Friday, January 27, 2017

Week One of the Regime



It Has Begun - Starset

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Trump became POTUS last Friday. For that and other reasons I was in a pretty awful state of mind Friday and the beginning of Saturday. Then I went with some friends to the San Jose Women's March.

I've never been to a protest before, nor any kind of march. The energy I felt there was very positive, and I felt a lot better about existing, being surrounded by people who cared enough to show up. Although this was a Women's March and deliberately not billed as a protest, obviously it took an anti-Trump flavor.

Chants I heard: "Yes we can"/"Si se puede"; "2-4-6-8 It's okay to immigrate"; "This is what democracy looks like"; &c.

Signs I saw: "Women's rights are human rights"; "Bernie 2020"; "I'm with her" (and arrows pointing off the sign into the crowd, or Lady Liberty); Rosie the Riveter either in the original or with Michelle Obama photoshopped in; "A Woman's Place is in the Resistance" with a graphic of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia; "Not My President"; "If you build a wall I will raise my children to tear it down"; "By the way, Climate Change is Real"; "I burned it once I'll burn it again" with the charred remains of a bra taped to the sign; Martin Luther King, Jr. shushing Trump; "End White Feminism"; "I am alive because of Obamacare"; "Humanity First America Second"; &c.

Lots of people were wearing those pink knit hats that are supposed to look like cat ears.

We didn't bring any signs. I'm not sure what I would have written. Not sure if it is my place to carry such a sign, but I would have liked to see a sign saying "Trans Women's Rights = Women's Rights = Human Rights" because, although I had an overall positive experience, being trans in that crowd felt pretty uncomfortable. More signs focused on the struggles of women of color would also have been good, although since I'm not actually a woman but am relatively privileged (the "model minority" concept is bull but I do have to own up to how that stereotype changes how people perceive me in a way that, net, makes my daily existence safer than it is for someone who is read with different stereotypes), I'd again have to think about what I would be justified in saying.

So we went, and came back. I spent a while lying on my floor scrolling Facebook and seeing everyone I know posting photos from the marches they went to. I didn't take any photos because I want to make sure that when I do the right thing, that I'm not doing it for social validation from my wider network. Not to say anything against people who do post things--communicating your solidarity, making your stance clear, is valuable too. But going to one march without a sign and listening to one speech at the rally afterward does not make me an activist. I am a beginner.

I also saw a lot of quotes/links/photos posted that took a more nuanced view of the Women's Marches. Many LGBT friends took issue with the trans-exclusionary rhetoric of signs equating reproductive organs with gender. Many other friends pointed out the double standard between the media coverage of these marches and of the Black Lives Matter marches.

This picture made a particularly big impression on me (shoutout to GG for sharing it). I am not a white woman, but fall into the same position of benefiting from social movements but not being in a whole lot of danger from police etc. I have never gone to a Black Lives Matter rally or march. Why? Now that I've gone to the Women's March, what is my excuse if I skip out the next BLM event?

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I wrote the first part of this post on Sunday, when I was still in...not a good mood, but a positive, optimistic mindset. Then this past week happened. The news is filled with the terrible actions the administration is taking, from the global gag rule on abortion to censoring national parks and environmental agencies to banning Muslim immigrants to approving both the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL to...

Saturday's energy was mostly positive. The numbers of people protesting made headlines, made history. And yet--despite all of that, these orders are making their way through the system.

Festina lente, said Augustus. The way to change is not just in momentous occasions, not just in big stands, not in single actions. It takes concentrated everyday effort over a long period of time to get anything done--so what do I do, when the goal is broad and the timeline is long?

There are small things I've done in the past week. Walked by a pro-life group demonstrating on campus to donate to the people collecting money for Planned Parenthood right next to them. Emailing the guy I know at the EPA. Small, small things. I feel silly even writing about them, especially given what I said above about not being performative about my actions. But as I said--I'm a beginner. I'm starting small, but I'm starting...

