Upon first meeting me, people can easily conclude from my features that my ethnicity is Asian. I have thick black hair, small monolid eyes, and a flat nose. My 23 and Me DNA test came back as 99% East Asian, which didn’t drop anybody’s jaws as a surprise. But for the first twenty or so years of my life, I identified as white and sometimes forgot that I wasn’t until I looked in the mirror. I distinctly remember being taken aback from my appearance after a day at the skate rink with my blonde gymnast friends.
Yes, I was born in Korea (South, in case you were wondering. I occasionally get asked “which Korea?”). But after my first breaths of life, I was separated from my birth mother and relinquished for adoption. At four months of age, I was issued a passport and flew to Boston with a handful of other babies where my adoptive parents awaited. Being an infant, I had no control over my destiny whatsoever. But that’s life, right?
Fortunately, I had a happy-go-lucky childhood in the suburbs of New Jersey. I did well in school and had an active life in the world of gymnastics and sleepovers. My high school was somewhat diverse, but I still associated myself predominately with white people.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I became curious about Korea and even threw out the idea of traveling to Asia. My best friend convinced me to do so, and we did for two months after graduating in 2010. Traveling tends to change people in some way. For me, it shifted the entire trajectory of my life. Even though I decided not to fulfill the American dream goals I had, traveling opened up a floodgate of opportunities I didn’t know existed. I ended up moving to Korea in 2012 and haven’t lived in the states since.
I expected to discover foreign cultures, but I didn’t anticipate doing as much identity exploration. Korea was a place where I resembled everyone and from where I was born, but I had little connection to the culture. I learned slowly to embrace my Korean identity, but to also remember that I am equally as American as anyone else. Still, I was expected to speak Korean better than fellow American teachers. If my white friend said one word in Korean, he’d get an applause while I’d be interrogated why I don’t speak Korean perfectly after speaking cohesive, grammatically correct sentences (in my head at least). After three years of living in Korea, I learned that I will never be white, but I will also never be Korean. I am not Korean American either, as I didn’t grow up with the culture whatsoever. I am a Korean American adoptee, proudly so.
After leaving Korea, Adam and I traveled for about two years and surprisingly, I got called Chinese or Japanese far more often in Asia than I did in America. In the states, people don’t just call out nationalities to people walking by, but in other places where seeing foreigners is a rarity, it is common.
I hadn’t been to Africa before accepting my invitation to serve in Zambia. I didn’t have many expectations, but I did anticipate that I’d have to deal with people calling me Chinese and questioning if I’m really from America. And yes, this certainly lived up to the expectations.
These instances crept up slowly. Orientation and training shows you a only tiny bit of what service is really like after swear-in. Staff and host families are primed to understand America’s diversity and what sorts of comments are considered rude, so I never dealt with interrogations about my nationality during training.
The first time I did endure that was during site visit. Upon alighting the 12-hour bus ride to the town nearest to our village for the first time, a swarm of taxi drivers crowded around me, pointed, and yelled “Chinese”!
In local language, I defended myself, “Nshili wa Chinese. Ndi mwina America.” I am not Chinese. I am American.
“No, this is a Chinese”! They interrupted and yelled loudly over me while pointing fingers in my face.
It wasn’t until Adam stepped in to say exactly what I was saying. The only difference was that they listened to him as a white male. When he spoke up, they finally left me alone. In that moment, I thought I was in for a difficult two years.
Fortunately, this was the worst incident with host country nationals in my 15 months here so far. I am still pleasantly surprised that I never get called Chinese in our community. Part of it might be that people are not accustomed to any kind of foreigner so they might not have an idea of what people “should” look like from different countries, but another part of it is that our counterpart educated people before we arrived. I am thankful for that. Actually, most of the struggle has been being a woman in a couple more so than being Asian.
In town, I get the occasional Chinese comment or assumption, but I usually don’t mind it because I don’t blame them. The Chinese population is quite large in Zambia as they have brought in roads, hammermills, and various businesses. When I see an Asian-looking person whom I don’t know, I do think it is likely they are Chinese, not that I would inquire because it doesn’t matter.
But what really gets me is when I say that I’m actually American, they sometimes don’t believe me and insist that I am Chinese. I do try to understand that this is a time to educate about America’s diversity and exercise patience, but that’s emotional labor for which I don’t always have the energy. Sometimes, I just don’t have the patience to explain myself and I have just learned to ignore it when people yell “China!’ at me. But all of those little instances really build up and it gets old quickly. I’m still learning to deal with it because I can get short with people who don’t believe that I am American.
The only time in my adult life that I cried because of a racial comment was from another PCV. I’ve only met him once and the first time, he asked “What kind of Asian are you?” before asking for my name. So I immediately didn’t have a positive impression of him. The second interaction months later, he said “did you know that your eyes close when you smile?” and proceeded to demonstrate by drawing lines over his eyes with his fingers. I was taken aback and got so flustered that I cried. He was completely oblivious and refused to apologize, later claiming that he was trying to make friendly conversation. Either way, I didn’t expect a fellow Peace Corps volunteer to make me feel uncomfortable because of my race. We received diversity training during PST and were advised to be mindful about microaggressions, but I suppose a few sessions isn’t enough to reverse deeper biases. What bothered me the most was his refusal to acknowledge his mistake by defending himself and not recognizing that he clearly hurt another person. I do think this situation is an outlier, but we cannot ignore that fact that microaggressions happen among volunteers and it is something that we must consciously work on. He later apologized and I hope it won’t happen again in the future with someone else.
Part of the problem is that there isn’t a great deal of diversity amongst the volunteers. I am the only Asian American female in my program intake of 37 and there are maybe five of us in the whole country of over 200. This isn’t something that happened intentionally, but as a result of a greater systemic bias. Being able to volunteer abroad for two years is something that those with more privilege can do, and that usually ends up being white college graduates. I hope that the application process, especially the expensive medical clearance process, becomes more accessible for a wider range of people to better represent Americans. Even though there’s not a ton of race, age, or socioeconomic diversity, there’s a great deal of personality and skill diversity and I’m very glad to have met such wonderful people!