I don’t know about you guys, but being Asian has always attracted a lot of attention for me whenever I travel in Latin America/ Caribbean or in certain parts of Europe. My most unpleasant experience was in Athens.
J (an American-Born Korean) and I would be crossing the street, randomly chatting about this-and-that, when some Greek man would, as he was crossing from the other side of the street, go BLARRRGHH right into our faces as he was passing us, and then continue walking as if nothing had happened. This happened twice when I was in Athens and then once again when I was alone in Florence. A man actually paused his conversation on his cell phone to BLARRRGH me.
I kid you not.
I think Westerners take an almost perverse pleasure in trying to guess which part of Asia you are from. And it’s interestng how they do this based on their knowledge of Asian food. After “Konichiwa!” they’ll usually start shouting “Sushi! Sashimi? Tempura?!” and then if they get no response they’ll go “Ni Hao!” Once, I actually had someone say “Egg roll! Lo mein! Shumai?!” to me. Mm-hmm, dimsum menu copycat!
In the Caribbean though, the people are a lot more.. fascinated. People in Mexico blatantly stared at Biao and I wherever we went. Couchsurfer host, D, told us that to them, ‘you [we] are all from China’. It’s pretty interesting to imagine how to them, Asia is probably just one big blob of a country with small-eyed people who produce really cheap food and are well-versed in martial arts.
Our tour guide from the Pitch Lake in San Fernando walked us out to wait for the maxi-taxi and while waiting, she started shouting across the road at a schoolyard to get her daughter’s attention. At first, I thought she was just trying to say hi, but later I realized that she was really trying to show us off to the children. Because once the children noticed us, they began lining up by the school fence and shouting “CHINESE! CHINESE! CHINESE! CHINESEEEEE!”
This continued on for a good 5 minutes, and I must say, we got onto the maxi-taxi (imaginary limo!) feeling like celebrities. Even in San Fernando, the local men were also calling out “Chinese!” and “Ni hao!” at us. And Ian would always respond with a resounding “Hao!” I think part of the fascination was in us being actual tourists because there are actually quite a lot of Chinese restaurants there, and I can’t imagine that the Chinese locals would get this much attention everyday.
But it seems like the people in T&T really do grow up believing that all Chinese are trained in martial arts. After we alighted from the water-taxi at Port of Spain, I was overcome with a very intense need to relieve my bowels, and so I rushed into a public toilet at The Breakfast Shed (which serves pretty good breakfast btw) next to the terminal. As luck would have it, there was no toilet paper and because I only had one measly piece of tissue left in my bag, I had to go into the whole 扎马步 position, where you bend your knees slightly and let your butt hover right above the toilet bowl.
And there I was, in one of the most uncomfortable positions known to man, when the door opened and two little girls came in. There was 1 other cubicle available, but somehow they didn’t go in. Instead they knocked on my door. Now, I don’t know about you, but I really hate it when this happens because firstly, I don’t know what to say to them (“Coming? Hold on? I’m here? Occupied! Gimme a minute?!”) and secondly, it just adds so much more stress to the already uncomfortable situation.
So anyway, they knocked on my door and then asked,
“Are you Chinese?”
Me: “Uh. Yes..” (While wondering, how in the world do they know?? Did they watch me come in?)
And then as I looked up I saw two pairs of eyes staring at me through the gap in the toilet door. Uhoh. They giggled and whispered excitedly and then,
Older girl: “Do you know taichi!?”
Me: “Uhhh haha…. yes?” (I mean, I figured that was a reasonable answer since what I was doing in that position was kind of the basic taichi position.)
Girls: “OOHHH” (Some squealing and laughing. They must have been ecstatic at having met a true Taichi master, in the raw no less.)
Me: “Do you know taichi??!”
Girls: “Yes! Taaaaiichi! Hiyaaaahhhhh!” (Jumping and chopping action)
It’s amazing how much one can see through the gaps made by door hinges. Someone should really look into that.
Anyway, I think it’s easy to be offended or disturbed by the unwarranted attention from the locals, but I would say that most of the time, it’s really just harmless, teasing fun. Of course, when in doubt, it’s always best to err on the side of caution even if it might make you seem snooty. Otherwise, returning the greeting or playing along can sometimes bring about unexpected encounters (:
Well, with our love for jump-shots and compromising positions, it’s not so hard to believe why they’d think we all know kungfu!