It’s a funny thing, being an Asian traveling in Asia. Whenever a westerner (white guy) travels around in Asia, he stands out, and gets certain “white privileges” – all the companies want to hire him (if only to walk around and pretend that the company is doing international business), all the girls want to talk to him, and in any setting he enjoys an automatic boost in social status. In contrast, if you’re an Asian in Asia, even if you were born in the West, you get squat. If anything, you lose out – you look more or less like a local, but you don’t speak the local language.
But as I travel and talk to people, I realize that it cuts both ways – if you’re white, sure people will always notice and (in some places) accord you more respect. But you’ll never fit in. In places like Japan, you’ll always be the odd man out, never fitting in even if you speak fluent Japanese. In places like Thailand, you will always pay higher prices when bartering, and people will forever be trying to rip you off.
When chatting with fellow travelers, they all invariably say that they hate Bangkok – its full of people trying to rip you off. Walking down the street, you’re constantly accosted by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to charge you triple the standard fare. Drivers tell you that your intended destination is closed, and instead take you to shoddy tailor shops and scammy gem stores. And there is no shortage of taxi drivers who try to take you to see a sleazy ping pong show.
I had no such experience. When I walked around without my backpack, dressing like a local (sneakers, long pants), it was as if I were invisible. Nobody shouting “taxi? taxi?” at me, nobody trying to sell me something or rip me off, nobody paying me any extra attention – as long as I kept my mouth shut. Sure, sometimes it’s great to be at the center of attention, but it gets very old very quickly – you just want to be left alone and treated like a regular person, not viewed as a stupid foreigner or an easy mark for an easy buck.
One fellow traveler made a particularly thoughtful comment: As a white guy in Asia, if you don’t speak the language you will always be an outsider in society. But even if you speak the language, you’ll still be an outsider – people will always wonder, “whoa, how did this western barbarian manage to learn the languages?”, people will always see you first and foremost as a Westerner instead of as an individual.
Reflecting on all of this, I feel more at peace in the world. Throughout my adult life, I’ve occasionally felt lingering annoyance at being born Asian, believing that I would not have the same opportunities in Asia as my Caucasian colleagues – for example, making it harder to teach English in Japan as part of the JET program.
But it also means that when people do take note of me, it’ll be for my personality and achievements, not just because of the color of my skin. I don’t represent Asians, or even Asian-Americans, but I do represent myself. And I’m amazingly awesome.
On the lighter side of things, have you ever heard a Asian speak English with an Irish accent? It is mind blowing.