Asian Americans abroad: Balancing race, ethnicity, and nationalityMonica Chen
Sep 01, 2018
“Go back to your country!” I’ve seen and heard this statement in movies and on TV: an angry person, most often white, yells it at a person of color, someone they assume to be an immigrant, to go back to “where they came from.” As someone of Chinese heritage who was born and raised in the United States, I have always been prepared with a rebuttal to this, namely to yell back that I am from this country. Interestingly enough, my first experience with this situation was on a street in Dublin, Ireland, during my semester abroad. Technically, I wasn’t from Ireland, so “going back to my country” could have meant returning to the United States. I knew, though, that when he saw me he probably didn’t immediately think I was from the United States, but probably assumed I was from a country in Asia. The altercation ended with the man yelling at me from across the street while I ignored him and continued towards my destination. The event makes me think about how others perceive me as someone who phenotypically looks Asian and identifies as Asian American.
“It is important to bring attention to the experience of being Asian American abroad and to this kind of representation in media because seeing and hearing about the experiences of people who “look like you” can largely influence a traveler’s expectations and plans.”
For me, studying abroad sparked a love of travel, but also pushed me to think about how people view Asian Americans outside of the United States and how Asian Americans form and define their identities while they are abroad. While I have seen travel vlogs from YouTubers such as Ryan Higa (on his second channel HigaTV) and the members of JustKiddingFilms (on their personal channels), I haven’t seen many APIA YouTube channels or vlogs that specifically focus on travel. It is important to bring attention to the experience of being Asian American abroad and to this kind of representation in media because seeing and hearing about the experiences of people who “look like you” can largely influence a traveler’s expectations and plans. Being able to see and read about where others travel to, what they do, how they are treated by locals of the area, and what they gain from their experiences can also help to assuage some fears and concerns, if any, about how one may be treated or what activities one may enjoy in a certain area.
One YouTuber to check out, if you don’t know of him already, is Mike Chen. Mike Chen is most well-known on YouTube for his channel Beyond Science, but he also has many other channels, two of which are Strictly Dumpling, his main food channel, and Mikey Chen, his vlog channel containing many travel vlogs and behind-the-scenes videos. He has explored restaurants in the United States and abroad, including Japan, Mongolia, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The videos on Strictly Dumpling and Mikey Chen not only provide useful information for foodies who are interested in tasting the local cuisines of the places they travel to, but they also address Mike Chen’s own heritage through the exploration of authentic Chinese food and Chinese restaurants in the U.S. and abroad. His experiences as an Asian American shooting his videos, along with his interactions with people in different countries, can also provide insight to viewers into the impact of his own identities on his travels.
“By establishing his identity as a Chinese American trying different foods in the United States and abroad, he not only presents a representation of Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans, in the online food and travel spheres, but also challenges the notion of a monolithic Asian American experience.”
In her blog post “As an Asian-American Abroad” published on Medium, Deborah Kristina describes her experiences as a Chinese American born and raised in Boston traveling in China and Turkey. She explains that, though most of her family has emigrated from China and she doesn’t know the culture or language particularly well, “[she] mostly [feels her] connection to the Chinese, actually, due to people treating [her] and/or perceiving [her] to be the same way as anyone else they’ve grouped as Chinese” which she associates with the lack of Asian American representation in media and many other countries’ lack of exposure to Asian Americans. Her experiences abroad are very recognizable for many Asian Americans who travel, highlighting the effect that sharing these narratives can have. For Mike Chen, by establishing his identity as a Chinese American trying different foods in the United States and abroad, he not only presents a representation of Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans, in the online food and travel spheres, but also challenges the notion of a monolithic Asian American experience by exploring aspects of his culture through food, but ultimately not defining himself or his content based on his culture, race, or ethnicity.
Another YouTuber to look out for is Joan Kim, who posts videos about fashion, travel, lifestyle, beauty and her experiences as a Korean American living in Korea on both her main channel and her side channel joanday. Not only does she post about the various places she travels to, including “hidden gems” in Korea, but she also gives some insight into her experiences living in the country that she has cultural and ethnic ties to, despite being born and raised predominantly in the U.S. Helen S. Kim, in her blog “An (Asian) American Abroad” on The Mash-Up Americans, also speaks to this experience of being Korean American and moving to Korea (though Kim was born in Korea, grew up in the U.S., and moved back to Korea for two years in her twenties). Kim describes the difficulty of defining where home is when you have cultural and ethnic roots in one place, but a familiarity and connection through spending most of your life in another. This balance is also difficult when you move to a country where you “look like” the people around you, but still feel a disconnect because of the values and culture you grew up in. Kim emphasizes the importance, for herself, of “[relinquishing] the delightful anonymity of being in Asia, and [acting] like the American [she is].”
While these are only two YouTubers and two bloggers, there are many who both experience and share the difficulties and joys of traveling and living abroad as Asian Americans.
Balancing a hyphenated identity can be difficult, especially when also trying to navigate an unfamiliar or foreign country. With many young adults viewing travel as a privileged act for white people with money, representation of people with these identities in the travel industry becomes all the more significant and necessary.