I studied abroad in the summer of 2017, at the London School of Economics. During my time there, I spent every single weekend in a different country. Belgium. Netherlands. France. Then, after the program, I went to Italy for two weeks with just my mom, which happened to be her very first time in Europe.
During my time in Europe, I began thinking that maybe we were blessed to grow up in a melting pot of a country. I had Indian, Korean, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Egyptian, and all sorts of ethnicities and races in my classrooms. Seeing someone of color was never something I gave much thought to; they were my colleagues, and I respected them as individuals, not as tokens of their races.
Florence, which was the first Italian city we stopped at during our trip, was my rude awakening. While perusing through the aisles of the Florence Leather Market, I was called out to by the vendors with “Ni Hao” and “Konichiwa,” but never “hello.” In one interaction with a street vendor, he asked me where I was from. “The U.S.,” I replied. He shook his head and said “No. Where are you really from?” I didn’t even know how to interpret his question. I looked him in the eye and affirmatively replied “I’m from the U.S. California, to be exact.” With his thick Italian accent, he tried again: “No no no. Not where you live, but where you are from. Where you call home. China?”
To this very day, I think about that interaction frequently. I think about the numerous, nearly countless, number of times I was said “Ni Hao” to, and the weird stares and gawks that I received, all because I was a yellow person in the middle of Italy.
I don’t have a resolution to this story, but I say it to provide food for thought. Understanding how to properly address other cultures without jumping straight to conclusions is difficult. With a language barrier, it’s even harder. But race should not be a form of objectification, and nowhere else in the world have I ever received responses similar to those that I found in Europe. Why is this so? I wonder…