The Ugly American

I hesitate to hit “publish” on this post because my words do not seem sufficient enough to explain how much I believe storytelling and shared experiences make the world a better place. Nevertheless, here we go.


When my siblings and I were little, we had blonde hair. There is nothing particularly unique about this, except in a country where blonde hair is rare, it was so unique that people wanted to touch it. We moved to Hong Kong when I was five, and the hair touching was the beginning of both humorous and hurtful incidents that I experienced as an American – a minority – in an Asian country.

Now, I’m not saying that anything I have experienced is equal to the racism and bigotry that many people in this country experience today. But as a friend recently pointed out, we all have a story about a time when we have been mocked or judged for reasons beyond our control, whether it was for something as simple as the glasses and braces we wore, to something much more important, like skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. The more we share our stories of marginalization and misunderstanding, the more we can come together with shared empathy and a call for change.

As a teenager, I regularly rode mass transit alone, to and from school, to the library and to hang out with friends. By this time, I had lived in Hong Kong long enough to get used to the stares that accompanied my entrance on a bus or train car, but I never got used to the whispers. I knew how to recognize “white foreigner” or “white ghost” in Cantonese, Mandarin and even Japanese, and every time it was whispered when I walked by, I wanted to turn around and shout something back, especially when the phrase became “fat white ghost.” I never had the courage.

I spent a year teaching in Bangkok, and compared to Hong Kong, the stares and whispers and outright hostility were 95% worse. I distinctly remember one very hot and humid day I decided it would be a great idea to walk to the video store to return a rental. When I exercise, my face turns bright red, and combined with the sweat streaming down my face, back and armpits, I’m sure I was quite the sight walking down that crowded Bangkok street alone. “Farang,” I heard. It was a whisper at first, but as I passed the food stalls the whispers grew louder until I could hear it loud and clear as the vendors pointed at me and laughed.karte_bangkok_mkl1888_kl

When I moved to Thailand, one of the first things I learned how to say was, “I am not guava fruit.” You see, “farang” means both white person and guava, and as an adult in an Asian country, I decided I was going to stun the people talking about me by responding in their language. Did it make me feel better? Yes. Did it change anyone’s behavior? No.

One of the most memorable incidents of miscommunication in Asia happened to us when a friend of my parents came to visit and wanted to take a picture of an older Chinese woman selling green beans. She was squatted on the ground, breaking off the ends of the beans when our friend snapped a picture. “Gweilo!” she yelled, and threw beans at us. We had no idea that it was impolite to take a picture of someone on a public street without asking their permission first.

“Gweilo!” “Farang!” “Gaijin!” I’ve been yelled at in foreign languages, chastised for wearing shoes indoors, and for not standing quickly enough for the Royal Anthem in a movie theater in Thailand. None of these experiences make me qualified to say I know what it’s like to live in the margins, fearful for my safety and the safety of those I love. But I know what it’s like to be the “other” and the empathy I learned from those experiences is priceless. I urge everyone to seek experiences where you will be the minority – in color, gender, in sexual identity – because we need common ground now more than ever.

Thanks for reading Day 16 of NaBloPoMo! NaBloPoMo November 2016

Read other NaBloPoMo posts here:

Day 15: I Found a Dollar in the Wash
Day 14: Eggnog Lattes for Lazy People
Day 13: Sunday is for Baking
Day 12: Chaos and Calm
Day 11: Choose Kindness
Day 10: Long Live Snail Mail
Day 9: The Day After
Day 8: The Sun Also Rises
Day 7: Election Day
Day 6: Daddy’s Boys
Day 5: I’ll Just Leave This Here
Day 4: 2016 Book Lovers’ Gift Guide
Day 3: Once Upon a Hong Kong Winter
Day 2: Parenting Hacks
Day 1: Created Equal 




2 thoughts on “The Ugly American

  1. “But I know what it’s like to be the “other” and the empathy I learned from those experiences is priceless. I urge everyone to seek experiences where you will be the minority – in color, gender, in sexual identity – because we need common ground now more than ever.” I agree with this so much!

  2. Pingback: But Mommy, The Guts! | Perspectives from a Hard Boiled Egg

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