Flipping through my family’s photo albums, I encounter the usual snapshots: family portraits, birthday parties, playground trips. Some photos are a little more unusual. The landscape shifts; the tropical city I call home is replaced by an arid desert. My mom, fanny pack and all, is holding a bouncing, chubby baby (me) while my brother cheeses away in the corner. I imagine my dad peering through coke-bottle glasses and a cheap automatic point-and-shoot. We are in the Australian Outback. My mom always tells us the story about the bus ride there: an Aboriginal man, who had never seen an Asian baby before, was so fascinated that he asked to carry me. I try to picture the scene: dirt road, baggy ‘90s jeans, a face smiling down at me.
There are other pictures: London, Cairo, Perth. My parents were explorers. They were also Asian tourists. Another favorite story: walking around the bazaar in Cairo, surrounded by calls of “Konichiwa,” they eventually bought a souvenir. Later, they discovered that it was incredibly overpriced—bargaining never really ran in the family. For the rest of the evening they brooded in the hotel room, defeated. Another tourist trap.
The Asian Tourist is common trope today, as it has been for years. The phenomenon arose from the post-war economic boom in East Asia, particularly in Japan. Flush with cash and curiosity, the new middle class Chinese criss-crossed the globe. Today, most Asian tourists hail from China: in 2014, more than 100 million Chinese tourists travelled abroad. Inevitably, they have become representatives or scapegoats for their countries. Earlier this year, Turkish anger over China’s policies led a group of ultra-nationalists to attack a group of Korean tourists vacationing in Istanbul. They had mistaken them for Chinese.
It is a couple of weeks after the attack. I am wandering the grounds of Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, half an hour before opening time. All is quiet, save for a family of lost tourists.
The mom, trailed by her three kids, approaches me.
“你是中国人吗?” Are you Chinese?
I reply in fumbling Mandarin: “我是新加坡人, 但我能讲华语。” I am Singaporean, but I can speak Chinese.
“中文。我听得到。” I can tell.
She corrects me—she says zhong wen (中文), as in zhong guo (China). Only Malaysians and Singaporeans say hua wen (华文). My Singaporean accent would’ve given me away anyway. From then on she calls me 新加坡小弟—Singaporean little brother.
“Singaporean little brother! Are you traveling alone? You know, it’s not safe.”
All the while, she looks around nervously, as if expecting someone to jump out at her.
“I have been traveling alone, and I’m fine.”
“Really? Well, you should be careful. Is this place closed?”
She wanders over to the walls of the mosque, peering through the latticework. She cups her hands around her eyes, straining to snatch a glimpse of the interior.
Eventually, I manage to get into the mosque. I say a few words in Turkish (thanks to Google Translate) and the groundskeeper lets me in. On my way out, he smiles and says something. I can only decipher two words: “beautiful” and “good.” I smile back.
As I leave, I spot the mom vigorously washing her feet at taps installed beside the mosque. She calls to me: “Singaporean little brother! Wash your feet before entering the mosque, it’s the custom here!” Her kids dutifully scrub their soles.
At the bazaar, a shop owner proudly hands me a business card written in Chinese.
“I’ve been learning Chinese for years!”
Last year for Halloween, someone at Yale dressed up as an Asian tourist. A picture of the costume was posted on Facebook, and everyone liked it. Cheap plastic camera, high-waisted shorts, dorky sunglasses. It’s supposed to be funny because you see them every day on campus. They spill onto the sidewalks, cluster around ivy-covered walls, rub the piss-stained shoe for good luck. They jabber and point and take pictures.
Sometimes they approach me to ask for directions, and I am filled with a nervous apprehension. Will they speak to me in Chinese? Do I look like a tourist? Am I “one of them?” I feel watched even though no one’s looking.
I should’ve known that even if I’d spoken, my accent would’ve given me away.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, on the platform in the train station, an old man approaches me. In creaky English he asks if this is the train to Greece. I say it is, and ask what brings him here. He’s retired from his job in Shanghai and has been traveling for several months now.
“The life of drinking and gambling isn’t for me,” he says, “that’s what all my friends do.”
For a moment I feel a rush of emotion for this solitary old man. He looks every bit like the elderly Chinese gentleman that he is: shorts belted up high, moony glasses, a small trolley with his things. He seems more suited for playing checkers or doing Tai Chi in the park than traveling across Europe. Instead, it’s as if he’s been plucked from some street in Shanghai and unceremoniously plopped onto this alien landscape. He’s heading to Athens—he has seen most of Europe now and is heading south. Maybe he will go home after that. He wants to see everything before going home.
On the train, a group of teenagers bursts into my cabin. It is all shouts and bluster for a while, but slowly my friend and I resign ourselves to the fact that for the next six hours, we will be sharing the cabin with them. One of them leans over and shows me the side of his forehead: a tattoo of an AK-47. We’re gangsters, Albanian gangsters, he says, and I know that he is mostly joking. They are transporting puppies in a just-big-enough cage—“500 euros each in Athens”—but other than that I don’t get much out of them. They’re big burly guys, about a year younger than I am. They blast music and make it impossible to sleep.
The one sitting across shows me a picture of a girl. My girlfriend, he says, but her dad doesn’t like me. Because I am black. This man is tan and from Georgia (the country). His expression darkens; he’s said too much.
Another one of them reaches out and scoops my friend into a selfie. I’m tricking people, he says, I’m telling them I’m in China. I know you’re not from China, but—he touches the tips of his fingers to his eyes, pulls slightly—close enough, right?
They are kind to the puppies; they sleep all through the journey to Athens.
At the station, one of them spells his name out for me.
“Add me on Facebook. You’re a good man!”
I know about the trope of the Asian tourist. The nouveau riche gawky awkward loud rude dirty uncouth strange clannish clumsy funny too-much too-many Asian tourist. I know the stories. The boy who carved on some priceless artifact. That grandmother who let her kid shit by the tree.
But at some point, I can’t help but go back to that one mental image from Istanbul: The mom, decked out in a loud flower print dress and an old-fashioned hat, peeking through the latticework. She wants to know what’s out there. She’s curious. She wants to learn, like any traveler. She just so happens to be Asian.
The next time one at Yale ask me for directions, I will smile.