“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” — Chimamanda Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story
It all started with a book I bought hours before leaving for Ecuador, where I would be living for the next nine months. Stashed in the back of my suitcase as an afterthought to my last-minute packing, it went unnoticed until a few days ago. It was still brand new–the pages untouched–even then emitting a reminiscent smell from the bookstore back home. I looked at the cover. “Los Angeles,” it read, over a familiar black and white panorama of the Downtown skyline. I flipped through the book until I unexpectedly found a page about my small, “never-on-the-map” hometown, San Marino. The caption beneath a photo of our city seal grabbed my attention: “Formerly the whitest place on Earth, San Marino is now more than half Asian.”
I began to contemplate what it was like growing up in a predominantly Asian community. One thing was certain–I never felt insecure about who I was. Simply put, I just fit in with everyone around me. Statistically speaking, only 5.1% of Americans identify as Asian (2012 Census). Asians are considered a minority in the United States, but it is so easy to overlook that fact while living as part of the majority in my community. I blended in with those around me. I fit the mold, and thus, always felt accepted as an Asian American living in the bubble of San Marino.
I thought about how different life is here a world away in the province of Chimborazo, Ecuador. Asians are rare, if not exotic, and to many people I have encountered, it means disbelief. I stick out like a sore thumb, and for the first time in my life, it is actually clear that I am part of the minority.
Everyday, my racial identity is questioned. Some people in my small town of Guano tell me I am the first Asian they have ever met in their lives. In a way, I feel like I have been robbed of my identity. From an Ecuadorian perspective, every Asian is “from China.” It is impossible for me to walk out of my house without people asserting “chino” when seeing me. In the short walk from home to school everyday, I hear “chino” shouted to me at least ten times. Even people who know me fail to acknowledge me by name, and I constantly feel as if I am simply being labeled. The main point of conflict is that nobody in my family actually hails from China. I have always taken pride in my Taiwanese heritage, but here, all the Chinese stereotypes come out. Why are these generalizations so prominent here? People ask me if they can offer me chopsticks, when little do they know that I can’t even properly hold them myself as I can’t even hold a pencil correctly. People ask me if I was ever a child laborer as “everything was made in China.” Asia is made up of 56 countries and is the largest continent on Earth; why does everyone here assume I’m Chinese? Why aren’t the Ecuadorian people of my community more sensitive to respecting other people’s cultures and ethnicities?
I teach at a school. One day, when another teacher called me her “chinito,” I told her I was born and raised in the United States my whole life.
“…But your parents are from China.”
“No,” I said, “both of my parents were born in Taiwan before they immigrated to Florida.”
“Ah, Taiwan.” she replied, “But what is Taiwan?”
I suddenly realized that she had no idea what my background actually was and I began to see the nature of this problem. People living in isolated regions of Ecuador do not know much about the rest of the world. Teaching “séptimo” vocabulary about nationalities of the world, I saw firsthand that cultural knowledge outside of Spanish-speaking countries in South America was not emphasized. China is the only Asian country they learn about. As much as we try to live inter-connectedly, we lack cultural awareness. People look at my physical appearance and immediately conclude that I was born and raised in China. How can we change the realms of education to teach people what they really need to learn about the world as it continues to grow? I told my students that there are 171,476 words currently used in English (Oxford English Dictionary), and we need not use “umbrella” words to describe people without truly knowing them and the lives they live. Why is it that words such as “gay,” have become a way to insult how someone dresses or acts instead of his actual sexual orientation? Why is it that “terrorist” has become a way to describe Muslims living in the United States in our post-9/11 world? Why is it that “illegal immigration” has become synonymous with Mexicans at the “border?”
I must admit that I had many misconceptions of Ecuador before I arrived here. Ecuador is far more developed than I pictured it to be. They use the US dollar as their currency. The hotels in Baños, a tourist’s getaway, are escapes to luxury. I find myself ashamed that I once thought of Ecuador as completely “third-world.” I realized that cultural intolerance exists everywhere, and as a victim of it, I also knew I was a perpetrator. I thought about how cultural intolerance not only exists in Ecuador, but back home, within myself, and everywhere else.
I still get called “chino” everyday, albeit less than before, and everyday I try to live as myself to show people in my community and school that even as an Asian, we are ultimately the same people. I am not perfect, nor am I different. No culture exists in black and white, and it is our obligation to banish our prejudice–to eliminate our single stories, to change the way we say things, to listen to each other, and understand who we are as people. We are one, and no matter who we are or what our background is, we all coexist in this world, and we need to work hard to give each other that respect.
It’s simply a matter of human rights.