Looking ‘Asian’

Both my parents are from Hong Kong. It is therefore no surprise that I look ‘Asian’. However, being born and raised in the Netherlands, I do refer to myself as Dutch. I would be lying if I said I was from Hong Kong – I have never even lived there.

On more than just one occasion, people have asked me where I am from. When I respond with “the Netherlands,” I get puzzled looks. Sometimes they even ask me “No, where are you ‘really’ from?” Right…
Sometimes, encounters are rather funny. People say something like “You look like an Asian.” Thanks for pointing that out to me, I was not aware of that… In Mozambique, a local of Ilha de Moçambique told me “No, you are not from the Netherlands.”

When travelling, I can easily eavesdrop on people and have often surprised (or even shocked or scared) them by speaking to them in Dutch or another language they would not expect. It’s particularly funny when I have overheard them saying something about me or Asians – it’s surprising and shameful how often tourists speak condescendingly about the local inhabitants of the countries they are visiting. I would make a good spy, although, saying this shows I’m not one.

In Thailand, blending in has been a bit easier and I think it has to do with me ‘looking Asian’. I notice that, when I dress up for work, people mistake me for being Thai more often than when I’m dressed in my casual wear on the weekends. Yet, I get the question “Where are you from?” or rather “Where you from?” on a daily basis. And people don’t always wait for an answer. They ask “Where you from? Japan?” and I shake my head. “Korea?” I shake my head. “China?” and I respond with: “Yes, my parents are from Hong Kong but I’m from the Netherlands.”

I wonder if there is a typical face for each Asian country. People can often identify nationalities or ethnicities by specific stereotypical features, but I am starting to doubt mine more and more. Even my family in Hong Kong say I look more Korean than Chinese.

Last month, while diving on Koh Tao, I was in a dive centre pick up truck with only Japanese divers and when the Japanese dive instructor welcomed us with “Konichiwa!” I had to make clear that I would prefer my dive instructions in English…! Later, I met a Japanese lady who shared that truck ride with me. She told me she thought I was a Japanese girl who grew up abroad. Now, that was something new! I asked her how so and she told me that the upper half of my face looks Japanese, but the bottom half of my face doesn’t. She told me that Japanese people growing up abroad often have this characteristic as one’s jaw develops according to one’s language! I had never heard of this before, but it sounded interesting. I would still like to read the scientific research on this though. [The lady and I ended up chatting the whole way back, plus we found out we were working on the same issue: human trafficking! Incidentally, she also loves vegetarian food, so I have a new foodie buddy too!]

I just came back from Cambodia and a few new guesses have been added to the list: Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Cambodia! I do think there are differences between people from all these countries, so I guess I am just a weird looking person to them. Yet, some people seem sure about my nationality. On Saturday, I was walking past a vendor and looking at some special teas. He started talking to me, but in a language I could surely not understand. It wasn’t English, nor Khmer, nor Chinese. I looked puzzled and he continued talking. I looked worried, as if something was wrong with me, and said: “Sorry, I don’t understand you.” He said: “Oh! You are not Japanese?” and I started laughing. “No, I am Dutch. But, my parents are from Hong Kong.” Maybe I should make a t-shirt with this print, although I would never wear it.

On the other hand, people sometimes think I’m only half-Asian. Or, the American guy next to me on the bus didn’t even think I was Asian!? He must have been blind. He said that because my English was so good, he didn’t think I had an Asian background. Now, I know a whole lot of Asians whose English is a lot better then the common American guy! Weirdo.

So, I don’t know what it is. Maybe I just look alien to everyone anywhere. Maybe it’s because I travel solo. Or maybe it’s my jaw. But I hope that at some point, people will stop asking me because I’m starting to become numb when I hear the question, even if it’s out of sincere interest. Because really, what does it matter where one’s from? Except for maybe knowing it as a cultural reference point, what other purpose does it serve? Especially when strangers ask me this question… I just don’t understand. Or maybe I should just work on my patience… I’m just glad I’m in Bangkok. In a parallel universe, a realistic one, I could’ve been living in Delhi instead. Now, imagine those glances and questions, etc…!


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