Wednesday, August 22, 2007

chinita! chinita!

when i was studying abroad in central america, i could not go one day without being referred to as "chinita." it drove me nuts! ("chinita" basically means "chinese girl" in spanish but is pretty much used to refer to anybody asian-esque.)

the first time (and the second, third, fourth, five-millionth time) somebody called me that (heckled on the street, no less), it made my blood boil. most of my peers couldn't understand why i hated it so much; most of them felt that it was a harmless term of affection. (after all, didn't they go each day being referred to as "gringo" or "gringa"? and ultimately, it was true, wasn't it? i am a chinese girl.)

regardless, every time i was called "chinita," i couldn't help but feel offended and slightly demeaned. for some reason, the word conjured up images of pulled-back eyes, "coolie" caricatures, and over sexualized asian women. thankfully, by the end of my stint in central america (which i ultimately loved despite the attitude of this post) i had learned to suppress my infuriation and had developed the spanish to explain that i was a north american despite my skin, hair, and eyes. yet, i really struggled with this "pet name" and even upon my return to the states, the "chinita issue" plagued me.

why did this term make my skin crawl and make me so angry? what was the big deal? hadn't i had my entire life to deal with being labeled?

this past week, the new york times has published a series of articles titled "new power in africa" chronicling the new social phenomenon of the increasing presence of chinese in africa. obviously i find the timing quite poignant because although i have never stepped foot in china, most first impressions will probably lead to the assumption that i am a native chinese. moreover, a chinese-american friend of mine has been in kenya and has sent email dispatches regarding the presence of asians in east africa and how he is grappling with this. i am hearing the terms "colonization" and "recolonization" often in these conversations and that worries me. i don't want to be seen - even if it is just first impressions and misconceptions- as a colonizer. (and based upon my experience in latin america, asians are already being seen as such there and it sucked being accused of it!)

a few excerpts (from one of three articles though i highly recommend you read all of them):

“We expect a large influx of at least 40,000 Chinese in the coming years,” said Renaud Dinguemnaial, director of Chad’s Chamber of Commerce. “This massive arrival could be a plus for the economy, but we are also worried. When they arrive, will they bring their own workers, stay in their own houses, send all their money home?”

“The Chinese claim to come here as investors, but they are trading just like us,” said Dorothy Mainga, who sells knockoff Puma sneakers and Harley Davidson T-shirts in the Kamwala Market in Lusaka. “They are selling the same things we are selling at cheap prices. We pay duty and tax, but they use their connections to avoid paying tax.”

When the salesman finally left the room, members of the restaurant staff gathered near the door and vented their disgust. “We don’t need people like that to come here and colonize us again,” one said.

after reading these articles, i've begun to rethink my trouble with being called a "chinita" in central america and i'm also coming to the realization that one of the biggest frustrations of my transition into life in senegal will certainly be the chinese thing -- being asked where i'm from even after i've stated that i'm an american (hell, i have that problem here), having children pull back their eyes when they see me, being pestered by "how do you say ____" in chinese, etc.

(for the record: i am not making some kind of rash implication that the senegalese are ignorant and racist; i am building off of previous experiences in multiple countries -- including my own -- topped with the understanding that in areas with less access to education and exposure to the international world, the idea that americans come in more colors than white and black is still rather novel.)

after spending more than a year contemplating my averse reaction to a single word and poring over these articles these past few days, i think i have come to the quasi-conclusion that it isn't that i am ashamed to be of chinese descent or that i have slanted eyes or that there are constant rumors swirling about my people eating dogs and is the simple notion that i have spent a good part of my life trying to be more than just what meets the eye.

i don't want to be remembered as the "asian girl" or the "chinese girl" but as so much more than just that -- even if i have only met somebody for five minutes. i want to be (amongst many things) the girl who fought for justice, the girl who loved to read, the girl who could make a mean shepherd's pie, the girl who would die for her family, the girl who was impeccably gracious all the time (ha!), the girl who exuded confidence and intelligence (double ha!), the girl who was more than just chinese. i think that's why "chinita" made me so irritated; it pigeonholed me and made me feel like rather than build an understanding of who i am, i had to reverse the idea of who i am based on stereotypes, misconceptions, and the sins of some of the people who share a physical makeup similar to mine.

but alas, i cannot strip myself of my physical exterior and subsequently all the baggage that comes with it. this means that i will have to work super hard to battle these first impressions and show to the world that i am an american and not from china, not lucy liu, not an exploitative colonizer, not a commie, not a martial artist but ANGELICA KANG, the fiercest of the fierce and ready and willing to do whatever it takes to change the world!!!

well, maybe now i am just getting a little nutty (it's late!) but basically this conversation between my sister and i conveys what i've been jabbering about:

me: this nytimes article makes me nervous
9:54 AM there is going to be so much to deal with in terms of being chinese AND american AND a woman
9:55 AM Leanne: YES
9:56 AM me: i'm not really looking forward to that part
9:57 AM Leanne: remember, the power in the Spirit
part of how u deal will be your tactfulness and awareness, the other part will just be sheer prayer
pray that they won't see you in those categories, that they will for some reason easily take you in as their very own
9:58 AM and they'll see you as a GIFT

...can i bring my sister with me to senegal?


treesaver said...

it's a good thing that you went through this experience.

the senegalese, they too, will hope that you see them as more than just poor black africans who need to be saved, or your good natured smiling driver, or the simple-minded farmer you must persuade.

Alan said...

why is it better to be from america than from china?

Andrew said...

who is that girl i see
staring straight
back at me?

how about that one?

Nathan said...

I can totally empathize with you on being the other to some extent. Myself I'm a white male that comes from a unique religious background. From being the only white kid on the soccer team for a many years, to being the only white guy in the community college class, to being the only mormon in a conservative baptist elementary--I think your experience studying abroad and maybe always being the other will better prepare you for how you will be treated- I know many pcv have never had that experience before- you're a few steps ahead- I'll see ya in staging- enjoy the good plentiful american food while you can- I sure am

Anonymous said...

Hey I'm currently nominated for Francophone Africa and will leave sometime next summer which is why I was attracted to your blog, and although I'm not asian I can attest to the fact that being of Chinese decent will be somewhat of an issue in Africa and as in Central America you will be referred to as such but that's part of the experience. Facing challenges. In the end it will all be for a good purpose and I'm sure youll come back being glad that you did what you're about to do. Bon chance a toi!