So, where are you from?

Alberto Servín


March 9, 2011

“So, are you from China?” That’s a question I get a lot here. Many Ecuadorians who see me assume I’m “Chino” (Chinese), since the majority of Asians in Ecuador are from China. It’s something I’ve gotten used to and just laugh off now. I can’t blame them for their naiveté though; there aren’t many Asians in this country. I’ve learned that most people around the world don’t have a full picture of the diversity in the U.S. So there’s no way they would know if I’m from there. I have some interesting experiences with this confusion that I’d like to share.

One day in Otavalo, I ran an errand to buy candies for my clinic because we were running low on them – these are sold to patients waiting for their medical consultation. So I went to a store to buy the candies, and the vendor asked me why I was getting so much. I told her it was for my job, and then she quickly responded, “Oh! You work at the chifa (Chinese restaurant) down the street?” I laughed and said, “No, I work at a health clinic called ‘Jambi Huasi”. She just said “OK”, and then it got awkward and quiet as I paid, picked up my bag of candies, and left.

I also get many comments about my eyes. When people ask where I’m from and I say the U.S., they often reply, “But you can’t be from there, your eyes are set too narrow, you don’t look American.” Or, they ask if I can speak Mandarin Chinese. When moments like these happen, I explain to them that I am from America, and that my dad is Mexican-American and that my mom is Japanese. This totally alters their pre-conception of what an American should look like. It literally “blows their mind.”

Even  my fellow Americans seem to live with some stereotypes, too. When I went to a place called “Yachana Lodge” in the Amazons, I was having a conversation in English with a tourist from the States. About ten minutes into the talk, she asked me if I’ve ever been to the U.S. I responded by saying, “Why of course, I’m from California!” Then she said, “Well, then you definitely have!” and abruptly left, feeling embarrassed. Another time, a group of U.S. college students came to Jambi Huasi to learn about indigenous medicine practices, so I gave them an informative chat about this. At the beginning of my talk, I asked where they were from. One student said, “Minnesota”, and then another one piped, “It’s in the United States!” I paused and looked at them saying, “Yeah, I know.” I don’t blame them, we all make harmless and innocent assumptions at times.

Overall, these incidents make me think of how I identify myself and how others identify me. I identify myself as American while a majority of people here, foreigners and natives alike, see me as someone from an Asian country. In some of these conversations, I went with their assumptions to avoid awkward complications of explaining the truth. But I now realize that I should be honest in saying who I am. Just because I’m not what a stereotypical American looks like doesn’t mean I have to define myself as something else. I am the one who has to do this, not them. If I am reluctant to express who I am, it is disrespectful to my identity and that portion of the American tapestry that I represent. Also, I have to give the benefit of the doubt to my audience, hoping they are indeed sensitive enough to recognize the plurality of cultures. So the next time I run into a situation like this – knowing where people’s assumptions are coming from – I will explain to them a little of whom I am. And besides, it would be a good way to get a conversation going and also to build a better intercultural perspective.

Alberto Servín