Category Archives: Travel

Why is the US considered the West?

Let’s ignore for a second how archaic and lazy the East/West dichotomy is or how the definition of East/West changes across regions and individuals.

Traditionally, the “West” is Europe or cultural Europe, whatever that means. According to early eurocentric genius anthropologists, the “Orient”, or “East”, actually began at North Africa and goes into Asia. What makes the two largest and most diverse continents a monolith is beyond me, to be honest.

Now back to the US. To play devil’s advocate here for a second, there are indeed many reasons why the US or even Canada is “western”. We were former combined colonies of England, Spain, and France; and we speak dialects of their languages, but languages are a horrible indicator of national identity (although still better than ethnoracial features). Also, are South American countries considered “western”? Try googling ‘Alberto Fujimori’. What about African countries? In my travels, I’ve met Europeans who think that Americans also fly east to get to Asia. Now, of course we now know the world is round, and there are more than just two sides. So given purely cultural and demographic factors, doesn’t the US fit snugly in between “the East” and “the West”? Our west coast is much closer to East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Most of our food is a result of fusion of African, Asian, and European ingredients (we arguably popularized sushi with California rolls); nothing is truly American (except maybe corn).

I wonder… Perhaps “western” is a euphemism for “developed” or even for “white”? In that case, most of East Asia is just as, if not more, developed (have you seen some of these airports in Korea?).  Western Europeans usually consider themselves “western” which makes sense to me, even though Europe is totally different from North America. Moreover, I recently learned that cultural Russians (Ukrainians and Belorussians, etc.) believe that Europe is Europe and the US is the “West”. Many Eastern Europeans don’t even consider themselves “western”. Meanwhile, in East Asia they believe that anything outside the region is considered the “West”. China is extremely guilty of sinocentrism just as Europe is for eurocentrism. So where do we draw this imaginary line? The point of division is rather subjective.

Any differences between Europe and the US (or North/South America) are just dismissed as minor by some people, while differences between the US and Asia are because the other is too “western” or “eastern”. Can we just stick to calling ourselves American and stop labeling things and people as directions on a compass? At least stop prescribing to the notion that the US is somehow “western” because Europe feels the need to assert their legacy or because certain Americans can’t get out of their comfort zone to mingle with people on the other mystical side of the “East/West” dichotomy. Perhaps Asians want to group Europe together with North American and South America when, in reality, East Asia has more in common with the latter two continents.

Can we all agree that the US is both Eastern and Western, or it’s neither? And please discard the harmful rhetoric of “western media”; it’s almost impossible to define as a monolith either and rarely ever agrees on one view.

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Dine and Dash in Barcelona

Over a week ago, I witnessed a dine and dash for the first time. Here they call it a “sinpa” as in sin pagar. I was with two friends of mine getting dinner, and towards the end of our meal, the owner/hostess of the restaurant sends me a message via LINE after becoming suspicious.

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After I’ve convinced my friends to stay until they close at midnight (normal in Barcelona), we overhear the two guys complaining about the food. “Mira, hay pelo…”, they say. They say there were also bugs in another dish, after they’ve eaten at least half of the food already. It’s become clear that they were up to no good and had no intention of paying. Eventually, the chef comes out and offers to change a dish or just pay and leave without causing any more trouble. After some arguing ensues, the hostess says she’s going to call the police to come sort it out before anything escalates. Meanwhile, one of my friends is physically keeping distance between the elderly chef and these two customers. My other friend has sneaked outside to call the local police as well. One of them eventually decides he wants to walk out for a smoke. The other tries to follow immediately, but I tell him that one of them should obviously stay. As he trailed behind the first guy, I was forced to physically come behind him and the exit. A tiny bit of a struggle ensues between us where I have a somewhat firm grasp on his jacket. The other tries to pull his friend away before raising a nearby wooden pillar about to strike me, but never does it. His jacket eventually rips on the side and I was unable maintain my grip. I couldn’t stop either one of them without resorting to other more drastic methods (I’m unfamiliar with Spanish laws), and they fled.

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The police arrive fashionably late, and we show them a photo where they’re in the background. However, as I suspected, the police couldn’t really do anything about it. It was at least 44 Euros of food. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life, fortunately. I’m still shocked more than anything that people could do this to a family-owned restaurant. I regret not having a better photo of them…

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Homogeny is dangerous

What’s similar between Europe and Asia? Very little, you say? I propose that there’s actualy a lot in common.

