Being an Asian American in Southeast Asia

Lort Cha

Lort Cha — from the street

I’ve decided to dedicate a place on my blog where I write out my thoughts on living in Southeast Asia as an Asian American. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Davidson in East Asia Program was the chance to “go back” to Asia. If you don’t count the first year of my life, these two months in Cambodia will be the first time I’ll be in a country where I physically resemble the majority of the people around me.

Being a part of a transracial adoptee family makes me question my Asian identity a lot. After a month living in Cambodia, my identity crisis has only gotten more complicated. The majority of Cambodians I’ve met are super friendly and chatty. They love to strike up conversations with expats and most of the times they lead with the question, “Where are you from?” While Asians are perceived as the forever foreigner in the US, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be seen as an American tourist here in Cambodia. This was how my first conversation with a waiter went:

– “So where are you from?”
-“I’m from United States.”
-“Really? … But your face is Asian.”
-“Well I live and grew up in the United States.”
-“You look Asian though.”
– “Yes, I am Chinese but I’m from the United States”
-“Oh so your parents are Chinese.”
-“Um, not really. It’s kind of confusing. My parents are also from the United States, but I’m adopted from China.”

At that point I realized the waiter didn’t understand the word “adopted” in English.

The conversation was harmless, but going through variations of this with nearly every Cambodian I talk to has left me get tired of trying to explain where I’m from I why I look the way I do.

One time, I made the mistake of answering with, “I am Chinese and live in America.” The people who asked me where I was from then tried to start a conversation with me in Mandarin, and I had to backtrack and explain I didn’t actually speak Chinese and had no idea what they were saying.

I’ve also had my first experiences with light-skin Asian bias. Usually when I’m complimented on my skin tone, it’s because people are impressed by my tan. For a Chinese person, I’ve been told I have darker skin. In Cambodia, however, I have received multiple compliments on my light skin color. When talking about my skin tone, a few people have asked if I’m half Cambodian and half white.

While many of these conversations have left me a bit uncomfortable, being an Asian American traveler in Southeast Asia has also be amusing. For one, I’ve found that the majority of white, western tourists tend to assume I am Cambodia. I try my best to speak Khmer when I’m ordering food. So when I start some small talk with the other tourists around me, they seem surprised with how well I speak English. It is definitely a bit of a microaggression on their part, but honestly I enjoy watching the impressed looks they get on their faces when I talk to them in “really good English.”

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