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An expat or an immigrant? A scholar or a maid?

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So that blog series about London didn’t happen, just like that blog series about Japan and Korea didn’t happen. Oh well, no one is more eager to disappoint me than myself 🙂

In any case, I’ve moved to Hong Kong, and became…how to say this briefly…a Vietnamese who became American, but is now confused because people don’t think she’s Vietnamese, or American.

Here in Hong Kong, people often mistake me for some kind of Chinese (as in, Mandarin-speaking or Canto-speaking), and when I contritely tell them in English that I don’t speak Cantonese, they prooooooooobably think I’m Filipino (Southeast Asian who speaks English => Filipino). This has had me agonize for the last few days, for a few reasons.

As a Vietnamese American who is an immigrant, and who have spent half of my adult life – and most definitely, the most defining years of my  life – in the US, I identify as both Vietnamese and American, though probably more American, due to my firm belief in the rights of free speech, among other things. This means I’ve never felt like a foreigner in America, but I also don’t feel like I completely belong in Ameria. In fact, I’ve never felt like I belong anywhere. I don’t really belong in Vietnam, a feeling that exists since childhood, because my personality contrasts how I’m supposed to act in accordance with social and cultural norms. I don’t really belong in the U.S., because I have a slight accent, and miss out on silly childhood things that can define a culture, such as Sponge Bob o_O (I know…). I don’t really belong in Japan, where I speak the language and understand the culture, but look so obviously foreign. Or, maybe, as a friend once put it, I’m just weird, and that’s just fine with me 🙂 I feel comfortable in those countries, even without feeling certain that I belong.

In Hong Kong though, it’s a whole different identity crisis altogether. It’s the first time I feel truly a foreigner, in ways more than one. I’ve only been conspicuously a foreigner in Japan, but I can navigate the social and physical world of Japan easily, so it never really bothered me. But here in Hong Kong, within the first week, I already got yelled at by a cab driver and glared at by a canteen attendant because they didn’t understand any English. I don’t blame them – if you come to a new country, I always believe that you should make the effort and learn the language. Alas, the current circumstance didn’t allow me to, and here I am, too petrified to even say “mkoi” (“thank you” in Cantonese) properly, and struggling to search my limited memory of Chinese characters I learned from Japanese to make out what items are on the menu.

This is complicated by the fact that I look somewhat Chinese (I’m one of those ambiguous Asians), so when people speak Cantonese to me, I can’t even fault them for not trying (as opposed to, say, me being in Japan and was spoken to in English because I look obviously not Japanese). When I reply to them in English, they might then assume I’m Filipino, because there are a lot of Filipino here, and the ones I’ve seen still speak to Hongkongers in English. No one confirms this to me personally yet, of course, but I have this nagging feeling that when I speak English, my Southeast Asian features become salient, and statistically, to people here, I’d most likely be a Filipino. This has become the main source of paranoia for me, with the knowledge that racism is rampant in Asia, and in this case, classism too, because most Filipinos here work as maids (the paranoia and stereotype threat was so strong, that at one point I had the urge to tell people that I was a researcher. I know -what does that say about me? Am I also racist and classist? Probably -_- )

This paranoia also had me thinking about the distinction between “expats” and “immigrants”. One can argue that expats only stay in the foreign country temporarily, but there are also “non-resident aliens” in the US, which essentially means “temporary immigrants”. As thoughtfully discussed in the (cute, but mostly fluffy) indie movie “Already tomorrow in Hong Kong”, “expats” seem to be the term of choice when it comes to White people in a non-White-majority country, whereas “immigrants” are for minorities in a White-majority country. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like an expat here. I’m not living in the glamorous part of town (the University I work for is in the middle of nowhere), and I’m not White. Heck, I’m even mistaken for being a local, or worse, an “inferior” type of Asian. And never an American, unless I explain. All this has had me question my ethnic, racial, and national identity, which is never a fun mental exercise (and one that probably an increasing number of people has had to endure these days.)

Well, now that I have gotten the angst out of the way, I can move on to talk about other fun things like improv and food in the next posts (they will happen!! they will!). Above is a picture of, you guessed it, food, from my instagram. More to come, and hopefully with more words (aka blog posts). Being a foreigner in a new country can be a little bit emotionally exhausting, so I expect myself to be fully whiny on wordpress for a while 🙂


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