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Where Are You From? Understanding Microaggressions Abroad

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“Oyaage rata mokakda?” (What is your country / where are you from?)
“Aemerikaawa,” we respond.
“Ah…” Several moments pass and the kind stranger smiles at me. “Oyaage rata mokakda?”
“Aemerikaawa,” I reiterate, “Namut mage pawula Japanwala.” (But my family is from Japan.)

A conversation here often starts in this manner and continues with, “Ah, what a beautiful country,” or “Japanese! I thought you were Chinese,” or “Oh, so not American – you are Japanese!” As the only (visibly) non-white student in the group, it is understandable why people might wonder what a 5′2″ Asian woman could possibly be doing with a bunch of white people.

In America, I identify as and am seen by others as an Asian American. Because of this often hyphenated (Asian-American) identity in addition to the model minority myth(which, in a nutshell is the belief that all Asians are smart and wealthy and therefore successful… and it’s not true), I tend to be grouped as not quite white, but only questionably a person of color. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been told, “You’re Asian so you’re basically white,” or “Are you even a person of color?” The sixth grade me who just wanted to fit in with her peers at a predominantly white school would be ecstatic to hear that she is “basically” just like everyone else, though ten years later, this is no longer the case. Despite perpetually and thus exhaustingly feeling a sense of being “in between,” my identity as an American citizen is rarely doubted (except maybe by Donald Trump et al.) because of the diverse nature of our country – especially in a place like New York City, my hometown. I also acknowledge this feeling of comfort to be a privilege that to an extent stems from the model minority myth, though of course, there is the occasional: “Where are you from?” “America.” “No, where are you really from?”

The sentiment of “in between-ness” continues here in Sri Lanka, though unlike in America, I feel as though my identity as Asian American is questioned quite frequently. The conception of being an American seems to include only white people, or being sudu paaTay, meaning “white color”. This is a result of issues also seen as problematic back in the US, such as the lack of representation of non-white actors and actresses in Hollywood, news and media sources failing to report globally on issues that affect communities of color, or even American Girl Doll catalogues that have endless amounts of white, blonde dolls, and only several non-white dolls. For these reasons and an infinite more, it makes sense why the American identity is not seen as multi-faceted and diverse. In short, I am not the typical “American”.
Here, I am also included when the group is referred to as sudu paaTay, usually out of ease, but I am also singled out as not sudu paaTay, as in the aforementioned conversation. Most of the time, when people ask about where I am from, it is out of curiosity and a place of good intentions, and most accept my identity as both Japanese and American. However, I struggle most with things like people yelling “Ni hao!” in passing, or hearing that all Asians, including me, have small eyes, or being passive aggressively addressed in a store and seeing the vendor’s facial expression change after finding out I’m “with the Americans”. Again, most of the time, these comments are not meant to offend me, but I would be lying if I said they don’t chip away a small part of me every time.

Despite these occasionally isolating, yet interesting experiences, I’d like to emphasize how incredible this past month and a half has been so far – as Olivia previously stated, our lives have been emanating with “endless wonder”. I find myself in awe at the compassion of others everyday, and appreciate the power of cross-cultural education because of its ability to unite people, while also instill personal growth and moments of self-discovery. I would also like to say that I am not insinuating that my reflections represent those of all Asian Americans, or people of color for that matter, and my goal is not to deter students of color from studying abroad. Though, I would be curious to hear from peers, other students studying abroad, and past ISLE students who may have had similar experiences. I am not claiming that I get more microaggressions here than I do in America, or that my sense of identity has crumbled altogether – I believe that I’ve gained much more personal insight into my own identity amongst moments of identity crises through conversations I’ve had with people, and I would not give up any second of it.

Mitsuki Nishimoto is majoring in Asian Studies at Bowdoin College, and participated in the ISLE Program through IFSA in the fall of 2015