Internationality does not excuse racism

A Whole New World

When we finally landed in the San Francisco Airport after thirteen hours of arduous turbulence, my mum asked me if I wanted to go into a Starbucks and grab a frappuccino.

“Nah, you go,” said yours truly in much too loud English. “I’m not white enough mum; an hour in a white airport is unlikely to make me go near a Starbucks …” I stopped talking as five very stunned, and very white, people were staring at me.

Shit. It’s already happening.

Racial stereotyping jokes were the norm at my international high school, because they were the only way we knew to survive. The problematic aspects of such jokes became clear to me only after I’d graduated.

The Asian jabs peaked right before tests and finals, when we studied so hard that our nights became days. Another equally East-Asian student observed to me, “If we studied any harder, our eyes might actually just slit shut altogether.” I laughed, perhaps only because I hadn’t had proper food for over eight hours.

For most Americans, this sort of atmosphere in a high school would be a complete horror, a visage of humanity receding into the dark ages. For many of the international kids I knew — including myself — the racial stereotyping was a part of life. It was caustic, it was barbaric, and it was fun.

An international school, I’ve found, is a breeding ground for the ideology “we’re all racist, and therefore no one is.” Every international school I’ve gone to would have some comment on some nationality that would immediately make me feel at home, albeit ashamedly. Unlike New Zealand schools, where racial slurs directed at me may well have sent me into a bawling mess, everyone is fair game in an international school.

As our last summer break before college slowly faded away, my friends and I kept reminding each other over Skype, “Remember to turn down the racism before you go to a U.S. college. Train yourself up.” I sat in front of my computer for a good ten minutes after the last friend went offline, wondering how long it will be before I run my big mouth in America. Truth is, I’ve been so conditioned into this “it’s okay to be racist” state of mind that simply keeping my mouth shut just won’t do it.

Now, half a semester in at Berkeley, I’ve already started to notice the visibly different patterns in my speech. Holding back comments similar to those in previous paragraphs was painful at first. Have years in an international community really made my friends and I the worst people on earth? Why did we say those things? It wasn’t just high school naïvete — we had really trained ourselves into the mindset that the more stereotyping you did, the better terms you’ll be on with other people.

I guess racial stereotyping made the offspring of internationalism feel safer. Our “internationality” meant that none of us had concrete ideas on who we are and where we belong, so we found catharsis in mocking what we saw as the most distinguishing parts of ourselves. We weren’t hateful towards one another — racial stereotypes were the only way we could identify ourselves. In a world where parents constantly move to different countries, holding onto one stereotype was similar to holding onto a comfort blanket. The more we beefed our differences up, the more secure we felt with our separate identities. The thing was, even in an international school, no one really remembered everyone else’s 15-minute-long life stories. Therefore, we wore our racial stereotypes — the ones that could be recognized — like name tags, afraid of being left behind.

In hindsight, we had probably dealt with our problems in the worst way possible. The main problem with being an international student was to have people put you in a “nationality” box at first glance. Most of the international students I know realized the process of explaining their life story had turned into a 10-minute-long presentation that no one else was particularly interested in. In stereotyping ourselves, we’ve placed ourselves back into boxes people can understand. The fact that we’ve lived in three different countries no longer mattered even to ourselves; instead, I became simply a “bad Asian” due to my inability to understand calculus. That was the title I gave to myself, and that was the title that nearly took away seven years in New Zealand. To this day, I’m ashamed to say that I cannot remember where most of my friends’ hometowns are. It’s really sharply ironic that we degraded what made us international in the first place, that we let ourselves be covered with stereotypes in order to navigate high school.

It’s not healthy, this erasure of our entire lives, taking the easy way out in order to get through high school. I still lie awake in bed sometimes, remembering the strange, twisted comfort zone created by stereotypes, and wondering if it would have been easier any other way.

It may not have been — but we should have fought harder to protect the experiences that were once so precious.

Strangely enough, today no stereotyping directed towards me can truly faze me. I’m just a normal Asian-looking kid with a normal plate of fried rice, studying for a normal math exam. I’m also a New Zealander who married a sheep in Middle Earth. Only the first one translated, however, and I sometimes wonder if people remember me as an “Asian”, or as a Kiwi — or someone completely different.

Jessie Qian writes the Thursday blog on issues of internationalism. You can contact her at [email protected].