When I am being harassed for being Chinois or the way I look, it is hard to feel grateful for this experience, to want to be where I am. Despite everything that is positive about Reunion Island, it is difficult to embrace a culture that does not always seem to accept differences.
According to my professor, the fact that les Chinois are stereotyped as being rich, cheap, and accused of thievery could be to blame for certain treatment. Auchan, Carrefour, and some of the other major supermarket chains on the island are owned by ethnically-Chinese individuals. They are still Réunionais, still Créoles, but of Chinese descent, and from what I have gathered, less integrated than les Malbars (from southern India), les Malgaches (from Madagascar), and les Yabs (white Creoles). As for the origin of being thieves, when the system of buying on credit came to the island, there was constant mistrust between the customer and Chinese shop owner as to whether the amount to be repaid was higher than it should have been.
Although the reason is not quite clear, the harassment here is unrelenting and likely the product of being more than just Asian. The combination of also having tattoos, perhaps, and longish hair sets me apart from other Chinois – Asian, excluding Indians. In a nutshell, “[I] don’t fit their concept of being Chinese,” Jean-Mick, my contact here on the island, told me.
I want to be clear that being called Chinois is not necessarily upsetting. There are other Creole labels used to simplify and are not meant to be degrading towards ethnic groups. Rather, what is bothersome are those who who treat me as less than which seems, in part, to be connected to being Chinois as well as different.
Creole Ethnic Labels:
- Gros Blanc – A descendant of slave-owning families
- Petit Blanc – A descendant of poor white landowners during times of slavery
- Cafre/Cafrine – Black, a descendant of slaves
- Yab – White Creole
- Malbar/Malbaraise – Indian
- Malgache -From Madagascar
- Z’oreilles – From mainland France
- Chinois – Asian, excluding India
- Mahorais – From Mauritius
When walking on the sidewalk, I get yelled at most days from car windows. Passing motorcyclists and those on suped-up scooters will do double-takes, and Reunionese men and women, young and old, stare unwaveringly. I am not a spectacle! I want to yell. One day when I was running near my apartment, a student lobbed a half-empty can of pop through a bus window that hit me square in the chest. In my experience, when you look different here, you are treated as such, and part of this has to do with how you conform to what is stylé.
Some of what is stylé for men at the moment on Reunion Island:
- Track pants and Nike Air Max kicks
- Leopard and flower print everything
- Anything emblazoned with NYC
- Technical sunglasses
- Blaring, external music players, often mounted to one’s mountain bike handlebars
- Mountain bikes (and being able to do a wheelie)
- Spiky, gelled-up hair and designs shaved into the sides of one’s head
- Really loud, suped-up, 50cc scooters
I really like some of these trends – the retro Nike sneakers, androgynous flower/leopard print, and the fact that there are a fair number of people who commute by bike. However, this list is also a delineation of what is required to be cool and considered manly. Thus, it is hard not to view these aspects of Reunionese culture in a negative light – as one uniform, leopard-printed social box of masculinity to force oneself into. The pervasiveness of what is stylé is also representative of France’s collectivist society and the social pressure of looking and acting like everyone else.
What frustrates me most about being different here, apart from the “Jackie Chans,” “Bruce Lees,” the assumption I do combat, and the subsequent provocations to fight is that I thought it was a part of a past I had moved far away from – the ching–chong-ese and other racial slurs of adolescence when being mean won you the attention of your peers. More often than not, thankfully, the intent has not been malicious. Regardless, I am having a difficult time accepting the name calling and stereotyping as some sort of icebreaker. In the States I have had much fewer problems, if any, but I have always been reminded of my race.
The first person to point out that I was different was a boy from church who made Asian eyes at me when I was six. There were the stupid, recycled Family Guy jokes during high school about being good at math and poked like the buttons of a calculator. At one of the restaurants I worked at this past summer, the cooks called me over to the kitchen within the first week so that I could open their newest special, the Fortune Burger. Infused with traditional Asian flavors, it was a bun with a folded slip of paper inside. My fortune read “Fuck You!” and they all burst out laughing. To this day I still do not get the joke. One of the cooks happened to be the sous chef at the restaurant, which was even more appalling.
When you are young, it is hard to understand why someone would make a racial joke at your expense. You shrug it off because you do not want to be the sensitive one, or the one that makes a big deal out of things that everyone else seems to find funny. As you grow older, you become more aware of the underlying arrogance, the injustice, and better-than hidden within the words.
Even now in my 20’s I am still being reminded in the same narrow-minded ways that I am Asian. I am beginning to accept that the difficulties of being Korean outside Korea are as much a part of my life as is being assumed a terrorist for many practicing Muslims, or as threatening if you are black in the US, or objectified and catcalled if you are a woman. On the other hand, the silver lining of this whole experience is a heightened awareness of my ethnicity that has forced me to reflect on my own identity as an adopted Korean American.
My roommate from freshman year was Chinese, not a fob, but he spoke Mandarin and his parents owned a Chinese restaurant in St. Paul, MN. He was the first Asian friend that I ever had apart from my biologically, older, half-sister, Lauren. I have never eaten Korean food, although I did do Taekwondo for a month. As you can see, my experience of Korean culture as an adopted Asian American is as limited as any other American.
Until this point, I never really cared, honestly. I was content where I was. Adopted at three months old into a white, middle class family, I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis and had great friends who were all white. My roommate told me that I am one of the whitest people he has ever known. Personally, being told you are adopted, that your biological parents reside thousands of miles away renders itself as an abstract story that cannot be fully grasped. Thus, you brush it away and stick to your reality, what is currently in front of you.
Being here has made me care, though – to want to better understand my experience and those of other Asian Americans and adopted Korean Americans. How do they feel about being adopted? Do they feel a strong pull to go back to Korea? What would it feel like to be surrounded by people whose facial characteristics mirror your own? What would it be like to meet the person who birthed you but did not raise you? Do you share a small pen-dot mole on your left eyelid? Do you have any brothers or sisters that you do not know about?
Culture is difficult to define without oversimplifying. There is a fine line where talk of culture starts and stereotyping begins. Not everyone conforms to what is stylé, and given my four-and-a-half-month experience thus far, confined to mainly the west coast (St. Paul, Plateau Caillou, and St. Gilles-les-Bains – Z’oreilles Land), it is possible that I do not have a fully accurate picture of Reunion Island, nor the degree to which ethnic groups and social classes mix.
For all the uncertainties concerning this experience on Reunion Island – the gray area between culture and stereotyping and what it means to be Asian American, there are two things that are certain: for every negative experience here, I have had ten positive ones, and if you are not sure, it is safe to assume that no one wants to be called Jackie Chan over their real name.