I’ve always wanted to write a post on what it’s like to live in Europe — specifically, Switzerland — as an Asian American, but honestly, I don’t think I can. It feels like a shapeless, foggy, complicated topic, and I don’t have the knowledge or the energy to do it justice. What I can do is share little vignettes of this at a micro level, one teeny tiny piece at a time.
So today I’m going to talk about something that frustrates me on a personal level.
This week, I went to a mixer-type event at a former private palace, now a government building. It was really nice. They had drinks and the cutest little hors d’oeuvres. The point of the event was to chat with strangers and practice different languages together.
When I arrived, the registration desk showed me booklets of stickers with the names of different languages on them. “Put your native language over your heart, and the language that you want to practice on the other side,” they told me.
I put English on my heart, and French on the other side.
I could have added Mandarin Chinese, but I didn’t feel like it. I stopped studying Chinese after elementary school. I have no Chinese friends in Geneva, unfortunately, and the only people I get to speak Mandarin with are my parents, via phone once a week. English is my strongest and most comfortable language by far. So that’s what I chose to represent myself.
I walked into the event and grabbed a glass of water from the drinks table. Then I wandered over to the next table, where two people were talking and immediately welcomed me to their conversation. “I do a lot of business in China,” one of them, a man, informed me with great enthusiasm. “I am a consultant for Chinese businesses.”
Okay? I nodded politely, unsure why he was telling me this.
“You don’t speak Chinese?” he asked, pointing to the stickers on my chest that read ENGLISH and FRENCH. “I thought you were Chinese.”
I felt a tinge of annoyance. Why are you asking me all this? I never said anything about China to begin with.
But then I reminded myself that I was not in the US, but rather in a completely different country with different ways of looking at culture, race, and origin. Don’t get bothered over small, meaningless stuff like this. Just let it go.
The conversation fizzled out, so I walked away, in search of new language partners. A man approached me out of nowhere. “Hello,” he said, “are you Chinese?”
“I’m American,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I need a Chinese person. I want to practice Chinese.”
I pointed at a woman by the door with a CHINESE sticker on her chest. “You should talk to her.”
“Okay,” he said, abruptly turned on his heels and left.
After another conversation fizzled out, another man approached me and introduced himself. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“The US,” I said.
He looked surprised. “The United States? I thought you were Asian.”
I responded with a shrug.
“But were you born in the US?” he asked. “Where were you from before the US?”
I had heard this question way too many times in my life, always from strangers. All I said was, “I’m American.”
At this point, I was feeling drained and annoyed. But I didn’t feel like leaving. It was a nice summer night, the snacks were delightful, and the palace itself was just stunning. I don’t go to parties with the intention of making X new friends; most of the time, I don’t even try to initiate conversations with people. I just wanted to chill and hang out.
I started talking to one of the women that I’d spotted with CHINESE on her chest; she was from China. It was the first time I’d spoken Mandarin in ages. The secrecy of our shared language loosened my inhibitions, and I decided to let her in on my complaints. “Ugh, all the white people here who came up to me and asked if I spoke Chinese, even though I didn’t have the sticker! So rude.”
“Why is it rude?” she asked.
I was taken aback. “Well, because they look at my face, and they just make assumptions.”
“But we all make assumptions,” she said. “Everyone does, every day. When I looked at you, I assumed that you would speak Chinese.”
“It’s fine if you do it,” I said. “But it’s not okay when a white person does it.”
In that moment — perhaps because my Mandarin was not as good as it used to be — I couldn’t give her an answer. Why was it okay for a Chinese person to assume that I’m Chinese, but not for a white person to do the same thing? I just knew that it wasn’t okay. But I couldn’t find the words to explain it, to break down my logic for her.
After she excused herself, the first man that I’d met, the guy who does business in China, circled back to me. “Aha!” he said triumphantly. “I overheard you speaking Chinese. I knew you were Chinese!”
That conversation with the Chinese woman in particular left me feeling extremely frustrated — not with her, but with myself for not being able to fully vocalize my beliefs and my reasons. Instead of simmering with annoyance at all the people who’d come up to me with assumptions, why couldn’t I have just used the opportunity to educate them? “Actually, I am Chinese American. My family is originally from China, but now they live in America and have rebuilt their lives there. I consider myself an American first and foremost.”
I think there are two reasons why I don’t speak up. The first is that I have trouble hearing in many social situations. If I’m a party, bar or restaurant with a fair amount of background noise, even if there’s no booming music, I often struggle to make out what people are saying. I equally have trouble speaking loudly enough for people to hear me. This is why I chicken out on 70% of social opportunities, because the thought of being in noisy environments and not being able to hear and be heard causes a lot of anxiety. I literally don’t think I could get through this entire conversation without many yelled attempts of “I’m sorry?” and “say that again?”, which would be exhausting.
The second reason is that I’ve just… never really had to explain myself before. In the US, or at least in Washington, DC, where I lived, I’ve never had to explain the concept of being Asian American. Americans generally understand what it means to be an immigrant or to come from an immigrant family. People of all races and ethnicities, from government officials to news broadcasters to restaurant servers, speak English with American accents. If I meet a brown guy, I’m not going to be like, “ah, bet that guy’s Desi, I’m going to ask him what part of India he’s from.” I’m going to be like, “that guy’s an American. Nothing remarkable about it.”
It is curious that in Europe — one of the most internally mobile and immigrant-friendly regions in the world — that so many people I’ve met have had trouble comprehending the fact that I can have origins from one country but identify with another. It always surprises me that many people feel they are entitled to pry into my personal history, demanding details on where I was born, what part of Asia I am “really” from.
I’ve been racially cat-called in Italy (multiple times); in Spain; and once in Switzerland. Random strangers yell “ni hao” to me on the street as if they think they’re giving me a compliment. At a hotel in Brussels, the receptionist, thinking that I didn’t understand French, complained about “les chinois” to her colleague right in front of me (it wasn’t about me, but about a group of Chinese tourists near me).
If I had gone up to a white guy with an ITALIAN sticker at this event and said, “Do you speak Latvian? No? Well, you don’t look Italian to me at all. I thought you were Latvian for sure. Were you actually born in Italy?” He would have thought I was an idiot. But somehow people think it’s appropriate to speak to me in a similar way.
To be clear, I would say 90% of the people I’ve met in Switzerland so far, from countries all around Europe and the world, are perfectly polite and have never treated me in a way that I found off-putting or offensive.
I think my frustration is, quite simply, not knowing many people here who share my background and experiences. In my almost three years of living here, I’ve only met three people who are similar-ish: two are Asian Canadian, and one is Nepali American. I think this bothers me more than I realize: the complete lack of community. The lack of people to commiserate or just vent with. I wish I could grab dinner with a group of Asian American friends and just gab about food. AAPI representation in the media. Family. Racism at work. Korean dramas. The best grocery stores. Anti-Asian hate crimes in the US. Travelling to Japan. Colorism.
When I tried to find an Asian therapist in French-speaking Switzerland last year, I actually did find a woman who was Asian American, but she declined to see me because I was based in Geneva, not Lausanne. I tried not to take it personally, but that one really hurt. I think I could have really used her help.
Ah, well. You can’t always get what you want in this world.