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Considering Racial Identity While Abroad

Anya Mukundan | 3/22/22

Check out our new student blog series, “The View from Abroad,” that follows current senior and OSA peer advisor Anya Mukundan as she discusses her studies abroad with CIEE Toulouse last semester! Anya will cover topics such as language, culture shock, and travel.

This week, I will be discussing my experience as a Half Indian / Half White American student studying in France. I will be joined by Tulane junior and Fall 2021 CIEE Seville student Marcelle Ellis, who will be sharing her perspective as a Half Filipina / Half White American studying in Spain. Studying abroad can provoke a change in terms of how you view your identity, and this change will both depend on you and the host country. Suddenly you may be sticking out, or maybe for the first time in your life you will be fitting in with the majority. Marcelle’s and my experiences are unique to us but will hopefully give a glimpse into how racial identity can factor into a semester abroad.  

Marcelle 

Coming into studying abroad in Seville, Spain, I knew that I might often feel out of place. And, as I expected, I was correct! Living in a foreign country has turned a mirror to many aspects of myself, my identity, and my boundaries that could only come out from being dropped in the middle of a completely new place. 

As a half Filipina, half white American, my racial identity has been used as a shield, a badge, and a scarlet letter. I have often been confronted about my family dynamics, the “where are you really from” question, and much more thinly veiled attempts to dig up my identity. Coming to college was a space in which I could find community and begin truly developing a sense of pride in the heritage that I long struggled with, but also to the extent in which I didn’t feel my appearance or identity have as much weight in how people would see me. 

From my experience living among Spanish residents, I have found them to be very community based, tight knit, and tradition-oriented. However, they are also not afraid to stare and ask questions. When travelling with one of my best friends Lisa, another half Asian Tulane student in Spain, several times in various locations people have come up to us both to ask us about where we are from, only to seem surprised when we laugh and say “yup, we’re Americans! You could probably tell from our accents.” They then begin to ask more blunt questions about our race, saying we must be sisters from Japan, Korea, China. In America, this would be seen as a bit rude, and, honestly, it’s a bit off-putting to say the least, but not entirely ill-intended. In my time in Spain, I could probably count on both hands the amount of Asian people I have seen in Sevilla that are not tourists or international American students. I’d like to think the questions stem from a genuine curiosity about how I stumbled into their little town, but maybe it’s just my romanticization working overtime. My friend and I now joke about our newfound sisterhood, while I also reevaluate the idea of not being as white-passing as I had once believed. I’ve had the luck that these ambiguous questions are the only experiences that I have had concerning race while abroad rather than violence, rude language, or worse. However, it does provide an interesting insight that probably no matter how fluent I become, I will likely never be mistaken as Spanish. 

So many adjectives pour out when asked “how is studying abroad?” It is thrilling, nerve-wracking, brimming with adventures, one of my favorite experiences coupled with some of my more challenging moments, especially when you find yourself out of place with language or appearance. You will come to realize that, as I have come to understand with Spain, most places are laced with tradition and pride, some of which are beautiful and endearing and others that are outdated, stubborn, and uncomfortable. 

Anya 

As a half-white, half-Indian American, I can be seen as ethnically ambiguous and have experienced a range of questions that attempt to probe at my racial identity. Starting the first day I was a bit anxious as to how my white, French host family would bring up the topic, if at all.  Pretty soon into the first dinner, my host father asked about the origins of my last name. That was an ideal time to resolve the curiosity that I am sure was as equally about my skin color as it was my last name. Regardless, it was a very different interaction compared to when my host father’s friend outright asked me, “So, are you Mexican?”  

A week later I am at an event for members of my Ultimate Frisbee team. I meet a guy who is excited to hear that I am from the United States. He explains how he wants to move there for work and asks me what the visa application process is like. “I have no idea, but I am sure it is really long,” I reply. Later in the conversation he realizes, “Oh so you were born in the US?” I say yes, and only minutes later do I consider that he may have been asking me because he thought I too had gone through the process of getting a US visa.  

Later I am in the car with my friend, our internship boss, and her friend. My boss’ friend asks us both where we are from. I say Colorado, and he essentially responds by pointing out my skin color, asking why I am the color I am if I am from the US. Later he apologizes if that made me uncomfortable. Being put on the spot (and of course limited somewhat by my French) I merely explain that no, it’s reasonable for people ask about my background but it is annoying when people try to ask me where I am from when they really want to know why I am the color I am. He tells me that makes sense, that he’s not racist, and that he’s just curious about where everyone is from. My white friend sitting next to me was never asked about her parents or her skin color.  

Overall, I would not say that I have experienced an overtly insulting form of racism here in France, but I have noticed how much more openly race is a topic of discussion here. I feel like in the States there can often be a mentality of “Oh, I don’t see race,” which has the potential to minimize recognition of racial minorities. I think it makes sense for people to be curious and want to understand the backgrounds of others, but the way they approach their questions can reveal certain ignorant mindsets that will inevitably be different for people in France when compared to the United States. 

 In a personal sense, this overt drawing of attention to my skin color and origins was new to me. Often in the US I’ll spend days not confronting my racial identity, but in France I was forced to consider this much more often. In some ways I was jealous of my white peers on the program who only gave away their foreignness when they started to speak. In other ways I was quite glad that people already entered conversations thinking I was from somewhere else, even if they were thinking of the wrong place.  Although that only makes me think that with everyone identifying me by my family origins, even if I was born in France, I do not know if I would ever feel entirely French. In this sense, I am somewhat glad to return being less hyperly-aware of my skin color, but I do question whether it is just because I feel at more at home in the US, or it really is because of these cultural differences in how people approach race between countries. In the end, I was glad to have a fairly diverse program cohort in which I could share my experiences with other students of color who had similar stories.