On race, identity, and belonging

This is one of those posts that has been sitting in my drafts since week two and that I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve fully hashed out my thoughts on. It’s silly, really, because the initial event that sparked this these thoughts happened within a week of arriving here in Budapest…

Said occurrence, described: the language school took us on an excursion to Eger, a Hungarian town about two hours outside of Budapest. We arrived at a winery and were introduced to the owner as American college students. He welcomed us, then suddenly turned to me, looked puzzled for a split second, and proceeded with a wide smile and exclaimed, “Arigatou! Konnichiwa! Japán?”

All of us froze and looked around uncomfortably, and I felt my face flush and the mortification settle in. I’m pretty sure I just stood there and smiled awkwardly without saying anything in response. I had no idea what the proper response was­­—should I have answered his question with, “No, Chinese,” because I’m ethnically Chinese? Even though I instinctively identify as American by nationality? Was it horribly ironic that he was wearing a Washington, D.C. t-shirt… because that’s where I’d normally tell you I’m from? Did I have a social/moral obligation to call out his assumptions as culturally insensitive? Or would it be culturally insensitive to do so, because that was nothing more than a well-meaning attempt to make me feel welcome, right?

So why did I feel so uncomfortable and unwelcome for the rest of my time at the winery following that interaction? Was I bothered because he identified my race incorrectly, or would I have been just as uncomfortable had he gotten it right? Or was it that I was extra “otherized” even amongst outsiders in a foreign country where we (American students) were all supposed to feel a little out of place? Why did I feel that same sense of humiliation every time someone on the street pointed out me out as kinai (“Chinese” in Hungarian) or asked me where I was really from after I told them I was from the United States?

I still don’t have any objective answers to these questions, and I still think people draw attention to my ethnicity with mostly innocuous intentions and without derogatory implications, but I think I finally do understand why I personally feel so weird every time. I’m uncomfortable because I feel ashamed of my racial identity; my Asian-ness is deemed “other” and worthy of being pointed out because it’s seen as abnormal. My existence is reduced to a typecast identifier that I have no control over, that labeled me as “weird” for eating red beans for dessert in elementary school and my parents as “ignorant” and “lazy” for preferring to communicate in a foreign language (whereas it’s seen as cool and cultured for people of another race to do the same things). There should also probably be a sentence in here about being ashamed of feeling ashamed on a meta level—I think it’s awful that I’m not proud of my race and cultural heritage, that I desperately avoided speaking Chinese with my parents as a kid because I wanted to prove that I belonged.

I’ve obviously come a long way since elementary school—I was shamelessly ecstatic when a classmate brought sticky rice to our Thanksgiving potluck last week, and I proudly announced that I could translate the Chinese’s tour guide’s explanations at the Acropolis in Athens. The idea of belonging as a Chinese American was actually my social venture/passion project in high school. But this topic is still something I puzzle over—publishing these personal thoughts feels strange and vulnerable because they’re so incomplete, and I’ve posed so many questions that I don’t have the answers to, but they’ve sparked some conversations that I’m really glad I had. So, here, have a conversation starter.

Me, puzzling over many thoughts.

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