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The Accidental Asian Tourist

Sam LouieBy Sam Louie
Psychology Today

I recently had the opportunity to visit Europe to teach on the concept of cultural Asian shame and addiction in Switzerland. Part of this opportunity allowed me to do some sightseeing in other parts of the continent, so my wife and I spent some time in Paris.

What intrigued me about the trip from a psychological and cultural perspective is how surprising it is for people in these international cities to view us as Americans. It doesn’t matter how “Western” we dress or even if we speak English in public—the assumption is that we must be from mainland China.

Part of the stereotype is due to the growing affluence and prosperity of China’s middle-class, giving them the means to travel. But this is a relatively new trend because as recently as two decades ago, the proverbial joke of the Asian person with a camera was that of a quiet, Japanese tourist. But now it has been replaced with the more expressive throngs of smartphone-and-selfie-stick-carrying Chinese nationals.

At every tourist attraction, from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids to the Grand Canyon, you will find multiple Chinese tour groups. It’s not surprising to see menus written in the country’s native language but also in English and Chinese.

In places as different from each other as Switzerland and Japan, the goal in each country is how to accommodate the influx of mainland Chinese tourism.

As for Asian Americans like myself, you can see how we can get lost in this ethnic shuffle. Consequently, we’re often greeted in Mandarin by shop owners, waiters, and even children.

You can see how perplexing this is when I answer back in English, “I’m sorry, I’m American.” They not only do a double-take but it can actually come off as shocking.

But even speaking English doesn’t make Asian Americans immune to this perception, as some continue to believe we’re just educated Chinese who can also speak English.

This is not an indictment against the world but to help the mainstream in the U.S. gain a better awareness and appreciation of the challenges facing ethnic minorities here. Because despite the desires of minorities to assimilate and be “American” (i.e. Hispanic, Asians, etc), the perception and treatment both in the U.S. and overseas can sometimes be otherwise.

As much as Americans are often ridiculed for being uneducated by foreign countries, this experience highlights how those in other countries also need a better understanding of what it means to have an American identity.

Sam Louie is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in addictions, Asian American issues and Christian counseling. Prior to therapy, he worked more than a dozen years as an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter where he researched and reported on a number of stories related to addictions, culture and psychotherapy. You can reach him at www.samlouiespeaks.com.

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  1. RE: The Accidental Asian Tourist:At the end of the day it’s just a numbers game. If you are a white person and you don’t know any Asian Americans and all the Asians you have seen and met are from China it is human nature to assume the next Asian they see is from China. No different if a Chinese person in China only encounters white people from the the UK so they assume all the white people they meet are from the uk. I am asian american and whenever i meet an international student from China at NYU most of the time they are surprised when they lean I am an American as well. It just takes exposure to something you are not familiarized with to open your minds.

  2. RE: The Accidental Asian Tourist: What? Even Americans don’t understand what it means to be American. Anyone who isn’t completely oblivious to the issues of today’s American society should know that the very idea of what it means to be American has been in debate since at least before trump was elected.


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