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time, and it probably crosses over with other posts. It’s organized from my own experiences as an American, and citizen of the New World, living abroad.

  1. West vs East
    • This concept is the original inspiration for posting this; also Tina
    • Europe and Asia constantly talk about how different the East and West are, respectively
    • Why is there a need to draw this line with some much in common in terms of mentality?
    • Even in American literature, more antiquated terms, like “Far East” have been purged because of the Eurocentric geopolitical discourse in which such terms were used
  2. Idea of nationality
    • This ties heavily with homogeny. China is a big culprit of this concept of nationality, but European countries also exhibit this quality
    • “You can look Chinese, look Spanish, or look American”. Except one can’t look American, unless you’re Native American
  3. No problem of “race”
    • From several conversations I’ve heard from Europeans (namely Spanish) and Asians (namely Chinese), they say “Look at the US and their huge problem of race. We don’t have that here.” My ass.
    • What race? Any other ‘race’ is effectively ostracized, deported, or “taken care of” if there’s separatist sentiment in Asia and Europe. They would be lucky to have any discussion at all…
  4. Determination of identity
    • Individual identity is often determined by others and skin color (and features), as evidenced by their idea of nationality in Europe and Asia
    • It’s tough to say that appearances aren’t indicative of our identies because, in many ways, they are. However, these are factors we have choices about, such as body modification, clothing, religion, and even spoken languages
    • Most importantly, however, is our ability and right to self-identify, and I believe that isn’t the case in the countries I’ve been. “I’m Chinese because my family has been in China for several generations.” By this logic, there would be very few Americans left in the US.
    • Gender and sexuality. I’m so tired of hearing you shouldn’t do something because you’re a man or woman. “There are people throwing away their femininity because they cut their hair short”. “I can tell he’s gay by the way he moves his hands when he’s talking.” Oh dear Moses…
  5. Homogeny
    • I’ve come to the conclusion that homogenous societies foster detrimental or false beliefs about the “outside” world
    • Homegeny is easier to control because of stronger forces of groupthink. Think of communism and censorship in China and how it stifles free thinking
    • I was told by a friend that Asians and Europeans often ask about “origins” because they want to feel at ease with you. That scares me a bit… Are they unable to sympathize or get along with people who they perceive as different before even getting to know them?
    • Even Americans from more homogenous regions in the US don’t realize that the media misrepresents reality and occasionally (often) lies. Representation of people of color, anyone?

Here are some Americans for you

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Conversation of race

In light of recent events in the US, I want to reflect upon my experiences in Barcelona.
As Americans, we generally have a different idea of racism from the rest of the world. The reason for this is obvious: we’re a nation of immigrants, as Barack Obama puts it. I argue this because of the few other countries I’ve lived in and also because of immigrants I’ve met.
A handful of Europeans I’ve met say that Americans are of English descent, which I think is the most offensive to the white Americans. While it’s already established that there’s racial misconception of the US by foreigners, I was surprised to find that there’s self-racism, for lack of a better word.
As I have a habit of talking with owners of stores and restaurants, I’ve met one who stuck out as particularly racist. Nothing overly hateful but just going as far to say I’m not American because of my face. I remember watching Obama’s speech on my phone, and she comes to my table and sits across from me. In the most serious tone, she says to me,  “You’re not American okay.” What…?
I feel like outside the US (and maybe all of North and South America), it’s impossible to be accepted as a “minority”.
On a separate occasion, the restaurant owner says to my Japanese friend that she doesn’t look Japanese because her eyelids have a quality that make them pretty and it’s a trait Japanese don’t have. And for this reason and my skin color, she deems me Japanese. What…?
The irony is that most my ancestry originates from the same place as hers. Don’t you love it when people try to racially generalize the Americas?

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It’s been more than three weeks since I first arrived in Barcelona. My biggest shock was how beautiful the architecture is after I found my way from the airport to the city. My first weeks of classes have been interesting to say the least; professors are very knowledgeable and opinionated, but the administration is lackluster. It takes very long to get anything done, and I’ve been told they won’t do any work if they can avoid it. In fact, there was a whole ordeal getting them to accept my diploma. Otherwise, most of my time has been taken up reading, looking at apartments, bureaucracy, and going to classes.

