18 years of 180,000 Vietnamese people in one city. Now, just one here in Ibarra, and it’s me.
When I walk down the streets, there’s two things I know I can be sure to find here: a Claro store and a Chifa. Claro is a cell phone company here like Verizon but on steroids. A Chifa is a Chinese restaurant which is either owned by someone Chinese or Ecuadorian. I was shocked when first coming to Ecuador and discovering that there is in fact a small Asian community that is living here. The small Asian population consists of Japanese, Korean and of course Chinese folks who came during the 19th and 20th century as workers. They now have established their own small communities. These communities are more prevalent in Quito, the capital of Ecuador or major cities like Ibarra, my placement. With the majority of the Asian population in Ecuador being Chinese, you can imagine that when a gringa Asian American girl like me comes, everyone’s first thought is that I am “Chinita,” and their second thought sounds a little like, “Oh you’re from Vietnam, so like in China!”. Is this ignorance? In a way, yes, but I understand not to be quick to point fingers and label everyone here as ignorant because there’s a reason behind this lack of awareness of other Asian ethnic groups – Vietnamese being just one of them.
Just imagine a world where you have never heard of the country Vietnam or even met someone who is Vietnamese. It is impossible to be educated about something you did not know existed and I’m guilty of this too. Did you know that closing the door here in Ecuador would be seen as a very rude and negative action? Ecuadorians have a large emphasis on family and spending time with family, something that reminds me of my own Vietnamese culture. Often when you shut the door, it’s shutting out the invitations from your family members to let’s say invite you to watch a movie downstairs or take a walk at the local park. Back at home, my door was always closed and even the tiniest door cracked open would drive me insane. Global Citizen Year trained us to try to be more culturally aware and we were taught on the first week in Ecuador, that closing the door was extremely rude. Since I learned this, my door is now always open because I want to be respectful of the culture and not offend my family members. Did the people that call me Chinita get a session where someone told them what was considered rude and that other Asian ethnicities existed? Probably not. As much as as I understand the reason behind the lack of education, what you tell yourself does not always transfer over to how you feel.
Knowing the history behind being called “Chinita”, still did not take away the feeling of discomfort that often came with being wrongly labeled as Chinese. When I am called “Chinita,” it is often followed by giggles or intense staring. One day I hopped off the bus with only two more blocks before reaching my house. A group of three or four older men yelled across the street “Hola Chinita!” and I turned around, greeted them back and quickly walked away. Most days it goes just like that but somedays it does not. On a different day walking home, a group of younger boys laughed as I walked by, called me “Chinita” and obnoxiously tried to get my attention. You know that thing where you imagine a whole scene play out in your head? Well in my head, I screamed “I’m from the United States and I’m Vietnamese. Screw you ignorant *poop (let’s keep it PG now) heads” and then I would nicely greet them with the finger. Hey, that is why thoughts stay as thoughts, and I do not act every time I feel angry.
Besides the daily encounters on the streets, a lot of things happened in my apprenticeship at Teodoro Gomez, a public K-12 school here in Ibarra. At Teodoro, I am a co-teacher and I work with a different teacher every day of the week. Each day I work with over 100 students and for the first two weeks I was introducing myself to students every morning since there were so many new classes I worked with. In general, there was a pattern of how introducing myself played out. I walk in the classroom, the kids look at me and immediately I can hear “Chinita” whispers with a energy of confusion and interest. The energy and whispers made me feel strangely uncomfortable though I understand the history of it, but what I do next, I don’t agree with either. “Good morning students. My name is Rose. I’m from California which is in the United States” and immediately the whispers turn into “ooo” and “ahs”. The air is filled with excitement and it is as if I just flickered a light switch on. Now it feels as if I am on a pedestal, and I put myself there simply by saying I was from the United States.
Why didn’t I introduce myself as Vietnamese American? At times I would explain. I would say my parents were born in Vietnam and they immigrated to the United States and I was born one year later but lately, I have not. At times it feels as if it is pointless to mention that I am Vietnamese American, since no one knows where that is and what that means. At times it seems as if I have to justify myself, and my identity, but in all honestly it gets really tiring. When I do not introduce myself as Vietnamese American, am I lying? Am I lying to myself and others on who my full identity is? Am I taking the easy way out by just calling myself an “American”? To those questions I ask myself, I think I already know the answer to.
At times I feel extremely privileged and am sickened that I am put on a high horse by simply winning a game of luck with where I was born, but somehow I simultaneously feel belittled and looked down upon for being Asian, one reason being based off my appearance since it does not match what the media perceives as beautiful with “blue eyes and blonde hair”. What is even worse is that I understand the historical context of why the United States is seen as this “unicorn” perfect country to many; it comes with colonialism, oppression, and I know this. I do not like justifying myself as an “American” and being put on a pedestal because I am no better than anyone just because of where I was born. At the same time, I do not like being wrongfully called “Chinita” and feeling belittled. The fact that I have been justifying myself as an “American” because it is much easier and stops the whispers of “Chinita” and giggles, makes me part of the problem. It is this sick cycle that I am highly against but hypocritically a part of.
It took me hours of reflection in order to recognize that and put it into words. I now know that I will always have to sit with both these uncomfortable feelings of being put on a pedestal and being looked down upon. I also know that I will always be Vietnamese American. If I’m in Ecuador, it doesn’t change that. If I travel back home, it doesn’t change that, but my environment and the people from now on will. In this grand world, it is just the reality that a large population of the world does not know that me and my people exist. Maybe some know about pho (shoutout to the White chef that tried to tell our people how to eat our pho), the Vietnam War or even someone Vietnamese. I find that people are still missing the most important pieces which are the stories, struggles, resilience and truth of Vietnamese people. I’m making a commitment to myself, that when I travel and go out into this world, I will represent my people. Clearly, I’m struggling and being challenged everyday, but I recognize that and am learning to cope with all these feelings.
Now, I feel more at ease because I have identified what has been making me so unhappy. The good news is, I am here in Ecuador for another six months and there is so much I have learned about myself already and much more I want learn in order to strengthen my identity. Oh and if you are wondering, yes I miss Vietnamese food and food I would find in San Jose. I would sell a kidney to get a big bowl of pho and a large jasmine milk tea with lychee jelly right now.
P.S: David, tell mom I miss her food.