Living in Senegal, nothing bugs me more than the word chinois. As I walk across Kédougou City on my way to work, the horror starts when I cross the elementary school’s territory. There would always be large groups of kids running around, playing ‘Spot the Chinois.’ Rather than stopping to greet them, I instinctively speed-walked through the playground, hoping to not get noticed. Unfortunately, their quick eyes singled me out, signaling roars of “Chinois! Chinois! Chinois! Ching Chong! Donne-moi un cadeau!” Even when I’m with my group of friends who are not Asian, they would still single me out as the anomaly. As their small bodies stumbled through the dust to reach me, I cannot help but to stop and angrily, most of the time unsuccessfully, explain that I’m not Chinese.
Even in my homestay, I would often get asked questions from my family about my background. During our weekly movie nights together, everyone would agree to watch Chinese movies dubbed in French as a way to connect with me. The plots of these movies would often be supplemented with exaggerated fighting such as actors flying around, making them, and in effect, me, the center of jokes and insults. Around my neighborhood, I would hear of my neighbors asking my family about the chinois that is living with them, and would come inside the compound just to request me to teach them some Chinese. When I try explaining to them that I’m actually Vietnamese, almost always I would be met with faces of confusion and the question, “So… China?” In some desperate times trying to describe Vietnam, I would pull out my phone and open up Google Maps, crazily pointing to the location of the small nation under China.
As I joke about my experiences of being called Chinese on Facebook, I try to reflect back on being called on a chinois. In the United States, as most people in my community were of Asian descent, I did not face the same problems of being labeled as Chinese but more so of being from the Southeast (darker skin, poorer, lower social class, less civilized, etc.) rather than the mainstream East Asians often splattered across the media as the model minority. Here, though, my experience seems to mirror that of Asian Americans who grew up in less diversity communities, where many people still think of China as the only Asian country there is. Recently, I read an article on the New York Times that exemplify this predicament – incidents where Asian Americans are still seeing and hearing racist insults in work and social places. As these events still occur within the U.S., I can’t justify blaming my community for being ignorant when those back home, more evident with the new presidential administration, continue to be uneducated on minority issues and discriminate those who don’t share the same skin color.
Though I hate hearing that word, being a chinois has greatly defined my time here. As I can’t avoid hearing it every day for the past few months on the narrow streets to work, I began to feel more and more hopeless since a lot of kids still don’t understand the idea of different countries. I want to change the public ignorance on Asian countries, but my short time here would not be enough to as I can barely convince some family members that Vietnam exists. When I am frustrated about these situations, I often try to think of my past struggles with my own identities and read more books about the Vietnamese American community that I continually strive to learn from. With that, with a month left in Kédougou, I can’t wait to be back home and enjoy the Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines that I’ve missed so much over the past few months.