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The Guessing Game: Racial Identity Abroad

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Just the other day, as I was walking down a main street in the center of Kandy, a shop keeper called out to me, “Hey Japanese!” When I was walking back to my host family’s home that same day, a security guard at an intersection near the home came up to me and asked if I was Korean. And there have been countless times when people call me out as Chinese. My ethnic identity is ambiguous enough that it becomes a game for most folks to see if they can pinpoint who I really am.
It is not enough for me to say that I am from America because to be American is to be white. A further explanation of my background, of my parent’s background, and how I am able to call myself American accompanies the statement, “I am from America.” At times, it can be annoying to elaborate and to justify where I am from. At other times, it just feels routine. Even in the U.S. people incorrectly assume where my ethnic identity lies and I must explain to them that I am multiethnic. So, is the guessing game any different in Sri Lanka than it is in the U.S.?
For me there is no difference, but there is a difference in how people play the game. In Sri Lanka, people will immediately shout out their guess(es) whether I am walking past a store in the market or whether I meet someone new. I don’t take any offense to their vocal guesses because I know that they are just curious about where I come from. In America, the game usually plays out by me mentioning something about my background and the other person exuberating surprise that I am multiethnic. That person would continue by telling me their guess of my ethnic identity. This just makes me question why I have to explain where I come from while others escape the burden.

Broader Questions

We’ve been discussing the topic of displacement a lot during our lectures because post-Civil War Sri Lanka is still dealing with internally displaced Tamils and Muslims who were evicted from their homes during the war. These two groups were relocated into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and there are some who are still living in the IDP camps today. One of our lecturers, Ms. Esther Surenthiraraj, talked about displacement as an ongoing and an embodied experience rather than just a terminable event. I began to think about embodied displacement in the American context. As an Asian-American, I am continually racialized as foreign in my country, which is evidenced by my hyphenated label. Yet, I cannot call Asia my home, which I have come to realize during the past years when I have traveled to different parts of Asia. In Asia, I am also seen as a foreigner.
With the current racist and xenophobic rhetoric put forth by the national government in the U.S. and with the more recent talk of the elimination of the diversity visa lottery, where is home for those of us labeled with the hyphenated identity? How about for those of us who are second generation and beyond and the so-called “return to the home country” is not viable for us since that is not home? What kind of America are we working towards if we allow the terrorization of ethnic communities and the deportation of immigrants when America was literally built by the (enslaved) labor of people of color?
This semester in Sri Lanka has made me think more about my identity and I know more questions will come up as the semester progresses to an end.
David Chan was a film and media studies major at Swarthmore College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education Program (ISLE) in Kandy, Sri Lanka in fall 2017.