...and that's another thing about which I'm ambivalent. The fact that it took as abominable a person as Trump taking power to get me to do something. Obama and the Democrats were not perfect by any means, and if Clinton had won I am sure she'd have signed into law things that I would disapprove of. If I'd been paying more attention over the past eight years, I probably would have a much less positive impression of Obama than I do. But now, those kinds of conversations seem less urgent because the basic things that we could count on the Democrats to defend are being uprooted. Science, access to family planning methods, and the like.

I haven't personally spoken to anyone who said that Trump and Clinton would be the same but I wonder if they still think that way. Sure, Clinton would have been the status quo, but this is actively going backwards on all sort of measures. These questions--is climate change real, is it monumentally stupid to try to build a wall along the border with Mexico when real and worthwhile infrastructure projects languish--should be settled. We should be ready to move past them.

I've heard a lot of people say "it's going to be a long four years" and I have thought it, too, but there are several things wrong with that. First--some people aren't going to make it. If the Republicans succeed in getting rid of ACA and don't replace it in a timely way, how many people are going to die? I thought Obama wasn't accepting enough refugees--but now even fewer are going to be able to resettle here, and how many of them are going to die? Hate crimes are rising--how many people are going to die?

Second, it's not just four years. I haven't let myself consider a Trump reelection, which may be naive, but depending on how things go I could see a Pence or Ryan presidency following Trump, which would be awful. (DNC, please for the sake of all of us get it together.) And even if a Democrat is elected--I believe many things would improve but would we be back to Obama levels? And in many ways Obama levels aren't good enough either.

Trump did not start the global rise of white nationalism and extremism and he's not going to be the end of it either. This past week has been particularly bad for the country and the world, and this is just the beginning.

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After that dreary post, please enjoy this video. It (as well as various other remixes of the moment it depicts) has been one of the few things this week that made me smile.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Grand Tour Reflections

The Grand Tour refers, traditionally, to a trip around Europe that wealthy young aristocrats would make as part of their education in the 17th-early 19th century. Since I spent one-third of my first two years of college outside of the US, I've been thinking about how my travel has affected my development as a human being.

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Caveat: the idea of the Grand Tour is rooted in classism. Travel takes time and money. Study abroad, which I did, almost always means taking a lighter academic quarter, which means that people with unit-heavy majors need to be strategic about when they study abroad, if at all. Among the people I met during my quarter abroad, a much higher proportion of people were taking extra time, taking gap years, etc. as compared to the people I know in general.

I think that travel confers unique experiences and consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have, particularly while still young and particularly for long durations. But that isn't intended to say anything against people who don't travel, for whatever reason.

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Summary of time spent out of my region in the last two years: 2 months in Indonesia (July-August 2015), 6 months in Germany (April-September 2016, roughly half in Berlin and half in Hamburg) with brief trips to many other places in Europe (of particular importance to my self-progress: Budapest, Hungary and Rome, Italy).

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Insights listed in no particular order:

Early on in my time in Indonesia, I read an article, which I can't find anymore although I think it was from the Jakarta Post, about high- and low-context cultures. Specifically, it was talking about how business between Indonesians and Australians can get complicated and be fraught with misunderstanding because in high-context cultures you are supposed to be able to pick up on a lot more nuances without being told about them explicitly, while in low-context cultures everything is supposed to be laid out clearly. I am from a low-context, very casual culture (California Bay Area) and tend towards obliviousness. Throughout my summer I got better at picking up on social cues, thinking about the proper time and place to talk to people about certain topics. I'm still not great at it, but I do pay more attention to what's going on between the lines than I used to.

I've written before about the way my time in Indonesia with the NGO I worked for turned my views on tech+tradition and rural development on their heads. But those insights are still ones that I feel strongly about, even more so now that I'm back in the Silicon Valley bubble, especially with the voting patterns in the election. Technology can be integrated into people's values. It is worthwhile to bring resources and jobs to rural places. Obviously the trends of urbanization and globalization are powerful, and obviously some "traditional values" are awful. But people want a say in progress.

