“China eyes”

“I’m from America, but my parents were born in Taiwan”

That’s the line that I’ve been using when I’m asked where I’m from. At the rate that I’ve been saying this, I might as well just carry around a sign!

As a person of color from a hypersensitive, liberal American urban center, I have been primed to bristle at any indication of racism. There’s a line that we always hear: “Where are you from?… No, I mean, where are you really from?” This irritates many Asian-Americans to no end, as it insinuates that we aren’t really American.

Excluding tourists, there aren’t really many (East) Asians that I’ve seen. In our current group of Project Elea volunteers, there are just two Asians, myself included. Here at Eleonas Refugee Camp and in Athens in general, I’ve had very interesting interactions with refugees, fellow volunteers, and strangers on the street and in stores. These conversations have made me contemplate what exactly it means to be racist. Can you be racist if you’re not actually prejudiced? Does racism only count if you’ve been educated, and then choose prejudice over inclusion? When is it yellow fever, and when is it just ‘regular’ interest? Here are a few vignettes from these past ten days:

I still have no clue whether this is because I’m short (and therefore vulnerable?!), Asian, friendly, a mix of all factors, or none of the above, but I have been propositioned far too many times already. This has mostly occurred on the street through seemingly-friendly conversations and catcalling, but I’ve also had a very awkward conversation with a refugee. Fellow volunteers and refugees were watching a football match at a restaurant near camp, and I came in late and sat by a group of refugees. As I was chatting with one of them, he first showered me with compliments, then asked for my Facebook. I declined, as I had just met him and didn’t know him well yet. He then asked how long I would be at camp, and if after I was finished, we could go to a hotel together. I chuckled nervously and declined, and he asked why. I told him that we could just hang out by Elea’s office in the camp, and he then asked if I would spend the night at his home in the camp, and gave me his container number (which I now can’t recall). What was supposed to be a lighthearted night watching football with this community became awkward for me, and I left as soon as the match ended, not wanting to leave earlier in case that man wanted to follow me home.

To be honest, had he not been a refugee, I would have been more cold toward him. However, because he was a refugee, and because he lives in the camp that I’m working in, I somehow felt obligated to remain friendly throughout the conversation. I know now that I have no obligation to treat him differently and that, if I am to treat refugees as I treat all other humans, I must watch out for myself in the same way.

During one of my first days here, one of the kids told me that I had “China eyes.” If anyone in America said that to me, I would angrily talk back and try to educate them that that sort of statement is racist and demeaning. But, to this kid, I just laughed and said that, yes, I have small eyes (although to be honest I think my eyes aren’t THAT small for an Asian), but that it’s rude to point them out as “China eyes.” I had eyeliner on that day, and almost everyday since, I’ve had eyeliner on at camp. I didn’t think much of it, but while thinking about this post yesterday, I realized that I did take some offense and am somehow trying to compensate by wearing eyeliner.

My first answer to questions about where I’m from has been America. However, that answer is apparently not satisfying. I obviously look Asian, which leads many of the children and some of the adults to say that I can’t be from America, and that I must be from somewhere else. Their first guess is China, then Korea (since there is a Korean volunteer here as well), then Japan and the Philippines. There have been assumptions that I’m either the Korean volunteer’s girlfriend or sister, because apparently all Asians are connected. I don’t take offense to this, and I gladly explain that while I was born in America, my parents are from Taiwan. And, while I am a fierce proponent of an independent Taiwan, I try to set that aside and stay apolitical, only explaining that Taiwan is “next to China” when asked about its location. But what does irk me is when I have to repeat this to some of the same kids day after day — some really seem to enjoy asserting that I’m from China. I’m slowly building up more patience towards this, since it’s basically a ploy for attention.

As you can see, I’ve taken a fairly passive stance thus far, relative to the way I would react if these encounters were happening in America. It’s not like I don’t want to rustle any feathers or challenge the status quo; it’s more about choosing my battles and educating through repetition. I wonder what some of my other Asian-American (or more specifically Taiwanese-American) friends would do in this situation. Would they feel indignant and disrespected?


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Rebekah Cheng

"You are 27 or 28 right? It is very tough to live at that age. When nothing is sure. I have sympathy with you." - Haruki Murakami