So... we  went to New York for dim sum, a Japanese art exhibition and purikura - if that's not multicultural, nothing else is...
My girlfriend and I have been travelling in Asia for 4 months now, and although things were a bit weird from the beginning, how we are perceived - and mostly the differences in how we are treated - have taken a turn for the worse since entering Vietnam.



Let me explain. 


My girlfriend is a British citizen, and has been from birth as a native Hong Konger ("nationality at birth" in immigration forms is a bitch for any HK person born before 1997). She has also lived in London more than half her life, finished college/high school and uni there and worked in London for almost 10 years. She was born in a British colony and holds a British passport with dual citizenship. In China or Taiwan, she’s a foreigner. In the UK, she’s a foreigner. In her birth city, she’s a foreigner. She speaks Cantonese as mother tongue, English fluently and decent Mandarin. In the western sense, she represents pretty much as cisgender (actually, German friends keep telling me how feminine she is, which will make her laugh out loud!). On the Asian girly girl scale, though, she's probably in the androgynous zone. Does this count as we travel? No, she is simply perceived as "some Chinese girl". 

I'm German and speak English as my second language well enough that many people (though never people from those two countries) think I'm British or Australian. I've lived in the UK what people would call "all their adult" life, so ever since my first grown up job. I've had a lot of different phases when it comes to gender-representation, but if had had to classify myself, I guess I look pretty femme, but aren't at all on the inside. I am usually seen as "some European girl". 

Virtually never do people perceive us as a couple, not really even within the LGBT community in London, which says a lot about how open minded that community is. 

This all means we barely face the issues that other lesbian couples face (including harassment, or guys chatting us up, doesn't happen because people are simply confused out of their mind). We also have never experienced the "one bed or two" situation often described by other gay couples travelling. People would never think we are sisters, either.

What people DO think:

The guide/interpreter situation

This is how you do Asian food, you German. Let me show you.
In Europe, people most often talk to me and assume that Celine doesn't speak English and/or the local language. Which is fair enough when it's in a country where I speak the local language and she doesn't (continental western/middle Europe). It's super weird when somebody insists in talking to me in Romanian or Russian, though! Especially in Eastern Europe, people seem to think that I must be a local guiding my Asian friend.

In the US, we experienced the race segregation in this so called melting pot like probably no other tourists as Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans alike kept giving us the weirdest looks that said "How come that white girl is hanging out with an Asian chick?". Travelling together, people so far have been the friendliest to us in Ireland (it's not a myth, they are lovely folks!).

Likewise in Asia, people started to speak to Celine in Japanese, only to find me replying in Japanese, which has led to a lot of laughs (Japanese are also fantastic). In China or Taiwan, people have a hard time wrapping their head around a Chinese person who doesn't speak fluent Mandarin though, which meant they expect Celine to be somewhat of a local guide for me, even though she is just getting by with the language. 

Surprisingly, the country that handled things the most smoothly was Korea - Koreans got the gist that we both had no idea of the language and must be tourists AND travelling together pretty quickly, no questions asked.

"American!"
We got a lot of that in South Korea, Taiwan and Saigon - places from where a lot of Asians have migrated to the US and where such Asian-Americans return with white friends in tow. I can say I'm German a hundred times, in whichever language I like, we simply must be American. We're trying to not take it personal.

"So, you are students in the UK"?
Ugh, this is one I hate because it means people don't take us seriously, or worse, think that we cannot afford whatever we are trying to buy (we're not millionaires but not budget backpackers either!). I'm 28 and my girlfriend is 32 at the moment... while she DOES look extremely young even by Asian standards, most non-Asians perceive her as underage, to the point that she's been asked for ID in British pubs. It also gets tiring to explain to people that we are not students travelling during our uni break/gap year, and that yes, we have lived in the UK for almost 25 years if we combine both our time there. I guess it's better than being seen as wealthy tourists whose money people try to get at - we can always pull the "but we're poor students" card. 


"Did you meet while travelling?"

