Looking Foreign

For Memorial Day weekend, my boyfriend Brian and I went up to Maine to hike in Acadia National Park. We stayed in the most wonderful Airbnb – a waterfront property with a private hot tub and firepit. And the park itself was unreal – we kept using the words “expansive” and “surreal” to describe the view at the top of every mountain we climbed. Plus, we picked a good weekend. The breeze was quick enough to keep the sweat off us but calm enough to not ruffle our hair. A few clouds passed over but they always gave way to the sun.

The park was large enough to never feel crowded, but there were definitely crowds. Brian and I interacted with hikers to families to large, 8+ member families. The majority of those groups were either exclusively Chinese or Indian. I’ve definitely been made aware of biases against Asian tourists. “They travel in groups. They walk slowly. They’re always taking pictures and blocking the way.” Every time I hear a “they” statement, I cringe. It’s almost as bad as “you people.”

That being said, I’ve definitely been conditioned by those statements. My first assumption whenever I see a group of 8+ Chinese people or Indian people is that they’re not American. I asked Brian what his first assumption usually is. He responded with the word foreign.

Similar enough. Brian clarified that there are things we observe to confirm these groups are foreign. We listen to what language they speak, obviously, but we also look at what they’re wearing and how they move. If an Indian woman is wearing a sari to Acadia, I will more firmly believe she is not American. With each check, we convince ourselves that our first assumption- foreign – is correct. It’s by no means a perfect system – I mean, we shouldn’t be making assumptions at all. However, we as humans have this desire to figure out the world around us, and it’s natural for us to jump to conclusions.

Even without the checks of language, clothing, and mannerisms, Brian and I both initially inferred the same thing: foreign. Why? We never assume that of any other large group comprised of exclusively one race, especially a large group of white people. Maybe after we go through the same checks of language, clothing, and mannerisms, we’d come to a different conclusion of a non-Asian group’s place of origin, but we still wouldn’t initially think they were foreign.

Of course, what Brian and I assume isn’t representative of the entire American population. Maybe others aren’t so quick to assume and haven’t been conditioned by the same biases. However, as India and China develop, both countries stream more and more tourists into spots like Acadia. The face of tourism has been transforming, and with that quick transformation, we’ve developed quick prejudices. Refer back to the “they” statements I mentioned earlier.

What happens then if we see large Chinese or Indian groups in places known less for their tourism? Is our first assumption still foreign?

Brian is Chinese-American and I am Indian-American. Both of us have had multiple incidents in our lives where people assumed we were foreign. One year, while Brian was still in college, his friend group consisted of mostly East Asian-Americans. They were a large group, and they would all sit at the same table in the dining hall. He remembers a group of white boys sitting at the table adjacent. These white boys would laugh and tell them to leave. Sure, they literally meant the table, but they were essentially voicing that Brian and his group of East Asian-American friends didn’t belong.

His anecdote reminded me of an incident at my cousin’s wedding in Nashville. A portion of my family, maybe 10 members, were sitting around a table in the hotel lounge after serving ourselves the continental breakfast. We were laughing and telling stories, about the wedding and before, but we noticed how a white waitress nervously kept looking at us. She would check in every 2 minutes to ask us if everything was alright. One of the times she checked in, she blurted “you people have a great country.” We all had looks of shock on our faces as she rushed away. I should mention that every single family member at that table was and still is an American citizen, and most of us were born in America.

For some reason, groups of similar looking Asians, whether or not they’re Asian-American, are assumed by many people to be foreign. This creates a dilemma for Asian-Americans in particular. It’s difficult for us to create a space with like-bodied people who validate our heritage while fulfilling the desire to integrate into American society. There should be nothing wrong with socializing with people within your own race. In fact, I feel so much lighter when I can talk about my Indian-American struggles with other Indian-Americans, and Brian said he feels the same way when he talks to other Chinese-Americans. But we as Asian-Americans are conditioned to fight against that desire for validation. When we group together, we are subjected to the label “foreign.”

That’s detrimental on so many levels. First at a personal level, because we’re denying ourselves validation, but also at a societal level. Socially, we’re more powerful in groups. We’re able to mobilize under a common mission. We can shout and make people hear our story.

I can’t even begin to claim that I know the solution to getting past the “foreign” label. Maybe we just have to get past it – maybe we have to completely destroy it. I’m not sure how to do it either. What I do know is that when I allow myself the company of other Indian-Americans, even other Asian-Americans, I breathe easier.

Also, Acadia is a magnificent gem of a national park.

Pallavi Kottamasu

Pallavi Kottamasu

You can contact Pallavi at pkottamasu@gmail.com