That summer I found two role models. One was my boss, a brilliant woman who has a lot of social and political influence (as in, because of her I am two degrees of separation from the Indonesian Minister of Energy) who once negotiated a ransom for her husband from kidnappers who threatened to murder him, and who also sat me down on my first afternoon in Indonesia and said "welcome home! I will be your mom for the next two months." Over a year removed, of course some things become distorted through memory--but I remember her kindness as a force just as powerful as her entrepreneurial brilliance. I want to be like her.

The other role model is the king I met in the mountains. Someone with quiet, understated authority, someone who cares about the well-being of their people, who honors their history while looking forward to the future and embracing technology and progress. Indelible images: the traditional bamboo palace and the electronics workshop right outside of the throne room. Standing behind a row of men wearing the traditional black-and-ochre headwraps for the Independence Day celebrations as a drone flew overhead recording the event for broadcast to the local TV station. Is it arrogant to say that I want to develop a kingly presence? Well, I suppose my constant role model is imperial.

On a more heartbreaking note: as we drove down from the mountains back to Jakarta, the NGO employee who accompanied us and had taken care of us throughout the summer told me that one advantage of taking on international interns was so that we could see that, and I quote, "Muslims are not terrorists, are not extremists." In a world that is still Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, and perhaps increasingly so, statements that I made offhandedly in high school about how bad religion is can be intended neutrally but will not be received neutrally at all. I'm still an atheist but living in a predominantly Muslim country and talking to people who openly practice their religion and see it as very important for themselves has directly led me to be more careful in conversations about religion.

Unfortunately, my time in Germany only confirmed my knowledge of and deepened my horror toward global Islamophobia. Pro- and anti-refugee signs were rarely seen intact. We met a government employee in Budapest who said, and I am paraphrasing pretty closely, "Germany should take more migrants because they are more used to mixing with Muslims and Asians than we are."

The play FEAR, which I watched in my second or third week in Germany, was probably one of the most important two-hour spans in my entire six months. A concentrated look at the neo-Nazis and the people who are neo-Nazis in all but name, at the liberals who don't do anything (and feeling a strong sense of discomfort about being one of them), und so weiter.

Still: Hamburg was covered in pro-refugee, pro-LGBT stickers. The local antifa had a booth at the neighborhood block party. On the first of May, many held marches in solidarity with refugees.

The traditional Grand Tour is supposed to be about becoming cultured. Well, I went to Paris and Rome. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity but honestly? Paris did not make such a big impression on me. The Louvre was a beautiful temple to European art. I ate a crepe along the Champs-Elysee.

Rome, though--Rome was another story. I still catch myself daydreaming about clambering about on the Palatine, drinking citrus soda from Coop and breathing in the air that smelled more like home than anything I'd smelled in the previous four months, deliriously happy. I've written about Rome already. But being there, as someone with whom the historical figure of Octavian Caesar resonates greatly, twenty years old and full of dreams--Rome is the eternal city and there I felt the most as if I was playing out the role of the Grand Tour traveler, or better yet the pilgrim, coming face to face with something that tells me that whatever I may think my place is, I can transcend it, just like Octavian did. (But with less murder.)

While in Germany, especially during the summer, I was much more independent than I was in Indonesia, or even at home. I loved it. Language barrier? More like a door. I enjoyed daily transactions because I enjoyed feeling good at German, enjoyed meeting people where they were and not being the obnoxious American tourist who counts on people to speak English. My lifestyle was pretty simple, sometimes boring, and I regret not getting out more and making more friends, but it was still a comfortable lifestyle, one I could budget myself (although, on the theme of economic privilege, I knew that I would come out above at the end of each month and that certainty was what made it fun to budget rather than terrible).

I've written about my experiences of race in Indonesia and in Germany. When in Indonesia I played up the fact that I'm Hui* on my mom's side, because it was something that gave me a connection to Indonesian culture. When in Germany, I felt way more minority than ever.

