Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of living in and visiting places all around the world. I was born and raised in the United States but I’ve also spent periods of time in Taiwan, Europe, the Caribbean, and most recently Latin America. One thing that has struck me about all of these experiences is the realization that there is no country that I can say is my own. No matter where I am, I’m a foreigner.
In the United States, the only country I am legally a citizen of, I am consistently confused for an immigrant. When I first moved to California from the east coast, administrators tried to put me in an ESL (English Second Language) track of classes. I spoke to them and tried to tell them I spoke English, but only got the remarkably condescending reply, “And you speak it very well”. I actually took the entirety of the math placement test before they realized that English was my native language and I shouldn’t have even been there.
Like any Asian-American, I’ve answered the question “Where are you really from?” ad nauseum. Sometimes I let it go and answer the question they’re actually asking, “What are you?”. Sometimes I try to be quippy in an effort to make them think about why it’s appropriate or even relevant to ask me about where my parents are from if they wouldn’t to a white person. Sometimes I’m purposefully bemused and enter into a cycle of listing states I’ve lived in.
But perhaps most overtly racist, I’ve been repeatedly told to go back to where I come from since middle school. Even in high school where 61% of students are Asian-American or Pacific Islanders, I was told over and over again explicitly or implicitly from white students that I did not belong, that I should go back to my country, and that if I was unhappy with anything in America (including racial relations) I should leave. Once a kid that was probably 13 or so told me I should go back to where I came from. I was 17 at the time. I had literally been there longer than he had.
Whenever I’ve visited Taiwan, I’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. People know I don’t belong almost immediately. I don’t speak quite correctly, I don’t move the right way, my clothes don’t fit in. I’m very clearly not from Taiwan and instead of even engaging me in Mandarin (which I can both speak and understand) a fair number of people will insist on speaking entirely in English.
And when it comes to any country outside of Asia that has a majority of people of color, people stare at me. And point sometimes. Especially children. When I was in Turkey, a kid (probably 10 or so) ran past me screaming, “China! China! China!” In Costa Rica, a couple of kids kept snickering and pointing at me while I got on the bus.
And here’s the thing, that doesn’t apply to White people. White people can blend in in America, Europe, and Australia. And while they are certainly not the majority in Asia, Africa, and South America, their status as “other” isn’t nearly as constant or universal. White people have the possibility of being born in South Africa, Brazil, Japan, or Turkey and their existence is validated by media in other countries that still feature White people. But Asians are virtually invisible outside of Asia. I could live in South Africa for decades and I would still be seen as a foreigner.
This also doesn’t necessarily apply to Black people either. While they suffer from all sorts of colorism, globalized nti-blackness, and take the brunt of institutionalized racism, their status as a foreigner also isn’t universal. A Black person in America isn’t automatically assumed to have moved there from Africa. However, as a result of Asia being thought of as the birthplace or true allegiance of anyone with Asian descent and only those with Asian descent, Black Asians are completely erased and treated poorly.
Some racial groups (particularly Asians of any kind, non-white passing Latin@s, and Middle Eastern people) are inextricably tied to specific countries in the minds of most people. Asian diaspora can never escape from the notion that they came from somewhere else and there is no escaping from this notion.
No country will think of us as their own.