My People

Asian women
Street art, Busan, South Korea. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I think a lot about my identity as an Asian, though usually only when circumstances force me. Chinatown attacks on elderly Asian-Americans. Asian women shot for being too sexy. Even life in the Low Lands sometimes reminds me I am an Other. How would these experiences compare when traveling while Asian through Asia?

Old School

When I was a kid, my mother took the family to visit her father in Taipei. It was my first time on an airplane, first time going abroad, never before surrounded by my own people. Except I didn’t see these chattering Chinese as my kind even though I was related to a lot of them. At age 10, I saw myself as Mexican like all my friends, schoolmates and neighbors.

By age 20, my inner mirror better approximated my outward appearance but there were still some tweaks to be made. I was unprepared for the hostility my fellow Asian diners vented on me and my white TA when we ate in LA’s Chinatown. Even at age 50, I was surprised by the comments I heard in Shanghai about me and my white husband, especially from the streetwalkers he turned down.

Asian child
Asian child at Cong, Hoi An, Vietnam. Photo credit: Karen Kao

It reminds me of a children’s book I recently saw. The main character is a little Asian girl trying to find the beauty in her own face, so strange from those around her. The unfortunate message in that book seems to be to look for beauty by staying among your own kind.

An Asian quandary

Despite the fact that I’ve lived abroad for more than 30 years, I still think of myself as American. This label concerns me as we head into former American war zones in 2019. So I use my Dutch passport to cross borders, obtain visas and register with the authorities.

I soon discover that no one cares any more about the American War. Besides, who am I kidding? American is not the first descriptor that comes to mind when you look at my face.

Identifying myself as Chinese, however, creates surprising complications. In Southeast Asia, the Chinese are the new ugly Americans. In Hoi An, they arrive in their big tourist buses and scare the rest of us away. They’re flush with cash, which makes the local merchants love to hate them.

Asian mother
A mother joins the resistance by Tran Thi Hong (1979), Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The locals in Cambodia rail against Hun Sen auctioning off their natural resources to the Chinese. The Vietnamese may have put aside the war with America but their memory of Chinese invasions is very much alive.

So when an innkeeper in Gyeongju, South Korea asks me where I’m from, I say Holland. He crinkles his eyebrows and sucks his teeth. He’s too polite to call me a liar but I can see it in his eyes.

You all look the same to me

Dad used to tell a joke at work. His was the only Asian face in a sea of white co-workers. He liked to tell his colleagues, you all look the same to me.

Everywhere I went in Southeast and East Asia, the locals thought I was one of them. They persisted in this belief despite the fact I could not speak their language and I was traveling with a big lug of a Dutchman.

So that’s now three people here who said they thought I was Vietnamese. The woman who runs [the beach cafe] Ladies May, the guy who owns the restaurant in the alley (who creeped me out by saying he and his niece were checking me out during dinner), and the woman who owns the convenience store on the corner. This does not include the countless men and women who speak to me in Vietnamese like that old fart on the bridge laughing at me on my bike as he sped past on his scooter.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 2 Oct 2019
Asian rabbit
Rabbit samurai, Kanazawa, Japan. Photo credit: Karen Kao

That same spark of recognition flares in Cambodia, South Korea and Japan. Elderly Japanese ladies feel free to undress me in public so that they can fold my yukata properly. Asian women touch me on my face, my hair, my hands. They seem to say, you are one of us.

When I was researching last week’s blog post on the Cham, I ran into an article on their genetics. It seems that all that warfaring and piracy and peaceful trade among the ancient Asian kingdoms has led to a common genetic profile that can be found throughout Asia. On a DNA level, I may in fact be one of them.

Becoming Chinese

But not according to the current Beijing regime. They see me as Han and therefore truly Chinese. The Asian, Turkic and other ethnic minorities are not. Beijing wants to absorb them into the Han melting pot.

Ethnic minorities like the Mongols, Tibetans, and Uyghurs no longer have special exceptions to family planning laws. The extra points they once received on the national university entrance exam (高考) are being reduced and will soon be eliminated entirely. Judicial leniency has now been replaced with heavy-handed incarceration and reeducation in the name of stability maintenance. And any cultural or religious rights—beyond the tokenistic and voyeuristic—are being slowly hollowed out and replaced with a heavy dose of ‘patriotic education’, ‘inter-ethnic mingling’, and lessons in ‘becoming Chinese’.

Gerald Roche and James Liebold, “China’s Second-generation Ethnic Policies Are Already Here” in Made in China Journal, 7 Sept 2020 [accessed on 22 May 2021]

To become Chinese, the Uyghur must endure indoctrination, internment and surveillance. Their women must tolerate involuntary IUDs and sterilization. This is genocide in slow motion.

Across much of China, the authorities are encouraging women to have more children, as they try to stave off a demographic crisis from a declining birthrate. […] But in the Xinjiang region, China is forcing them to have fewer, tightening its grip on Muslim ethnic minorities and trying to orchestrate a demographic shift that will diminish their population over generations.

Any Qin, “Pregnancies suppressed for Muslims in Xinjiang” in The International New York Times, 12 May 2021

There were many reasons for me not to visit China on this trip and this is one of them. To me and the women I met on the road, the Uyghurs are Asian just like us. I like to think they would be as welcomed as I was. But not in China, I fear, any time soon.