Street mural in New York City

The gap between nationality and ethnicity

We had just seen all of Bangkok together at a fancy rooftop bar in a hotel downtown. Some of us got drinks, but I didn’t as I mostly just wanted the view and didn’t feel like overpaying for crappy imported beer or a fancy cocktail. Now we were in Bangkok’s Chinatown, seeking some street eats for the evening. The tables were in rows all the way down the street.

He came up to me and thanked me so graciously that I was taken aback. This has never happened before.

cropped-2013-09-29-18.41.34_smallfile.jpgThe way we found ourselves

A few hours earlier, as many other stories in Bangkok will, it started out at the hostel. It was a hostel with a modern vibe and a warehouse-y feel to the central staircase leading to the dorms. After having meetings with collaborators in other parts of the city a few days before, it was a comfortable, quiet place for me to chill.

Most of us were European or North American, and naturally we were drawn to each other as the inklings of plans to go somewhere materialized.

We were outside the hostel, some of us choosing to sit in the chairs provided, some smoking cigarettes. I found myself next to a fellow American and we started chatting. He’s from Miami. I told him I’m from New York.

Eventually, “What’s your nationality?” he asks.

I don’t dread this question. Not anymore. He’s a good guy, and a fellow minority card holder (albeit the biggest minority in the States). His genuine curiosity shows on his face.

“I’m American,” I say, with a little bit of a cheeky grin about to slip in.

“No, no, no, what’s your nationality?” he responds, emphasizing his last word.

At this point, I know I’ve got a handle on the conversation. I can do what I want with this.

I smile and tell him that my ethnicity is Chinese, but my nationality is American. (PS. To other North and South Americans, I know many feel that it shouldn’t be the convention that USA citizens go by American, but unfortunately it is the convention. I mean no offense.)

I explain that nationality is where you are a citizen and ethnicity is what your race is.

Here’s the catch

Is it such a big difference? To people from most other countries, there may not be any difference.

For many Asian Americans like myself, there’s a difference nonetheless.
To have to qualify my Americanness by including that my heritage is Chinese means that there will always be a difference.

I recently saw a commercial for Ancestry.com where the women talks about what she told people when they asked what her nationality was, but what was really meant was her race. The premise was that her ancestry was more diverse than she originally thought (she was white), but they allowed her to use the wrong term!

If this misconception and false synonym can slip through the cracks and make it to prime time advertising, this is a much bigger issue in the USA than just a few people that I have interacted with.

Street mural in New York City

A recently finished mural in my neighborhood in New York City

It’s weird being thanked

When he came back to thank me later, what took me by surprise was when he said “I thought I was right…But I was wrong!”

I didn’t do that to prove him wrong, but somehow I had helped someone see something in a different way. Maybe we both had to travel to the other side of the world for it to happen, but that was just the first step.

We give and we take

I think there are a few main things that made this a “successful” interaction.

1. He was open to what I was saying
His genuine curiosity is what led him to ask the question. He provided the space to answer and have this conversation.

2. I was open to saying it in a way he would hear me best
I recognized his underlying curiosity, and didn’t want to hold against him the way he worded his question. Anger has its place in racism, I know that. But it isn’t always the best response.

3. We both learned from each other
What started as me trying to make a point for fun, turned into an interesting and meaningful interaction. I believe that he’s made just as much of an impact on me as I did on him.

Some light in the dark

Him being a tall black man and me a small Asian woman, we couldn’t have been more opposite of each other. But we are both American.

I’m thankful for that encounter with Jeremy. I want to continue to believe that we live in a world where people who are coming from different points of view can communicate and be heard on both ends. Perhaps because we were both travelers who would stay at a hostel in Bangkok, we were more likely to be able to talk to each other. Race issues in travel might be easier to isolate than issues at home, but I’d like to think that this can happen on a larger scale too.

Post it wall in subway station for Union Square

This is a wall in the Union Square subway station, filled with messages of hope

  • Amy-Anne Williams

    I’ve never really put much thought into this topic, but it’s so true. And what you say about how he’s a tall black man and you’re a small Asian woman, and yet you’re both American, it just sums it all up, really.

    Amy;
    Little Moon Elephant

    • Hey Amy, thanks for reading! Yeah, I think it’s a great thing that the people are so diverse in the States. I love that everyone has a different story and history of how the got to the country. It’s hard to resist the urge to try to have a single image of who an
      American is. It feeds the need to have some kind of expectation. That goes for travelers who don’t want to come off as a
      American too!