Asian American in Central America

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I had wondered what it was going to be like, not only being Asian, but Asian American, during our travels. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but so far, it has been a mix of moments that have either been humorous, cultural, and educational, with only a few incidents based on the ignorance or curiosity that stems from lack of exposure to people like us.

In general, if we don’t happen to be having a conversation, most locals tend to assume we are from mainland China (or Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai, usually in that order), and therefore we are greeted in some fashion in any one, or a mix of, these languages. If we are overheard speaking English, I’m sure it is assumed that we are from the United States (aided by our Western looking travel duds). This usually elicits the following reactions: 1) nonchalance, in areas where Western tourists are fairly common, 2) solicitations to purchase something, 3) unabashed open stares or 4) calls of “Chino!” (pronounced “chee-no”) or “China/chinita!” (pronounced “chee-na” or “chin-ee-ta”), meaning something close to “Chinese guy/girl”.

In Nicaragua, we were told by our friend, Mark, whom we stayed with, as well as later by several of our teachers that “chino” and “china” are not meant to be offensive terms-that culturally they are simply descriptive words, used the same as “skinny guy” or “tall girl”. One of our grammar teachers even went as far as to say that these terms are actually terms of endearment and affection, which initially I was a little (really, a lot) skeptical about.

We often overheard mainly children, but also plenty of adults calling out “China” or “Chino” as we passed or over their shoulders, in what wasn’t always necessarily in a friendly, nor “affectionate” way. However, my skepticism decreased somewhat over time. For instance, we were on a night tour of some caves with a large group from the Spanish school, during which the tour guide had taken some pictures with my camera. After which, I had found myself at the back of the group when she called out, “Where is the Chinese girl?”

This drew some awkward looks from many of the socially conscious, politically correct fellow Americans, but to me it was a kind of proof that my ethnicity (aside from the fact I am not Chinese) is simply a visible fact, at least it is here. That Asian is asian (or simply “Chinese”) to most people in Latin America-that it’s not meant to be derogatory, the way it would likely be taken in the United States, where by now, it is assumed that people are aware that there are different ethnicities and cultures within the broad classification of Asian Americans.

The equivalent of this would be how people might say “Mexican” in regards to anyone who appears to have ethnic roots in Latin America, regardless of whether they are Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Panamanian, Chilean, Argentinean, etc. Another example that comes to mind is one of the staff members at our school, a local Nicaraguan whom Jeff befriended. As a daily greeting he would shake Jeff’s hand and say, “Tranquilo, chino!” (the rough translation being, “It’s cool, Chinese dude”), with the same amount of respect and affection of a typical friendly greeting. Our teacher even told us that everyone in the town refers to his 4-year old as “chino” because “his eyes are on the small”, so to speak. The local gas station attendant is greeted as “Chino” (although he is clearly not), simply for the same reason, as well as the fact that no one knows his name. We also spent part of a lesson learning popular jokes in Spanish, where the punchline is a Spanish phrase made up of a combination of “asian” sounding phonemes. This may be totally politically incorrect, but given the circumstances, I just had to laugh.

For me so far the lowlights have occurred during times where we have been walking through markets or towns and locals, most likely as I mentioned before out of ignorance or mere lack of exposure, have started spewing what can only be described as “asian word salad”. They start shouting out any and every word related to anything that might be considered “asian”. For example, on my way through some stalls at the market in Managua, I was followed in one instance with shouts of, “Ni hau…..Konichiwa?…..Chow mein?……Ho Chi Minh!!”, none of which I bothered to acknowledge. While heading out of a tiny town in Honduras, in the back of a pickup, Jeff and I were treated to a some martial arts moves, complete with sound effects including “ching-chong, ching-chong” and a hand-on-crotch pelvic thrust in our direction by a couple of young boys. Jeff, at this point, was ready to sling something back, but refrained. As I said, lowlights.

Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that what really matters, at least here and for now, is the spirit in which things are done and words are used. It is different from what I am used to and how we are groomed to think, and the way we perceive similar behavior at home, but I am learning to accept, and in some instances embrace, these cultural differences for what they are-differences and cultural realities.

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