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jackie chan and me

May 4, 2011

Whoa. It has kind of been a long time, no? I’ve missed you, old blog.

Truth is, I keep starting to write, feeling overwhelmed, and giving up. Maybe the problem is that I always want to give you a real, solid glimpse into my daily life here, but it turns out that’s basically impossible. There’s too much that can’t be put into words, too much that isn’t worth being put into words, and too much for which my words could never do justice.

But here I am, trying anyway.

Example: it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be an Asian-American in the Middle East. My experience is tangibly different from what both white foreigners and Asians experience (who make up the majority of my expat acquaintances). And it’s not like I devote a lot of time to thinking about it, but my race definitely weighs more heavily in my mind here than it usually does at home.

How can it not, in some ways? While other girls get called lettuce and Barbie (don’t ask), I get called Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Or China or Madame Japan). One of my very favorite students once asked me if I could fly. As in, fly from building to building…like in the kung fu movies he sees on TV. And since my arrival here, I’ve been told at different points to: stop calling myself Korean if I only speak English, stop calling myself American because I look Asian, and stop calling myself American because I speak Arabic. I could pause here to go into my further thoughts on ethnic politics in this part of the world and how that influences these sorts of comments…but I won’t because I want to go to bed soon. Anyway, you get the picture.

Some more examples of how things play out for me in this country:

Most immediately–after sharing some conspiracy theories and warning me and a fellow Korean-American (crazy!) classmate that we shouldn’t speak English for a while until we knew we were safe from any post-bin Laden’s death backlash, my Arabic teacher mused, “Actually, you two should be fine, because no one here would ever think you were American.” We both fought grins and murmured something about how this was probably the first time this was playing to our advantage around here.

Also recently. I visited the King Hussein Gardens for the first time last week–some ajaanib friends and I had a little picnic to say happy birthday/goodbye to a member of our crew who headed home that night. We shared an amazing spread of everything from fresh cucumbers to carrot cake as we relaxed under the late afternoon sun. But at one point a group of shebab walked past, and one of them said excitedly, “Hey, look at the Americans and the Japanese girl!!

As soon as he walked away we all looked at each other and just burst out laughing. He had no idea how off he was: in that group, I was the token American. The others were from Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. And not a Japanese among us.

Or what about this. More than one of my girlfriends here has gotten rocks thrown at her at some point by bored little boys on the street, but I was still raging mad when I felt a handful of pebbles hit my back while I stood in the doorway of our neighborhood falafel place, waiting for my roommate to finish her purchase. I ignored the first stinging attack, but when another followed it a few seconds later, I turned around and glared at the culprits: a smirking group of eight-to-ten-year-old boys. “Enough,” I scolded. “Shame on you.

The ringleader paused for a second, clearly caught off guard by my response. “You’re Arab?” he asked, confused.

“What?” Now I was confused.

Apparently that cleared things right up for him. “Say hello to Jackie Chan for me!”

And that was when I cracked–that ridiculous remark drove all the anger right out of me, and I couldn’t hold back my laughter. I watched as he led his little posse up the street before turning back to the restaurant to tell my roommate what had just happened (who couldn’t believe it, of course).

Finally, because it’s so rare for someone to immediately guess my actual background correctly (I am often greeted at stores with the question, “Chinese or Japanese?“), I tend to reward those people who do for going the extra mile in their research, even if it’s just for harassment purposes. The random guy who called hello to me in Korean on the street–he won a smile that he didn’t really deserve but I couldn’t hold back. And the sleazy shop vendor in the balad who yelled “Park Ji-Sung” at me as I walked past? He won a double-take. And then another. And then a long, long laugh as I continued on my way.

[Guess I do a lot of laughing in public, huh. Some would consider that immodest…You can’t win!]

Just for kicks, here’s a fun/relevant picture…Shortly after the “Japanese girl” incident at the park, we went for a little walk and found the area called “The Chinese Garden.” “China, China!” my ever-hilarious friend J called. “Go take a picture with your garden!” So I did.

me and my garden

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 10, 2011 12:53 am

    Asalamu Alaykom,

    Thanks for writing from your unique perspective. In Egypt, there are a lot of visitors—or used to be—from Japan and a lot of intermarriage. There seems to be a level of acceptance with the Japanese but somewhat less with other Asian groups.

    I do have a Filipino-American friend here who is always “Chinese” from anyone who sees her. The Egyptians get very surprised to hear that she could be BOTH Filipino and American.

    That’s really true for a lot of countries whose citizens get stereotyped as cookie cutter images. The Netherlands has really turned into a melting pot with lots of browns and blacks mingled in, but you’ll always see a representation of The Dutch Girl as blond and blue-eyed. The “typical Brit” is ruddy-faced but you know how many with Indian and Pakistani roots call England home.

    Traveling overseas and being different really puts into perspective who we are. I think that’s why we travel. We get defined all the time in our home country but we have gotten used to it. These new people trying to define us makes us question ourselves more. Inshahallah, you’ll decide for yourself which names you want to make stick.

    I love Jackie Chan! My friend prefers to call herself, “Feisty Asian”.

    Come up with your own name to claim your Asian origins. You might as well. It’s a very nice part of who you are.

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