Being Chinese American is a huge part of my identity here, and I’d like to use this blog post to share three journal entries I wrote on being Asian in Morocco. They’re written in the span of six months (one in September, one in November, and one in March), on similar but different topics.
I’ll go in chronological order, starting from when I first got here.
September 20, 2016: American identity and Chinese identity
For the past two weeks that I’ve been in Morocco, I’ve spent much of my time at school and at home talking to people and asking questions. I ask people where they live, how they get to school, their restaurant recommendations in Rabat, what they do in their free time, what they bring for lunch, why they chose Science Maths—and so on.
In return, the Moroccans that I meet ask me questions: “do you have to take the Bac? aren’t you “losing” a year by coming to Morocco? do you like Morocco? for how long will you be here? how is the food here? what kind of music do you listen to?”
I’m pretty good at answering these questions, and my French is gradually getting to the point at which I can successfully articulate more-complex topics without going over the French sentences in my head before I say them. But there’s also the type of question that’s a bit more difficult to answer: questions about how I identify myself. At least ten different friends and family members have asked me if I knew how to make sushi or not. I’ve also gotten, “do you speak English?” “are you Japanese?” “what kind of anime do you like?” “don’t the Chinese bow whenever they meet new people?” “you’re Chinese, right? not American?”
Although these types of questions are confusing and frequently wrongly directed, I am fine with receiving them. It’s almost inevitable that ethnic-group stereotypes exist—these generalizations reflect not on the questioning individuals themselves but instead on the limited ways that the mass media portray a certain ethnic group. I’m also happy that others bring up these stereotypes so we can talk about them together instead of keeping them quiet. However, I am confused, and sometimes slightly uncomfortable, when I try to articulate my own answers to these questions. Of course, there are some easy questions to answer; for example, I do know how to make sushi (but not the authentic kind), and I’m not Japanese! And nope, I don’t bow when I meet new people. But there are hard questions, too. For example, I don’t have a good answer to if I’m Chinese or American.
Because my answer varies depending on where I am at the moment. Normally, when people in the US ask “what are you?” or “where are you from?”, I almost always answer “Chinese” because I assume that they’re talking about my ethnicity instead of my nationality. In North Carolina, for example, I can’t answer a “where are you from” question with simply “North Carolina” because there’s always a “where are you really from” follow up. But here in Morocco, I always answer “North Carolina, in the United States.” Or, I just say, “I’m American”—because I have an American passport. Here, I would feel uneasy saying that I’m Chinese. Morocco is so removed from North Carolina that I identify more with my nationality than my ethnicity. I also feel an urge to “belong” with the other YES Abroad students, so since they all identify as American, I feel like I have to do so as well.
But I’m not just American. Culturally, I am more Chinese: I speak Chinese at home with my parents every day, I eat Chinese food, I celebrate Chinese holidays, and I WeChat my parents in Chinese while I’m here in Rabat. If I were taken from my family and dropped straight into an American family, I wouldn’t automatically feel completely comfortable, either, and I’d have to go through some degree of culture shock even though I wouldn’t even be moving to a different country.
Right now, though, I acknowledge both Chinese and American. I’m still in the process of figuring how to identify myself, though. Just because I just don’t automatically default to identifying as Chinese when people ask me about myself doesn’t mean that I identify as less Chinese here in Morocco. Being Chinese is definitely a large part of my identity; I’ve just somehow unconsciously let it go when I’m describing myself here, and I don’t exactly know why.
November 20th, 2016: what happens and how do I change it?
Here, I never go by a day without thinking about race. People constantly reaffirm my race as I walk down the street.
A few days ago, I bought an avocado juice from Zumba. I was walking home on the sidewalk when I noticed a pack of six or seven men walking toward me. I tried to sidestep them and walk on the road—where there’s cars, and more people, and more lights—but nope, it didn’t work. They made a circle around me, laughing, hissing, yelling “Chinoise! Chinoise!”
I tore away from that human circle and speedwalked back home.
It’s not a one-time thing. Sometimes, I get lucky, and I get “heeey” or “psst,” or “konichiwa” about once or twice during the day. Sometimes, it’s worse, like when someone on the street tries to get my attention by grabbing my thigh, or when I get followed for a block by someone who taps my shoulder and keeps on saying “ni hao” over and over again. Sometimes it’s the sheer volume of harassment at some times of the day, such as that time I walked to the train station along the length of Avenue Mohammed V (a five? ten minute walk?) and counted a grand total of eleven instances of name calling. Sometimes people walk up to me, say “arigato,” and bow. It happens constantly.
My race in Morocco is a more-visible part of myself. It’s something that I am more conscious about. My host family has gotten over the fact that I can’t teach them how to make sushi, but outside of that, I am reduced to being Asian (Chinese? Japanese? nobody seems to know the difference). When people look at me for the first time, they don’t see me for who I really am. I often felt this way in the US, but it was a lot more subtle. Here, it is multiplied by a hundred.
