Reflections on Afro-Asian Encounters
I count it a blessing to have grown up with 1st generation Asian-American women who are practically like sisters to me. Particularly from Vietnam and Cambodia, my friends were very American and yet very Asian. When I went to their homes, I left my shoes at the door, and we spent many weekends together having noodle soup, fried rice, making and consuming fresh spring rolls, all while having typical teenage talk about who liked whom in high school.
Outside of those personal relationships, I interacted with Asians on an economic exchange level as my mom would send me to Asian owned supermarkets to purchase seafood and greens that Africans and Asians ate in common. In addition to the supermarket, I encountered Asians at their beauty stores where they sold many products for black hair. Although the relationships described above (both personal and in the market place) were positive, they are not a litmus test for how I perceive Asians broadly feel about or relate to African and African Americans.
Whether it’s through the opportunity for booming business in Africa and the Caribbean or through their billion dollar spending power in the United States, the reality is that black people have helped to propel Asian wealth around the world. Yet, apart from individuals who have made conscious efforts to know why the quest for black liberation is still a reality that must be pursued, it appears to me that a majority of Asians in America and abroad need to do the work of engaging with black folks beyond economic exchanges and cultural appropriation. One of the times in history this was manifested was during the beating of Rodney king by Los Angeles police which incited the LA riots. When that incident happened, Asians, revealed some of their deep seated racism and disdain for black people over their vandalized businesses in black neighborhoods but had no inkling that their rioting was a response to the economic and racial injustices they’d been experiencing all their lives.
I got a small glimpse of how this negative perception of black people plays out in Asia when I visited a few countries in Asia in June. In mid June, I toured Southeast Asia with my Filipina friend who served as my cultural broker. Before we left, she gave me this warning: “Be ready for stares. Some will be fascinated because they’ve never seen someone like you before. But others, especially in South Korea, will stare feeling sorry for you because your skin is dark. They will think they are better than you.” I appreciated my friend’s warning as it made me hyper aware of my surroundings. In the Philippines, I felt anti-blackness the most when I went to a mall looking for a bathing suit, and security guards followed me in every store. In Singapore, I felt it when a family got on the train and one woman, after glancing at me, told her entire family about me and then they all proceeded to stare and point at me like a spectacle. I felt it in a different way in Thailand when my tour guide, on our way to the elephant camp, told the tourists that Asian elephants had bigger brains and were therefore smarter than African elephants. I felt it in Laos, when the local people who were already dark skinned, covered up their skin, making me a reminder of what they didn’t want to look like. I felt it in South Korea just as my friend had said as the stares were more subtle, but still obvious. I didn’t feel it as much in Tokyo (which doesn’t mean it’s non-existent) because there were more black people living and working there. Nevertheless, my friend assured me that outside of Tokyo, a black person could be isolated.
Racism is commonly defined as prejudice plus power used to shut people of a different race out of opportunities. This is true, but that overt action comes after being inundated with negative images and messages about that particular group. While my blue passport allowed me to move about freely in Asia, my black skin made me suspicious because Asians have adopted the narrative that there is something in us that makes us inherently inferior. If you are of Asian decent and have done the hard work of understanding why fighting for black people’s rights is important (Asians for Black Lives — https://a4bl.wordpress.com), I hope you continue to raise awareness to your people that we have every right to be on this planet and move about as we please. While you do that, I’ll keep exploring the earth, inviting whomever is willing to engage in dialogue with me and know me. And whomever isn’t… will need to step aside as I twirl around the earth making global footprints while being unapologetically black.
Bai Ordhid and Butterfly Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea
Cebu City, Philippians.