Content warning: racism, racial profiling
This time last year, I was a month into a year-long exchange in the south of France. Having planned this study abroad for close to four years, there were more than a few reasons behind my leaving. Was studying one of them? No. Definitely not. Instead, there was a brewing urgency inside of me to feel independent, to know I could exist as me anywhere in the world. To know I would be fine.
In my youth, I had always said it was my traditional Vietnamese dad that kept me away from the world; I was his youngest daughter who needed protection from a world of spidery intentions that came in the shape of catcalls, thieves and sullied men (who am I kidding, he still says this). I was never allowed to participate in sleepovers, hang out with my friends if any boys were present and take a train by myself. His argument was that I was too young, and simply “because Vietnamese girls don’t do that”. I dreaded hearing that word “because”. I hated it for two reasons: the first was my identity extended outside of being the fragile Vietnamese princess Daddy expected me to be; and the second was Dad just thought too ill of the world and I would discover that nothing is as bad as he thinks.
How naive of me, I know.
Still, I gave myself a goal when I moved to France. I was going to push beyond my limits and travel by myself. I would guide myself around, eat every single type of soft cheese known to society, learn to smush my syllables together like the Southern French do, forget Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor (for the most part) and have fun.
Yet travelling alone as a young, Asian female, as I soon found out became a tiresome tally of “how many times did I get ni hao-ed, xie xie-ed or sayonara-ed today?” It becomes a weak laugh when for the fifth time that day, someone merrily says they mistook you for a Chinese person. It is Googling “What cities are safe for females to travel?” after hearing countless stories throughout my exchange about women being inappropriately grabbed at and thinking: that could happen to me.
I pinned down the first few times to unhappy coincidences. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and had unluckily crossed paths with that one annoying prick. Yet soon enough, I found myself writing listicles dedicated to the various scenarios I felt threatened in, and they all linked back to two key factors: my alarmingly YELLOW SKIN and my BREASTS (DUN, DUN). I asked my other Asian friends if they had similar experiences — no points for guessing the obvious answer (yes; the answer is yes yes yes yes yes). Each had their own horror stories slipped in between impressive travel tales. At one point, I stopped seeing these occurrences as coincidences.
Because being a young Asian female while travelling solo is holding back on wearing a pair of sweatpants with a puffer jacket to the grocery store to avoid racist comments (because you know, I look more Asian in that attire).
Being a young Asian female while travelling solo is getting told you take life too seriously when you yell at a guy in a club for bowing at you with prayer hands.
Being a young Asian female is having strippers at a strip club ask if you and your friend are twins or sisters because the staff have a bet going. The comments made about the shape of our eyes baffled me.
Being a young Asian female is being told by a fellow hostel mate who you decided to go to karaoke with that “you wouldn’t have come out with me if you didn’t want to kiss me” after you’ve repeatedly said no to his advances (“I’ve always liked Asian girls”). It is being forced to pay for his club entry and taxi ride back because you rejected him, and abiding to it all with a smile on your face because you are sleeping in the same hostel room and it is better to be safe than sorry.
I felt incredibly disheartened, and am still learning to not be angry at myself for the days I changed out of my sweatpants to look “less Asian” in the eyes of my catcallers and discriminators. The shame that grew inside of me through these experiences convinced me to hide myself, and it became a constant battle between fear and reasoning.
Dad, I’m sorry. You were right. The world can be as bad as you think. But me, a fragile princess who needs saving? Still a no.
Because being a young Asian female while travelling solo is understanding the nuances of your autonomy. It is learning to dismantle patterns of action and thought that try to subdue your being. It is barring judgement and discrimination by knowing identity is not a plaything for others to pick at when they please. It is an uncharted map you draw, and you alone.
It is knowing that I do exist as me anywhere in the world, even on the days life felt the opposite of fine.
Photographs courtesy of the author.