*a Muslim Chinese ethnic minority group

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(On a more personal note: my employer and her husband with whom I stayed in Indonesia, as well as my host parents in Germany, were both couples that have been married for decades, have raised children who have gone off on their own paths in the world, and still hold one another in the highest regard and with the deepest respect and affection. I don't even want to consider dating for another few years at minimum, but living with these two couples in successive years...it's not like I didn't believe in love before. But seeing them, I believe in love.)

(There is one person in the universe who is allowed to talk to me about the content of the previous paragraph and if you have any doubts, it's not you.)

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The quarter before I went to Indonesia, I took a preparatory class through the public service center wherein we discussed a lot about the ethics of service, particularly service abroad. There was no real conclusion. We read To Hell with Good Intentions, whose express purpose is to discourage people from volunteering abroad, and yet we all still went.

This quote resonates particularly:

If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.

This is approximately where I am mentally, now. So: technology and tradition, progress and rural areas, are not diametrically opposed. So: I want to be a king, I want to build a business, I want to build a new order, I want to build. So: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and fascism are on the rise. So: race is complicated. So: context is important. So? What now? The tour was grand but home is where the work starts.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Travel Lessons

When I think nostalgically about my six months in Europe, the biggest thing I miss is the feeling of being mobile, of having the time and money to go places. To see things. Continuing the theme of posts I should have written months and months ago, today I'm going to talk (in no particular order) about things I learned from traveling this past spring and summer.

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Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Transportation to/from the location. Compare bus, train, plane. If you're in Germany, consider a BahnCard (but it automatically renews every year, so make sure to send a cancellation email at least 6 weeks before the expiration date) if you're going to be making a lot of train trips. Transportation was usually the biggest single expense for me. Overnight trains are often reasonably cheap, and if you bring a warm sweater and a jacket you can sleep on them. Then you arrive in your destination early in the morning and the world feels very shiny and new and ready for exploring.

Housing. Hostelworld, other hostel websites, AirBnB, whichever. When looking at hostels, consider proximity to the things you want to see and to transportation (e.g. in Salzburg I roomed at a hostel that was only two blocks from Hauptbahnhof because I had a 0600 bus).

Food. Bring your own food with you if you have a long trip or are just stingy (me). I got a box of granola bars the day before any trip and used those as breakfast and snacks. I think for my Rome trip I got two boxes. Go to grocery stores for food--it also will make you feel less like an obnoxious tourist. I felt particularly smug about getting most of my food from the Coop supermarket chain in Rome because I remembered the name from middle school Italian class. A big bag of crackers is easy to cart around without worrying about it melting or something. Bakeries are also good places to get cheap food. Get something to drink that refreshes you; my go-to was anything carbonated and citrus-flavored. Treat yourself to gelato if it's summer. Do try regional foods, if they fall within your dietary restrictions (e.g. I ate no wurst but I did eat a lot of potatoes).

If you're going to a city, any city, check if they have a tourism card/pass deal. These typically cover public transportation and some attractions/get you discounts on attractions. The Salzburg Card was the best deal I encountered (everything was free except a couple of special exhibits) while the Berlin Welcome Card deliberately leaves out Museum Island so just getting day passes for transportation made more sense. If you buy it from a person (e.g. at an airport or central station kiosk) they might give you a map also.

But if you can't count on that, download or print out a map so you know where you're going. I like being able to look at everything I want to do all at once and plan an efficient route (which may get thrown out midway through but hey, it happens). Before going, spend some time on Google Maps inputting places you want to go and how long it will take to get where. Of particular importance, plan out how you're going to get to your transportation back.

What to do? If you know someone who lives in or has been to the place you're visiting, ask them for advice. Look at the map and the city's tourism sites for inspiration. Go with what you like more than with what you're "supposed" to do. Are you going on vacation for yourself or for an audience? Examples: in Salzburg I visited the fortress twice, because I had written about it for Ubermadchen and it meant something to me. I skipped most of the Mozart- and Sound of Music-related stuff because I didn't have that connection. In Rome, I spent a whole lot of time in the Forum and Palatine area, even paying to get in a second time because I was not going to leave Rome without visiting the houses of Augustus and Livia. I didn't even try to go to the Vatican.

