Friday, September 4, 2015

Being Chinese in Indonesia

Being in the US again is comfortable. Of course it is. I was born and raised here. But small traces are left of Indonesia: I no longer mind if the water in the shower comes out cold, I jaywalk with confidence, I compose emails with way more niceties than necessary. I am thinking about my race in a different way. 

I am Asian. Specifically, East Asian. More specifically, Chinese--a mix of Han and Hui. 

In the US, particularly in the Bay Area, if you say Asian people assume East Asian, just like when you talk about a person people assume white. East Asians are considered "more normal" than Southeast Asian.

My conservative Chinese parents were not initially pleased by my decision to go to Indonesia. They spoke of it as some weird exotic place--why would you go there?

In I think my second week, I was walking to work when I suddenly realized that in Indonesia I count as light-skinned. That day we had a meeting with some partner who commented that she had thought that the pale-skinned French Vietnamese intern and I were siblings and asked if we were Japanese. When I said I was Chinese she said, "Oh, well, I knew it was East Asian or something."

People mistook me for Japanese a whole lot. A couple guessed Korean. People at work sometimes said "ni hao" or "xie xie" to me. "You don't eat pork? I thought all Chinese people ate pork."

In general, people pointed out my race a lot more and a lot more blatantly than in the US. For some reason, though, I didn't feel nearly as offended.

One reason may be that my race was counted, but not counted against me. In other words, I experienced no racism. Is this what privilege feels like?


My mental engagement with the issue of racism has been shifting. I'm Asian so of course I get the usual insulting questions such as "Where are you from?" when the answer is clearly expected to be an East Asian nation. Random white fools come up and talk to me in East Asian languages, for what reason I cannot fathom. There's ever present anxiety--is my race affecting how other people are interacting with me? Or am I just being paranoid? Are people surprised when I open my mouth and "standard" English comes out and the only accent is Californian? What are people assuming about my personality and background based on the color of my skin?

In previous conversations about race, the ones that have brought me the most catharsis are the ones where I and my other minority friends share our experiences and frustrations with one another. I learned this summer that "people of color" is a solidarity term and that makes me happy. My friend group has been predominantly white for most of my life, so it's a huge relief when I have the chance to talk to people who get it. 

But different races experience racism differently. Obvious, I know, but it's only started to occur to me over the past year that when the topic turns to race I and my East Asian problems need not be discussed every time. 

My black friends aren't assumed to be foreign. I don't need to fear for my life if I encounter the cops. There's a huge difference in the severity of these examples of racism. 

I loathe and detest the term "model minority." But some of the associated stereotypes do confer benefits. Privileges, one might say. People look at me and assume smart and hardworking quiet math nerd who plays an instrument. 

Privilege. I've used the word twice in this post already and I know that without having to go back and check because it's a charged word. I will only use it for effect. The phrase "check your privilege" is one I could only use in jest if I was speaking to someone in person. Because I play respectability politics (another highly useful phrase I have been introduced to) and I don't want to sound like one of Those People. 

But in all honesty, going to Indonesia this summer, being Chinese in Indonesia, was a privilege check for me. Because I'm a wealthy American university student, East Asian, and easily closeted. (Note: I actually don't know how accepting the people I stayed with are of LGBT+ but I didn't have to find out. Which is the point.) 

Some of those privileges stood out more to me in Indonesia than at home. The East Asian aspect, certainly. (Though there is also a history of anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, which is part of the reason my parents were initially opposed. In a book I perused about Indonesia's history, these incidents were referred to as pogroms.) But these identities also confer privilege when I'm in the US. 

In the middle of my stay, one night I had trouble falling asleep because I kept on remembering incidents of racism from elementary school that I hadn't really realized were racist at the time. Stuff like people doing accents or asking if I knew  kung fu. The next morning I woke up with Kanye West's song "BLKKK SKKKNHEAD" stuck in my head and I listened to it on repeat while I was at work. I don't know if this makes me a terrible person or not. 

The most resonant line for me in the song goes "middle America packed in, come to see me in my black skin" because being a minority in America sometimes feels like being on display constantly, like I'm an exhibit of an East Asian Female outside of her "natural habitat" and that people see my race before they see my personhood. But maybe I'm projecting myself too much onto the song, because being black is a different experience from being Asian. My skin is golden, not black. (If you find this phrasing cringeworthy, l apologize. But gold > yellow, no?) I dig the song but maybe I'm not digging deep enough. I doubt it was written for people like me and I may be guilty of pushing myself and my own experiences into something that's not intended to speak to me. 

I'm confused, as you can probably tell. I am not white or straight or male or cis, and when I thought I was straight and cis I was too much under a rock to care much about finding my proper role in the community of other people facing discrimination as a result of not falling into the demographics above. How can I be a good ally to people whose problems are linked to but different from mine? What can I do? What should I do? What must I not do?

Clearly ignorance is the first opponent. One of the worst things about talking to white people about race or people who were socialized as males about sexism is when they respond with incredulity--"no way, that doesn't happen. I've never seen it. (You're being over sensitive.)" I can keep that in mind. If step one is shut up and listen, well, I can do that. 

(Incidentally, if you know any good re/sources for learning more about anything that this post suggests, I will happily take recommendations.)

That is something else I learned in Indonesia: before any venture, gather information. Be prepared to adapt when you are proven wrong. If you want to help people, you must first listen and learn. 

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