my Asian friends.  It was just a part of comedy, imagining all the Asians in the world wandering around like the minions in Despicable Me.  I mean, comedians poke fun at every kind of group of people imaginable!  I never really gave the truth behind the joke much thought.  And I definitely didn’t think about the reverse. Even when people guess my ethnicity and totally butcher it, I never thought that it was because all tan people look the same.

And then, my masseuse told me I looked like Barack Obama.

I chuckled to myself at the absurdity but then my friend’s masseuse agreed! What?! The thought that I could possibly look like Barack Obama completely baffled me- especially sitting in pink Chinese capris pajamas.  I’ve gotten a fair number of far-fetched celebrity look-alikes, but this was the strangest by a long shot.  I actually started laughing!

Now, I’m hoping that for my own sake, that I do not.  No offense to Mr. President or anything, but I really hope I don’t look like a middle aged half-black man… just saying.  So why did these two Chinese people think that I did?  We both have darkish skin?  We both have big mouths when we smile?  Maybe that’s enough to make a comparison!

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This is the best I could find to represent the similarities… Definitely the mouth.

Are the distinctions between white people as hard to identify for Asians as the distinctions between Asians are for white people?  Are darker skinned people all the same to Chinese people such that I get grouped together with a half-black man?  To be fair, he is lighter skinned, but still.  It seemed culturally naïve, not nececssarily insensitive, but definitely unaware.

But then again, if you asked a white American to distinguish between a Korean, a Vietnamese person, a Chinese person, and a Japanese person, many would struggle.  Similarly I think they would struggle trying to visually distinguish between different Latin-American ethnicities and different African ethnicities.  I don’t think this is an “Asians look the same” phenomenon.  And I don’t think it’s an “Americans are ignorant” phenomenon either.

ImageIt’s more likely that most people of an overarching ethnic group- white, Asian, black, Hispanic etc- have trouble with the visual nuances of all the other overarching ethnic groups.  The Asian joke just happened to stick.

I still have no idea what the repercussions of this are for me in my journey but all I know is  I was identified as neither Asian nor white, but half black.  And now I am more confused than ever.