My first class was supposed to be taught in English, but the professor hadn’t been notified by the administration. It wasn’t until I showed up that one of my classmates informed her the course was supposed to be in English. The second time we had the class, we sat in a different seating arrangement, and the professor came in saying, “The Japanese guy isn’t here, so I don’t need to teach in English.” I didn’t immediately notice she was talking about me until another classmate interjected that I’m a New Yorker, to which the professor insisted on convincing me that I was indeed Japanese. Yep.

Today I managed to walk around to an even more touristy part of the city around Plaza Sant Jaume. As I was crossing the street, a taxi turns the corner and I tap the car when it passes close by. The driver pops a nut over it, and starts shouting in Catalán. My friend tells me that it can be seen as an offensive thing. What are your thoughts on this?

Anyways, I hope to attend some Catalán/Castellano/English exchange and see more of Barna.

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Cost of diversity

Foreigners are the cause of racism.

Now before I get more into that, I want to say that I’m not a xenophobe. I am a descendant of immigrants, as are most Americans, believe it or not. One would think that the US couldn’t possibly be a place of xenophobia and racism then, right? Think again.

For a long time, I have viewed racism as something that didn’t apply to me. After all, I’m a New Yorker, born in a beacon of diversity. However it soon dawned on me that true equality is a very difficult thing to come by, especially because the differences between people are so observable. A friend of mine noted there is such socioeconomic disparity here. In the US, there is a structural division between racial groups, but there are also so many exceptions to this system. Every day, Americans of all colors are crossing racial lines, but in homogeneous countries, these lines are being reinforced because of limited exposure. I have spent some time wondering if racism exists in a country without diversity. The answer, in my humble opinion, is yes.

What is racism? It’s stereotyping based on perceived racial features, such as skin color. Stereotyping is prejudging people as more different or similar to a group than they actually are. Here’s a typical example: thinking somebody is troublemaker because of her/his attire and brown skin. Now think about an atypical example: believing somebody isn’t American because he/she has dark hair and yellow skin.

I would say that being abroad only solidifies the notion that being American also means being white; I’ll refer to this as the notion of “white American”. My theory is that it’s comfortable to conform to “white American” because it’s a bother to explain to each and every person, especially if you happen to be white. One very valid and common point is that in countries rearing “white American”, there is a lack of frame of reference and exposure to the outside world except through mainstream media. But what if it’s because there isn’t a good representation of Americans going abroad? What if you’re an American who believes the same?

I’m not sure how many people worldwide actually realize this but the US is an immigrant nation. Since this is true, one cannot truly have an American ethnicity. Often times, countries like China view anyone of Chinese (even East Asian) descent as Chinese, not American or Peruvian, etc. Famous examples include Gary Locke, Bruce Lee, Alberto Fujimori, Jeremy Lin, etc. I’ve met many international students who, after spending a year or more in the US, realized that “white American” is a myth (even while staying in homogenous areas, such as the Midwest). However, after returning to their home countries, they’ve also found it too tedious to convey it to their peers. Because the “white American” notion is fostered, new Americans will always continue the trend of immigrant-become-xenophobe. I hear older generations refer to white Americans as ‘foreigners’ (or a similar translation) as if they are speaking from their birth country’s point of view, and I think to myself, “You and your children are Americans!”. Either accept everyone or accept no one.

While diversity is rampant in the US, there are obviously some regions that are quite homogeneous. As a US American, I have the right to racial ambiguity. Many individuals of color may often hear the question, “What are you?” Can anyone tell me what the frick-on-a-stick that really means? As a black American, nobody is asking you if you’re from Kenya or Nigeria, or even labeling you African. As a yellow American, nobody should be asking where you’re from and labeling you Asian, while completely neglecting fellow brown Americans. I’ve rarely heard the term “European” when referring to a white American.

Here is an exemplar exchange:
A: We should toss the disc again. Let me get your number.
B: It’s <320-690-6589>.
A: My name’s <Noam>. What’s your name again?
B: I’m <Chad>. Just call or text my phone now so I know it’s you.
A: Nice meeting you, <Chad>. Maybe next time we’ll play ultimate.
B: Yeh. Sounds good. So where are you from?
A: Oh, I’m from <New York>.
B: New York! Why did you come all the way here?
A: I go to school here.
B: I study here too, but I live 20 minutes away. Were you born here?
A: No, I was born in Manhattan. I’m from New York, remember?
B: Oh right, but like, where are your parents from?
A: They’re from New York.
B: And what are they?
A: What do you mean? Like their nationality? They’re also American, but my dad’s father is Taiwanese.
B: I see. Okay so you’re Taiwanese.
A: Where are you from?
B: Oh, I’m American, don’t you know?
A: Oh yeh? You’re Native American?
B: No…

