Being an Asian woman in South America

My friend Miyuki Baker  (“a queer, multi-racial/lingual female mixed-media artist”) has been traveling around South America as part of her year on the Watson Fellowship. She made a sketched blog post about what it is like being an Asian woman traveling in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru:

Apart from a few exceptions, no matter what your background is within Asia, you are from China! China, chinita, and nihao are all common greetings, as is pulling the edges of one’s eyes up. In Colombia and Ecuador, I was rare, in Argentina I am exotic… on the streets of Buenos Aires, a man called out that he’d love an Oriental woman. Hmm.

Unsurprisingly, this is very gendered. In my travels in Argentina and Uruguay, all I ever got was the occasional “konnichiwa!” and kowtow. My female companions of all ethnic backgrounds would get several catcalls (piropos) a day, and for the women of color this was often explicitly racialized.

Miyuki’s full post and some more on racism against Asians in Argentina after the jump:

More posts from this blog about racism against Asians in Argentina:

  1. Thanks so much for reblogging this Calvin :):) You’re absolutely right that my experience has been extremely gendered…

  2. Hmm ...

    Okay, I normally don’t comment, but this hits too close to home. I loved Ms. Baker’s essay, what she had to say, and how she presented it :-). Not to give myself away, but I’ve been in Peru just shy of 3 years. Just wanted to add that public reaction upon seeing one of “us” can vary greatly depending on the social milieu you’re in, and marital situation (yes, still very gendered). No adults at my children’s schools have ever made mention of it to me, and the parents that I’ve gotten to know, it’s not a topic of day-to-day conversation. Once in a while at social events I may be asked about my ethnic background, but they make a point of asking, Chinese, Japanese, OR Korean? Those who felt the need to openly address me or verbalize whatever they were feeling at the moment about my Asian-ness have been decidedly of the lower to middle working classes, i.e. the doctor at the driver’s license facility examining my eyesight felt the need to explain to me that ni-hao was hello for Chinese, konichiwa Japanese, etc. Why that was relevant, who knows? The only people who have ever called me “china” are the ladies at the peluqueria and the occasional street vendor, but I understand they are just being (and trying to ingratiate) themselves. My in-laws just call me by my name. Oh, and children of all classes. They have a really hard time with it, not just with my being in their presence but the fact that I speak English, and then have a child with light and curly hair. It truly blows their little minds, you can practically see the gears turning in their heads. I really need to put together a blog post for you, one of these days …

  3. R.R.

    I think it is just a natural human tendency. It’s no different from a white person entering an authentic chinese restaurant in San Gabriel.

    Whether it’s names like Gwai lo in Hong Kong, lao wai in China, or Gaijin in Japan, foreigners get stared at and talked about in those countries. Black people may have a much more difficult time when working or visiting those countries.

    • The difference I feel is that being white in another country means being exalted. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s a big difference when you represent the hegemonic ideal.

      • Hmm again

        I agree. In South America particularly, being Asian compels members of the general public to verbally address you about being Asian. Can’t put my finger on it, but something about having an Asian in their presence seems to require externalized expression, and there is little inhibition about directly approaching one with the intention of stating the obvious. Whereas, walking around as a white person, it would not be typical to hear a stranger saying (loudly), hey, White Person! You’re WHITE! I am now going to impose interaction on you to discuss your Whiteness. I know some White (insert random phrases associated with the country of White)? Or to be otherwise mocked or hassled by complete strangers about being white, or be challenged about their maternal language, birthplace, etc. That said, there are HUGE color/class lines ingrained from colonialism that are instantly recognizable here, so the reluctance to approach a white person may be a function of fear, resentment, or deep-seated cultural boundaries that are now everyday habits. People of African descent may be looked at, but not likely verbally approached. Hell, in a bakery/sandwich shop I’ve seen a well-dressed Afro-Peruvian get outright ignored, until finally he was given very terse service. So I guess all that curiosity that cannot be distributed gets saved up for us! I do agree with that foreigners draw attention in any country, but, at least in Peru, citizens of Asian descent have been Peruvian-born for multiple generations. To be treated as WOW! The FIRST! ASIAN! EVER! gets really old, really fast. Alright, back to lurking.

      • Lots of great thoughts and observations here! Yeah, I think what bothers me the most is the fact that after the 10th time I think “okay, and? can’t you give me something new?” Haha…and as you said the externalized expression is inexplicable.

        Thanks for your thoughts!

      • I wonder if mixed-race Asian Peruvians get this type of treatment, also.

      • I met a few and asked them what their experiences were like and they said that they were always called “La China” or “El Chino” >.<

  4. R.R.

    Maybe they see the despot Fujimori in every Asian they see.

  5. Anonymous

    Anyone with almond shape eyes get the nickname “chino” or “china” in Latin America. Some indigenous Latin Americans have those nicknames too not only those of Asian descent.

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