One week ago, I returned from my 6 week journey from the East Coast to Italy to Turkey.
And every day feels surreal. Mornings feel like afternoon. Nights feel like early morning.
I got pulled into working at the office again. I say the words that I say. They seem foreign tumbling out of me, after several weeks trapped with language barriers.
I take in the sweet life of living in San Francisco. I am surprised by restaurant service. I am surprised when not everything closes on Sunday. I am surprised that my wireless network here just works.
Everything is familiar. I know it. I returned having a feeling that everyone here could potentially experience what I did. But then I remember that many people here have not even left the vicinity since I left.
Life hasn’t changed for them. I would like to say that life changed for me. But I cannot say anything until my gaze returns to normal, and I can say with much strength, “I have returned, and I am ready to share.”
In the last 6 weeks, I have also discovered that I miss deep conversations. In the land of another culture and language, I couldn’t figure out whether certain subjects were sensitive. e.g. racism in Italy soccer (I bombed when I brought it up) or secularism and God in Turkey (awkward silence followed).
But then as I am getting closer to the United States, the empty subjects, the empty generalizations that are so common from Americans. The this is what I think so it should be this way and awkward jokes that don’t make sense overseas.
“Giapponese?” everyone asks when they see me.
I smile and shake my head. “Americana,” I say. “Parlo inglese.”
American. I speak English.
Everyone was surprised.
Initially, it bothered me. That strange idea that I was not born in an Asian country and spoke English fluently. But after awhile, I understood. I have met someone of Japanese descent who was born in Mexico. Then a friend who is of Chinese descent, born in France with a very French name. It’s surprising to me too.
Yet, it makes me appreciate the challenges that immigrants faced when they enter an unknown country. They came not knowing the langage and took a chance with the offerings of the country.
But there’s always this awkward moment as I walk down the streets in Sicily. I am not sure if I became hyper-conscious. But in the last four days, I am the only minority I spotted among the Italians. I see blondes and brunettes. I did spot one person, perhaps ethnically Indian or Middle Eastern. Then one small girl descending from Africa being led by hand through a small seaside village.
If I was younger. Perhaps in my early twenties, my sensitivity wouldn’t be that high. I was oblivious to racism back then, barely hearing any remarks. And then, I was only a few years moving out of my hometown where everyone else was blonde and blue-eyed. Now, older, having lived and befriended…so many Asian Americans, I cannot fanthom living in a place where my ethnicity is a minority…and the idea of my immigration is even…stranger still.
I can only live in an area where diversity is not only accepted, but expected.
I have always wondered this though: if an Asian American traveled to a country with uneasy American ties, would it be easier for her as a non-stereotypical American?
The other day, in a moment of admiration of the piece on racism in soccer in Italy, I wrote a short quip on Facebook:
I cringe when an oblivious, obnoxious Italian enthusiastically walks up to me and shouts with crossed wrists, “Gangnam style?!”
Sorry, kid, that’s so last year.
Yes, it did happen. Yes, I was offended. But instead I gave him a look and then continued my way.
But then I wonder, what if I did stop him and said, “Hey, that’s not cool.” Would that have made a difference? Would have now known better? Would he ever know?
But in the end, in America, I indulge in being the model minority. And when I travel to other countries, I hesitate because suddenly I am not admired anymore…I am just another minority. It took me awhile to figure this out and the realization has made me hesitate.
But what riles me up isn’t racism. The fact that one may assume something about my race before getting to know me: most of the time, it’s that I don’t speak English.
But what really riles me up is sexism. I always tell the story of the cab ride where I slowly got into a cab while my friends had rushed in forcing the driver to wait for me as I slowly ambled across the street. Then how shortly in the cab, I spent more time on my phone rather than engaging in conversation. Just because of that, the cab driver made a comment about how slow and disconnected females were. I would have rather relished in him critiquing me individually for being out of touch, but to blame it on gender horrified me. And as the cab ride ended, I was stunned, shocked…and didn’t say a single thing.
There’s more of course. There’s the experience of observing burqas in Turkey. The observation that some women did not have a choice. That traveling as a single female in certain parts of the world is unsafe just for the fact of gender.
In college, fear of the unknown was all too natural.
Growing up with speech issues and high sensitivity to criticism led to my hyper-awareness of anything unusual and abnormal. Yet intellectually, I knew that taking risks were the only roads to success.
Yet as I entered my twenties, I felt better in my apartment with a predictive screen in front of me. My words were all uniform in volume with everyone else. My mispronunciation disappeared reflecting on my skill of spelling. I preferred the digital wall of communication. You could find me night after night sitting in front of my computer, typing words into chat windows and blog posts.
Yet I hated that I was missing out on something. Something.
Then one day, I decided that I didn’t like what I was doing. That was the beginning of not sitting still. I decided to stop saying “no” to social events that appeared daunting and threatening. I crossed over anxiety barriers of entering rooms of people I didn’t know. And so it began nearly a decade of saying “yes” to everything. Yes to travel. Yes to three new year’s parties. Yes to five christmas parties. Yes to dinners, lunches, brunches. Yes to late nights.
Which leads me to now. I have forced myself to believe that what everyone loves should be what I love. That, traveling for days on end, is an incredible experience. That the motto carpe diem should really be mine. Yet right now, it’s my 5th week of traveling. I want to sit in my bed at the rented apartment and not move. My feet hate walking. The idea of going to a restaurant and trying to navigate the menu gives me pause (and usually new food excites me).
I just want to sit still. Watch TV and movies. Wrap myself in blankets of burritos. And write. Let myself drift to sleep.
The good thing is that I am not tired of eating ice cream. Especially gelato.
It all started innocently just like all my travels. A confusing path via public transit and misdirection by locals to our hotel, the unrelenting exhaustion from travel, and disappointing tourist food with an incredible view. All part of the game in travel.
Yet in a few days, the city, as the media claims, was engulfed in chaos. Protests. Police brutality. Danger lurking in every corner.
This is not to say that the issues that the Turks are fighting in Istanbul are not substantial. In fact, they are. Growing up in the states, I take for granted the separation of church and state, the freedom of press, the lack of legacy, and a slow bureaucracy that aims to protect.
Yet, as I woke up every morning in Istanbul to the rising heat and calls to prayer from nearby mosques, I am struck by how idyllic Istanbul really is. Staying in Sultanahmet meant that we were surrounded by tourists and tourist services nearly 100% of the time. Mainland Chinese and Korean swarmed through the streets with a leader and a red flag swinging in the front. We were always mistaken for them with smiling “Ni haos” and “Sayorana”.