Showing my girl how to Weihnachtsmarkt, Hamburg, 2013
This is a variation of the above that hurts quite a lot, because this innocent question is the travel epitome of white heteronormative society values. Why indeed would a western girl be travelling with an Asian girl, anyway? Of course because we both can't face travelling solo and thus we entered a partnership of convenience.

It also implies that an Asian person and a white person cannot be friends just because, but that there must be some ulterior motif.

This is the point at which we have to tell a white lie in non-LGBT friendly countries.  We usually say "No, we live together in London", which is then followed up by "So, you are students?" (see above). If people seem cool and open-minded (mostly this happens with middle aged couples, never with younger travellers), I will say "No, she's my girlfriend" and they will get the gist.


The illegal immigrant

This riles me up beyond belief (I didn't mean to order this list by how much reactions annoy me, but here goes). Celine once had a UK border guard sigh and tell her how he "hates dealing with passports like this", i.e. British citizens who weren't born in the UK. Travelling into Lebanon, the Lebanese border guard was very rude to her when she couldn't supply a contact number within Lebanon, maybe considering her a Filipina trying to enter the country illegally (which happens, as many Filipinos take work in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East)? The worst was BA staff at the check in at Copenhagen airport as well boarding the plane back to the UK. The ladies kept ask Celine in dumb English if "ENGLAND.REALLY.YOUR.FINAL.DESTINATION???" - "AFTER LONDON, YOU GO WHERE?" (To her parent's house, you racist bitch!). Denmark, I deem you not part of Scandinavia, but a more racist outpost of Germany. Entering St Petersburg, the Russian border police scanned each page of her passport. Physically scanned it to save the data, not just "glanced at them with their eyes".

Illegal immigrant, Mr Farage? I'm a proper Sarf Landahner, let me show ye Boro(ugh) Market, Brasov, Romania
At countless border crossings, I am served promptly and often with a "Herzlich Willkommen!" (lots of the border staff speak German), while my girlfriend is treated as someone who escaped the commies and forged a British passport to run  a Chinese takeaway and steal all your patents. In all fairness, only the US border police so far treated both of us equally poorly. Land of the Free.


White privilege... and its flipside

This is the hardest and something that might be unique to South East Asia, whose tourist market caters heavily towards white people. Note that there has been a lot of Chinese influence in all these countries and that Chinese actually make up a significant minority in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines etc. - they have been doing business here long before any European colonizers arrived, and are considered savvy and influential business people – respected they way you respect powerful people, but also welcome for the money they bring. 

I couldn't actually believe Celine when she told me how she had zero hassle in Thailand and people were so lovely to her. I love Thai food and many things about Thailand, but I can't stand the way everybody treats me like a walking ATM, sweet talking to me just so I will buy their elephant pants/counterfeit books/overpriced and bad western food. I feel this is the strongest in Thailand, but it's becoming more prevalent throughout SE Asia. 

So that's the positive side - no or little upsell, harassment or rip off for East Asians in South East Asia. In addition ethnic Chinese (here you go, Taiwanese and HK friends), Japanese and Korean tourists tend to travel very differently, spend more money, dressing a lot better and adapting a lot more tothe local culture in general. Let's be honest: Most of them deserve to be treated better than your boozing, smoking, half naked and/or girl-ogling Western tourist. 
Say kimchi! Because Korea treats all women as... women in the Confucian sense.



The negative one is when my girlfriend just goes about her way without receiving any special attention, and I am treated like some neo-colonial mistress (let's face it, that's what it is). Vietnam is my favourite country in the region, but travelling together has shown me how much "special treatment" I get here as the white "Madame". While motorbikes and cars nearly mow her over, they go easy on me as they fear trouble with the tourist police. Doors are held open for me, free teas are handed to me to coax me into buying some made in China supposed hill tribe crap. I am handed the western menu and told to order my goddamn stir fried noodles instead of ordering a portion of rice, a main and several side dishes as is common in Asia (and most of the world, people...). Staff gets surly if I refuse to order their cheap cheap beer, all day happy hour, Madam. Yet they kiss my ass the moment I as much as glance at something that they can sell to me. People rarely even perceive us as travelling or being on the road TOGETHER.

