CISABROAD BLOG · August 12, 2020 · 5 Min Read
What does it mean to “Look American” abroad?

Studying abroad was my first time leaving the United States on my own.  When I arrived in China, I effortlessly blended in with the majority culture because I shared the same race and similar features. I had never experienced that before. It was liberating. It was also frustrating. Read on for my story about being told that I didn’t “look American” enough abroad.

Veelie Alba Studying Abroad in China Fall 2004

Veelie in China in 2004 studying abroad.

Not “Looking American” Enough 

Locals mistook me for being Chinese and then my limited Mandarin skills usually led them to ask, “Where are you from?” They did not believe me when I told them I was from the United States. Many people told me that I didn’t “look American.” What does that even look like? Some people insisted that I was adopted or that I lived in another Asian country.

It got tiring after multiple incidents having to defend my nationality and also having to explain the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States.  Sometimes I didn’t want to get into it. Have you ever felt tired of having to explain your race, ethnicity, and where you’re from?  

Trying to “Look American” 

The following semester, I studied abroad in Spain. Almost daily I overheard locals describe me as “la china” or “la chinita.”

Here we go again, I thought.

When I tried to express my frustration about these descriptions to one of my professors, they didn’t think it was a big deal and told me to ignore it whenever it came up. But I couldn’t ignore it. Even though my peers and I were encouraged to dress to blend in with the European locals, I eventually disregarded that advice and started wearing large sunglasses to block my face and torn jeans, flip-flops, and hooded sweatshirts to “look American” as much as possible.  

Veelie in Spain in Spring 2005.

It wasn’t until after I came home from Spain that one of my Latinx friends here explained to me that the word “chino” in Spanish applies broadly to all Asians and is not meant to be derogatory or racist. An “aha” moment. Had I known this small piece of information when I was living in Spain, I might have been more understanding, but it still makes me uncomfortable.

“She is American!”

There were times I started to believe that no matter where I traveled I wouldn’t “look American” enough, because I wasn’t white like how the rest of the world saw Americans. 

My white American peers who witnessed these interactions were confused by them, but they couldn’t relate. Every once in a while one of them would stand up for me and say, “She is American!” and that usually worked, but it didn’t make me feel any better that my identity had to be validated by a white person to be true to someone else. 

Existing at the Intersection of American-ness and Hmong-ness

If I wasn’t explaining my American identity, I had to educate others about my Hmong identity. At that time, there were nearly 200,000 Hmong descendants living in the U.S., but like some of the Chinese and Spanish locals I met, many of my American peers abroad had never heard of the Hmong people. I had never talked about these multifaceted identities so much in my life. I was still exploring these identities myself, all while educating my peers and navigating microaggressions like, “So Hmong people are not rich like other Asians?” “I didn’t know Asians could be Christians.” “You can speak Spanish? That’s so weird!” 

To say that these microaggressions that question whether I “look American” enough only come up when I’m abroad would not be true. It happens here in the U.S. too, where I still have to explain the background of my people and share where I was born, hoping that will be enough for the person listening to see me as American as them.

Although these moments are tough, they’ve challenged me to advocate for myself and educate others even when things are uncomfortable. I think that’s true for many BIPOC people who have similar experiences. You can let it tear you down or you can let it build you up.  

You’re Enough.

I’m a huge believer in the power of study abroad. There may be bumps and barriers along the way, but these growing pains broaden world views and influence positive change within a person and the communities they reach.

Photo of Veelie smiling on the Great Wall of China, having returned there in 2010. From blog post "What does it mean to “Look American” abroad?"

Veelie back in China in 2010 at the Great Wall.

I want all BIPOC students to know that your experiences at home and abroad matter, regardless of whether you meet expectations for “looking American” abroad. Share your experiences with others. There are SO MANY people and resources out there to support your global journey. (To name a few: Diversity Abroad, program providers like us at CIS Abroad, your campus study abroad office, and the multicultural student center). Just do it. Reach out. It’ll be worth it.

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