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As I was traveling in Xinjiang during China’s National Day holiday week, I found myself again in a completely new environment where despite having a significant non-Chinese population, still has trouble accepting an identity different than their own. Everywhere I went, from train to the plane, everyone would ask me the same question even after discovering that I am American: Why don’t you look American? This usually is a 2-part inquiry about “looking American” and whether I am “Asian American” instead of “American.” This is closely related to how culturally Chinese people like to label people like me ABCs, which in case you didn’t know stands for American-born Chinese. A clever little acronym to which I usually respond, in English, with something whimsical (for myself) like finishing the alphabet (D, E, F, et cetera). Appearing different (from expectations) does not merit assumptions, labels, or categories to be imposed onto me. I can only speculate that the need to make sense of things and conform to a common misconception that individual physical features always define your identity, culture, and even birthplace. Although language can be mutually exclusive, it often permeates through all of the previously mentioned. A commonly supplementing question is: “Why don’t you have blond hair and blue eyes?” And for those who realize how stupid that sounds, they just state, “But you don’t look American”. Whenever a sentence begins with: “In the movies,…” one should already know how full of crap that is. How can someone even say that sentence and mean it?! Unbelievable. This has even been used to counter my claims that too many people smoke in China with: “In the movies, most Americans smoke, even the women.” That is just not true, and there are more Chinese smokers than the US population. Unbelievable again! Moses, have they been conditioned to not ever question what they are shown? The answer is sadly yes.

Actually, the most helpful and least judgmental people, while I was going from place to place in Xinjiang, were Uyghur or Kazakh, a couple of the minority groups of China. Actually some of them didn’t even ask where I was from when I didn’t speak Chinese Mandarin to them, whereas the local Chinese were honestly so preoccupied with convincing me that I wasn’t American, that they were zero help. This poor excuse for trying to join all the groups together into one China reminds me of some parts of the US “integrating diversity” into a region, except opposite. It seems China is trying to integrate Uyghurs into the Chinese culture to suppress the sentiment of separatism and ethnic identity, while the US is trying to promote multiculturalism and all that jazz to show that we’re not just some homogenous population. After arriving at the airport in Urumchi , one of the things I first noticed was that the signs were usually written in two languages: large simplified Chinese and tiny Arabic script for Uyghur, often illegible. On a 3-day tour group to Kanas Lake, in the north of Xinjiang bordering Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia, I met two Chinese people around my age. One of them kept trying to explain to me that when asked why I don’t “look American”, people are actually just trying to figure out my ancestry (this is the same person who got her smoking statistics from movies). Meanwhile the other person had realized how silly it was that everyone we met asked me the same exact outdated question.

The US may be far from a perfect melting pot, but it exists and it means that anyone can “look American” and Americans can look like anyone. Thinking back to when I was in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, attempting to start my master’s degree, I was constantly questioned (usually but not exclusively by Minnesotans) where I was “really” from, as I had mentioned in previous posts. I already knew what they wanted to hear; some nation in Asia, specifically East Asia. Eventually after they tediously refined the question and got their answer about my ethnic ancestral roots, I would return that refined question out of courtesy and equal curiosity. Guess how they usually responded? American. Un-frick-on-a-stick-believable! To make matters worse, albeit not significantly, one of my professors was talking about the distinction between a language disorder and a language difference. To clarify, a language disorder is when an individual has impairments to the processing of linguistic information, either receptively or expressively. A language difference is when an individual has either an accent from the 1st language (L1) or has differences in speech due to a regional dialect, such as the New York dialect. Language difference is not considered a disorder by those who are somewhat familiar with linguistics, but I digress. Having just mentioned regional dialects as a language difference by this professor, one of my post-bachelor classmates teasingly mentions me because we usually chat about the subtle differences between the Midwestern accent and New York accent. My professor then agrees, incorrectly thinking my classmate had mentioned me because English isn’t my L1. Great… tis not a very big step up from China, especially in terms of mentality. Minnesota has even gone through great efforts to introduce diversity to the region through assignments of refugees, namely Somali and Hmong, off the top of my head. But as far as I’m concerned, I am apparently not an American in the US or China.

I wish I could change the way the world views language and identity.

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My good friend from Urumchi, Xinjiang.

Xinjiang, Minnesota, and revelations

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