china-gringa, ch. 1

* Note: Considering the complexity of my questions and thoughts on the following topics, I’ve decided to make this post the first of a series. I wish to clarify that most, if not all, of the people I’ve met in Colombia have had only good intentions, or at least no harmful intentions, towards me. In sharing my reflections, I seek to be honest, to create space for dialogue (I really welcome feedback), and to deepen my understanding.

china-gringa || chapter 1: questions

MY NEW FRIENDS AND I were walking down the street when they bump into some friends, an older couple. I was in the middle of shaking their hands when they said, “Hola, mi japonesita.”

Even though I’d been in Colombia for only a month at the time, I was ready to retire from this game.

“Soy china.” It was getting close to my bedtime, and I was too tired to keep the edge out of my voice.

Caught off guard for a second, they quickly sought to ease the tension.

“Oh, it’s the same thing,” they said.

Hampered by a lack of language proficiency, I could only reply with a cold stare.

Afterwards, I heard my friends joking about the incident. Though they were laughing, I started to worry. Did I respond too strongly? I hope I didn’t make a fool of myself. Could I have acted more lovingly, whatever that means? Am I too sensitive?

This internal dialogue continues to accompany me as I live in Colombia.

Why is my ethnicity a topic of such fascination for strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike?

Why don’t they know, or care to know, that Japan is not the same as China?

What am I supposed to say when asked to describe a “strange dish” in “Asian cuisine”?

How did both the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner phenomenon become instilled in mainstream Colombian society?

My emotions fluctuate between shock, indignation, shame, sorrow, apathy, annoyance, and anger – sometimes all in one day – as I regularly face ignorance and offensive attitudes and gestures toward my race and ethnicity.

Most of all I am confused.

One of my coworkers, whom I trust and respect, told me that Colombians don’t talk much about race. Rather, he said, they talk about ethnicity. Race isn’t as relevant, apparently because most Colombians are mix-raced (having indigenous, African, and/or European roots). This mestizaje identity evokes pride for many Colombians.

I can see where he’s coming from. Race is a social construction, after all, and diversity should be celebrated.

Besides, Colombia and the US are different countries, with different histories, different norms, different perceptions on race and ethnicity. And as a guest of this culture, I know I’m missing a lot of context. The last thing I want to do is jump to conclusions, impose my paradigms, or say something disrespectful or arrogant.

But beneath my open-mindedness lurks the question: How can race not be a thing here?

Didn’t both Colombia and the US have indigenous nations living in the land for centuries before White European colonizers invaded and claimed the land for the sake of God, the gospel, power, freedom, what have you?

Don’t both countries have histories shaped by state- and church-sanctioned violence and domination? The enslavement and mistreatment of women, men, and children of African descent. The extermination of indigenous communities and livelihoods. The exploitation of natural riches in exchange for cold metallic coins.

And these histories have evolved into iteration after iteration of oppressive systems in both the US and Colombia.

What’s more, if race is irrelevant here, how come every person I meet wants to know where I was born?

I started this post over two months ago, and I wish I could say my confusion has decreased. It has – when I choose to ignore it. Which is to say, when I live falsely.

So I’m picking my shovel back up. I’m digging holes into what I always thought was unmovable, and I’m gonna see the lies and truths that lie beneath.

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4 thoughts on “china-gringa, ch. 1

    • Sophia, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Two things and then some comments on race vs. ethnicity and ‘race’ in countries outside USA. One, I’ve added your blog post to the Anti-racism Digital Library / Thesaurus (ADL) in The Intercultural Community (PC (USA)) Collection- http://sacred.omeka.net/items/show/169 Two, asking where people are from is a very human thing to do. Sometimes people just ask as a conversation starter or because its the social small talk to do. Most people automatically ask that question no matter what. I invite you to browse the ADL and look at items in especially these collections: A Mote in Minerva’s Eye, American Identity, The Racial Imagination, etc.

      Race is a social construction with a very powerful grip on American culture and society and now, because of our global reach all over the world. But race was unknown in most parts of the world outside Europe and USA. ‘Colorism’ a preference for lighter skin, is however, universal. So that’s something to look into as well in terms of understanding social prejudices.

      • Anita, thanks for including this post to the ADL. I agree that asking where people are from is a normal conversation starter. I’m challenged to think about what I’m really asking when I ask that question. Being in Colombia helped me understand to a new degree that race is socially constructed, yet I often wondered why colorism was still so alive and well there. My quick answer is White supremacy and the history of colonialism and slavery. Of course there are many layers to this issue. I’ll look into the resources you mentioned. I’d be glad to hear any other thoughts you have.

  1. Pingback: china-gringa, ch. 2 | from clamor to timbre

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