In reality, the racial harassment isn’t difficult to get over and normalize. Every “konichiwa” becomes the same as the last, and I honestly think it’s a cultural problem instead of an individual problem because literally elementary-school kids dare each other to come up to me and say “nihao,” laugh, and run away. Also, it happens a lot with people who know me and like me. At Sidi Moumen, a succession of little kids who I talked to, helped paint, and danced with came up to me one by one and bowed to me in succession. I was on the treadmill one day, and the tall and skinny teacher at Gym Garden tried to ask me to come to her class, but she bowed before she started saying anything. I don’t hate these people because of racial stereotypes of a whole culture as a whole, because they probably haven’t seen an Asian person before and haven’t met someone who’s told them that nobody in China bows at all and that “yokosama” and “arigato” aren’t things that you can really say to any Asian person. So right now, it’s just something annoying that I hear every day that I would prefer to not hear, but it’s just literally one negative of my exchange among all the positives.
But what really frustrates me is that I just can’t do anything to change it. I can explain these cultural stereotypes to people I meet one by one (which changes their view on Asians inshallah), but I have to accept that it’s a large-scale cultural thing and that it’s slightly inevitable in a place that is so homogeneous.
So, yeah, at the moment, I don’t know. I think I just have to listen more and try to challenge these stereotypes one by one. We’ll see!
March 20th, 2017: nope, harassment doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad person…
NSLI-Y Summer Arabic decisions came out a few weeks ago. One girl who got accepted into the summer program messaged me on Facebook and asked me what it’s like to be Asian in Morocco—and more specifically, an Asian woman (btw: Madison, if you’re reading this post, thanks for the question!).
My short answer: it really, really sucks. I get harassed constantly, and I know that when I walk outside I will definitely be spoken to. It’s probably 75% race-based ( “Jackie Chan!” “ching chang chong” “ni hao”) and 25% other stuff (“Facebook?” “hey sexy” “psssst”).
But honestly, to me, harassment isn’t the worst part of being Asian here. When it comes to harassment, I think I’ve normalized it in my head, I always ignore it, and it doesn’t really bother me that much any more. It’s a part of life and it doesn’t stop me from doing what I want. Whatever.
To me, though, what is just so bad, and what annoys me about 100 times more than harassment is that people don’t view me as a real person (outgroup homogenity). I don’t care about harassment because I don’t want to talk to those people anyway, but when people I know and like bring my race into the conversation I really have to take a step back and think about the whole situation: here in Morocco, do people care about who I really am, or do they just care about my race? It’s usually the former, but in many situations I’ve believed that the latter plays a big part too.
Sometimes I’m talking to someone I really like, and they say something racially based but pretty harmless. Like I’ll be talking to a friend and she’ll tell me that she can’t tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans and that to her they’re all the same type of person and that they all eat sushi right? Or I’ll be talking to someone else I like and they’ll bring up my Asian eyes and then use their fingers to make their eyes slanty like they’re copying mine. Or when I tell people I like to go to the hammam and put henna on my hair and then respond saying that “people from your country are blessed with beautiful hair” and then touch my hair. Or when people assume that because I’m Chinese I can’t be American and then doubt my English-speaking abilities or when people ask where I from and I say I’m for the United States and they they say “you’re not really from the United States, are you?” Once I was next to my American friend Kate, talking to someone who assumed that she was American but then said to me “you have a really good American accent, where did you learn English?” Or the constant pointing and staring. This kind of thing happens constantly, and it’s not like harassment because it comes from people I actually like and people I know who don’t have bad intentions. It’s fine, and it’s okay, and I don’t like the person less because of it, but it just serves as a constant reminder that when people see me, they see my race and that they already have a full set of assumptions about me because I’m Asian. I have to prove them wrong before they see me as a real person with real thoughts and I have to put in a lot more effort with everyone and every relationship in order to get rid of those stereotypes.
Harassment sucks, but what sucks even more are the constant comments from people I meet, know, and like. And it really sucks that it’s not their fault so that it’s impossible for me to be mad at them, haha. So… oh well. It’s possibly the only negative thing here for me, and yes, at some times I wish I weren’t Asian here because I would be treated a lot differently, but really I wouldn’t want to change who I am and my best course of action is to break down these stereotypes one by one. That’s what I’ve tried to do through these last seven months.
haha, so there you have it. raw, unfiltered views on being an asian-american girl in morocco. nothing is edited for the internet and i tell you, there are times when i am PISSED at certain comments but also days where i laugh it off and say a mental “fuck you” to the boys who laugh at me in the streets.
again, none of this makes me hate morocco. it’s a negative, definitely, and it’s the most obvious negative out there for me. but there are SO many positives. what’s my least favorite thing about morocco? the harassment, you know—which stems from people. but also, what’s my favorite part of morocco?
i really appreciate all my friends here, how mere strangers have opened up their lives and homes for me, how welcoming people are, and how life here is centered around the person instead of the object. i appreciate it a lot. the main part of morocco that i’ll bring back to the US is the people, and that’s also the part that i’ll miss the most. ❤
harassment still sucks though. lmao