Let’s also mention sex tourism, shall we, because people like to ignore that part of SE Asia. My girlfriend is extremely shocked at me being able to point out middle age western guys chatting up South East Asian girls. As a western woman, I am aware that local women treat white men better than white women, be it for the promise of a big tip or something else altogether. I am just happy that my girlfriend seems uninteresting to them compared to all the scantily clad, submissive, sweet talking Asian girls here (and anyways, her annual income is higher than theirs, even though Jeff & Mike out for some Asian chicks would have a hard time dealing with that).

Honourable mentions: 

In the Middle East and North Africa, we have actually both been treated equally well so far. Know to haggle, show respect for the culture and it matters little if you are black, white, Asian or mixed here. I’m excited to see what Latin America will bring for us.

German people are also a lot nicer to foreigners than they are towards fellow Germans. They LOVE cute Asian girls. We've been having a great time travelling in Germany with my girlfriend doing the talking in English.

The verdict:
People all over the world are confused by multicultural ANYTHING, and that takes centre stage above all things sex or gender. We also met a French friend in Vietnam recently who’s been getting a lot of attention from Vietnamese guys because they think she’s Nicki Minaj or something… while she considers Bretons “her people”, in spite of her French-Asian-African heritage.

So I guess, this is not really about being a lesbian couple travelling, but much more about being two people of different races travelling together... have you got any experience with that?








3 Comments

  1. Wow - whole new levels of prejudices here that I had never thought of! And yes it sounds like you barely ever get to be seen as a couple, which surely must be really frustrating at times? But the racial stuff is awful. I had a tiny taste of this kind of treatment when I would hang out with my Japanese friend in Slovakia - he could speak fluent Slovak (and I could barely order beer), but of course people expected I was the local - once someone went past and said something in Slovak I couldn't understand, but which he could translate as being a horrible racist slur against him.

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  2. Excellent reflection on your traveling woes! I totally feel your girlfriend's woes on being Asian in Asia. I just finished 1.5 years of traveling Asia. I am Chinese-American and have been traveling solo half-expecting to be treated like a white person with my Americanness and instead being treated as a local (which is fine price-wise) or being treated as some dumb Asian/local who has a mental handicap because why can't I speak the language? With a racially Asian yet ambiguous look to most people, it was nice not to be treated like an ATM, but I resided in this strange space where all travelers thought I was a local and wouldn't approach me and all locals were even more puzzled and didn't approach me either out of confusion. They must have been thinking, "Why does this local have a white girl voice?"

    You have to understand that most of the locals we meet are in hospitality industry and thus, oftentimes, have the mental capacity of a box of rocks. My very existence baffled people. ESPECIALLY in China. If you are Chinese, you HAVE to be from here. People would ask me questions that had an undertone of, "When did China let you go?". It didn't? I was born in America. I'm American through and through. But alas, the world is not culturally nor orientationally colorblind yet.

    Also, one of my greatest annoyances was getting asked "Do you speak English?" by other travelers. Listen, I can speak better English than you will ever be able to achieve. It's my first language, BITCH.

    Perhaps one day people will just be treated as people.

    END RANT.

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    Replies
    1. Haha, I thought I get angry at this kind of thing... I guess it's better to be underestimated than overestimated, but it would grate me to be constantly seen as that dumb Chinese girl who can't speak.

      Truth be told, though, few people travel in East Asia (and think all of Asia is Thailand< Laos and Cambodia... you know the type)... and not many Chinese get to make it out of China.

      I've often travelled in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and stayed in hostels, and tried to speak to other, local solo travellers. In 80% of the cases, they couldn't really speak English. At some point you are inclined to give up and assume most won't be able to communicate. Sad bad true.

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