I was on a business trip to Switzerland and France last week. The first part of my trip was to a small town in Switzerland called Schaffhausen, a town of 36,000. From the main train station it is a 40-minute ride north, near the German border. My host asked me what I thought Switzerland was most famous for, I replied "watches, chocolate and Heidi." And those three things are exactly what you will find in Schaffhausen. It's such a small town that everyone has laid eyes on each other at least once. The reason I was there was to work on a limited edition set of art books with another artist. Up until the second day, it was business as usual for me.
But then it changed. During one of our breaks we were walking through the town square when he turned to me and said, "They all must be saying what is he doing walking with that Chinese lady?" My host was suffering culture shock by walking next to me; I disoriented him by just being there. I looked at him and thought "is it odd to be walking with someone non-white for you?"
At that point I wasn't aware that I stood out.
I looked around and noticed, yes, I am one of the few non-white people walking around. Did I feel different from anyone there? Well, if I didn't before, I did now. I became so aware that I was not a part of the fabric of the area, that I started to emit the vibe of a "only visiting, going to go, not putting down roots" aura. It was only a perception that I had; the people there were quite nice.
After leaving Schauffhausen, I felt relieved. The town is quite beautiful and as nice as the Swiss were to me, I had planted this seed in my brain that I didn't belong there.
I love Paris, exploring the streets, each step revealing a new visual delight. There, I am just another tourist eating too much cheese and taking photos of door knobs and pastries.
As I walked along the Rue de Rivoli on Saturday I was at ease, until the moment I stepped into a loud group of tourists disgorging from a tour bus. All of a sudden I was surrounded by mainland Chinese tourists. Mainland Chinese tourists are a breed amongst themselves: they are the rising middle class that can afford overseas trips; they are the new Communist Bourgeoisie. I became my Schauffhausen host by thinking "What is she doing with those Chinese people?"
I walked as fast as I could to separate myself from the group as I did not want to be lumped in with them. Does that sound horrible? Maybe, but I wanted people looking in not to define who I was by their behavior. In my head I was saying, "I am not one of them."
In Schauffhausen, I was singled as the "Chinese Lady" and in Paris, I could not run fast enough from my own people. What kind of person am I when I can't get far enough away from my own ancestral tribe?
Now that I am back in Los Angeles, I am back in my own comfort zone; I am just me. I don't stand out, I don't blend in; I just exist.
And I don't run away from who I am.
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog
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