But if you're going someplace that doesn't have any particular personal meaning to you, that's fine too and you'll probably have a good time following travel guides. Still, if you have the choice, go someplace that means something to you.

Check the weather but no matter what bring a raincoat or umbrella. Go for maximum pockets but also be aware that pickpockets exist, so go for protectable pockets too. Because Germans tend to have very high standards of modesty, I ended up wearing long pants everywhere, even Rome, but this probably isn't necessary. Comfortable shoes. Hats are good--go for warmth if you're going someplace cold, go for sun protection if you're going someplace warm. Layers are good, especially if you're planning to be out doing things throughout the day. There are legit travel bloggers who can give pointers on the ideal wardrobe to bring to optimize simultaneously for a light pack and comfort.

Toiletries. I forgot to bring my toothbrush on multiple occasions. Bring a small towel, always (see: Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy). My hair is very low-maintenance so for weekend trips I could get away with not bringing shampoo but you do you. If you get periods, bring the necessary materials even if you don't think it's likely that you'll need them. Highly recommend having a small bag that holds all of this stuff, so you can bring it all in one go to a hostel bathroom and not worry about leaving something behind.

Money. In some places, cash is strongly preferred to card (Germany). Other places card is okay. Different cards may have varying charges associated with international purchases so check that so you don't spend money unnecessarily. Make sure you know your PINs (seems obvious and yet there I was, staring dumbfounded at the ticket machine in Copenhagen central station at 8 in the morning). Bring only slightly more cash than you plan to spend in your wallet, in case you do get pickpocketed, and hide extra money in your phone case or anywhere else that seems safe.

Charge your phone, charge your camera if you have one. Bring along a portable charger if you'll be out for a long time/if your phone drains battery quickly, and charge that fully too. A bag for your chargers/cables is a good thing. Make sure you have lots of empty space for pictures. This was more of a concern for me than for most people since my old phone had very little storage on it. I was constantly deleting apps to make space for more photos and then redownloading them once I'd had a chance to move my photos to my computer.

Souvenirs. I like postcards. Postcards are small, light, cheap, easy to personalize. I wish I had picked up a few more generic postcards from various places so I'd have something to give to people who I realized after the fact might appreciate something of the kind. For people I didn't forget, it was usually pretty easy to look through an assortment of postcards and pick something they would like. Art museums generally have quality selections; tourist-geared vendors often have deals if you get multiple. I didn't get a lot of physical souvenirs, because suitcase space, but I tried to go for things that were small in size but personalized.

Re photos: there's a lot to be said about experiencing things in the moment and not necessarily documenting them. I took pretty much no photos of places such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, or the concentration camps of Hamburg, for the same reason I don't talk to people when visiting such places--anything that could lead to greater performativity inhibits the sort of genuine response that I think these places require.

On the other hand, if you're visiting someplace to have fun, take photos all you want. Or if you see something interesting and want to document it. The act of composing a photo can also make you be more aware of what you're looking at, which is valuable. And even though I think you should let your wishes drive rather than the thought of what it looks like to others, there's nothing wrong with sharing photos of stuff you see. The biggest benefit, though, in my self-centered eyes at least, is being able to look through an archive of meaningful and happy memories.

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Upcoming: a more philosophical post on the Grand Tour and the idea of travel being a necessary component of education.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Being Chinese in Germany

Today's episode of "posts I should have written months ago..."

I have definitely written about my experience of race in Germany before, but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to continue the scintillating series of Being Chinese in [Insert Country]. So here goes.

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Race and ethnicity in Europe are very different from race and ethnicity in the US. Ethnicity matters a whole lot more and the demographic history is less marked by immigration than in the US. What that means is that the idea that your ethnicity and nationality should "match" is much more prevalent (and legally encoded), which naturally causes a lot of discomfort for someone for whom that does not hold true, by which I mean me.

