In the summer and fall of 2014, I traveled out of the U.S. for the first time (besides a previous brief venture into Canada). I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa for four and a half months, and it was there that I got smacked in the face with not only culture shock but a full-on identity crisis. There aren’t a lot of East Asians in South Africa and even in Cape Town, the cosmopolitan hub of the country bustling with international influence, seeing a person who looked like me was a rare event.
A favorite question to begin conversation with the exotic-looking girl: “Where are you from?”
“The States” was a satisfactory and acceptable answer for my white counterparts, but from me it was met with disbelief. An actual response I got: “But you look like you’re from Asia!”
In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to explain to South Africans that media representation of American demographics is misleading, to say the least. After all, for a country that is overwhelmingly African, the face of South African presented in media is often a white one (this leads my thoughts to the perspective of colonized indigenous people without a country, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day). But in the moment, my discomfort only took shape in nervous laughter and a change of subject.
In a country where talking about race–blatantly and loudly and without embarrassment–is the norm, I could not escape the truth that I was a yellow body raised in a foreign land. I look like people from Asia, but I have never been to Asia. My family traces their ancestry and culture to Vietnam and China, but their Asian American immigrant experience is displaced, many times removed from Vietnamese and Chinese culture today. My family history is in fact one of displacement, of immigration and refugee camps and the constant remaking of culture, family, and worlds.
This long thread of displacement leads me to where I am today: a child of diaspora, a displaced body without a country. For my white friends, there was no question of whether or not they belonged in America. Children of colonization do not have the identity crises of children of diaspora. And for me–my home in the U.S. is always subject to scrutiny, and I am too Westernized and displaced to belong in the homelands of my parents and grandparents.
I feel every part the perpetual foreigner. This is what I call diaspora feels.