My host parents encapsulate this viewpoint fairly well for me--luckily, because I really like them and so we could talk about it. They asked me if I felt more Chinese or more American, if I could ever see myself living in China; talked more about their travels to China than about their travels to California. In my German class we had a unit on immigration to Germany and talked about the situation of immigrants from different regions, and I talked about that with my host parents and their experiences of teaching immigrant children and children of immigrants. They apologized for any discomfort they may have caused me by treating me as Chinese instead of American--but they are also old, and grew up in a much more homogeneous Germany than the one of today.

When walking with a friend of mine who is also Chinese-American, we were ambushed by a guy on the street who shouted "konnichiwa" at us. When we were talking at a mixer event for students and host families at the beginning of the quarter, one of the host moms saw us and remarked, "Multi-kulti."

At two in the morning in the Cologne train station, two fellow travelers--an Iraqi man and a Kurdish man--struck up a conversation in Arabic, then started talking to me in English. I explained that I was a student from America; when I saw the Kurdish man later he waved and said, "ni hao." Somehow this offended me less than if a white guy had done it.

On my second trip to Hamburg, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Two Chinese guys, also studying abroad, sat at the table next to me. Upon hearing Mandarin, I said hello to them and we ended up having a nice conversation and becoming Facebook friends.

While in Berlin I went to two different Chinese restaurants, ordered in Mandarin, and on all occasions received free dessert, un-asked for (although I insisted on paying both times and passed it off as a really big tip).

In Hamburg I shopped at an Asian market two minutes farther away and slightly more expensive than another one because the proprietor spoke Mandarin to me and we had a long conversation about the difficulty of learning German and about her struggles with raising her kids with their culture--a struggle she said my parents must surely understand.

A Vietnamese immigrant, a student working part-time at a bakery, held up the line chatting with me after I'd ordered my sandwich. We complimented one another on our German, and she guessed right away that I was Chinese.

My last weekend in Berlin, I noticed two Chinese girls taking selfies and offered to take a picture of them together. They guessed right away that I was American-born Chinese, each insisted on taking a picture with me, and exchanged email addresses.

What do all these anecdotes mean? In Germany I was way more minority than I have ever been in America (granted, I live in the Bay Area). I felt much more instant solidarity with other Asians than I do at home, and they felt the same way about me. The summer I was in Indonesia, my boss told me that I was lucky to be Chinese because wherever I go in the world I'll have people who are willing to help me. I laughed at the time, but it kind of ended up being true? Hearing Mandarin made me instantly want to help someone if it looked like they needed help, and I certainly felt well taken care of by those restaurant owners who chatted with me and then gave me fruit plates.

I don't actually know how race relations among minority groups works in Germany, mostly because I didn't see many such interactions, certainly not enough to notice a pattern. Going by my own experiences is probably misleading because I come to the situation as an American, and as someone who had spent much of the previous quarter talking and thinking a lot about race. Was the sense of solidarity I got from my conversation with my fellow travelers in Köln one-sided or did they choose to talk to me because I was also not white?

My perception is that some of the same "model minority" bullshit is going on. When talking to my host parents about immigrants they singled out Korean immigrants for praise, but also said that these immigrants tended to come as students or professionals, so it was probably a class/education difference rather than anything racial. My flatmate from the summer asked me if I was quiet because I was Asian, because most other Americans she'd met were loud.

I talked to some other students about their experiences and some had worse experiences than I did--host parents who assumed ethnicity==nationality and were not willing to talk about it, for example. Did I get lucky or did they get unlucky?

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Bonus: Being Chinese in Rome

As I buy tomatoes, an employee on break who had previously been chatting with the cashier bowed to me with his hands together and said, "Domo arigato." I replied, "Non sono giapponese." He said: "Ah, mi scusi."

Not five minutes later, as I walked along the train platform to find a bench (three days in Rome is hard on the feet), someone shouted behind me, "Konnichiwa! Sei giapponese?"

...means that people will assume that you're Japanese.

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Related:
Being Chinese in China
Being Chinese in Indonesia