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Pet Sins September 2006

Common visitors' misunderstandings of 'racism' and 'unfriendliness' - an Asian perspective

I was born and raised in Asia, and often, I find that black American or African visitors to Asia misunderstand some Asian cultural traits as 'racist' behavior. This is unfortunate because such perceptions color their experiences of Asia and make their stay less pleasant than it could have been. I'm not claiming that there are no racist Asians or that blacks in Asia will not encounter prejudice, but rather than reading prejudice into things 90% of the time, wouldn't it be better to maintain a mind free of assumptions and only read racism into an experience when there is an obvious double standard (that is when it is clear you are not treated like everyone else)?

One common misunderstanding has to do with how friendly people are. Many people in East Asian big cities don't say hello to strangers and don't make eye contact. Someone from another country where they are used to greeting strangers they meet and making eye contact may feel disrespected and assume the locals are being 'racist'. But they don't realize that natives aren't getting greetings and eye contact from strangers either.

Sometimes, a foreigner has a hard time making friends, and s/he feels it is because of racism. But s/he should take into account that in East Asian cultures compare to Southeast Asian and American cultures, people don't open up and make friends as easily. It generally takes way longer to cross the threshold from stranger to acquaintance, and then from acquaintance to friend. People just warm up slower. True, racism might have a role to play in some cases, but in other cases, your prospects may not be much improved even if you look exactly like the locals.

Another common misunderstanding has to do with physical contact. East Asians are generally not very 'touchy' people. Even parents don't usually hug and kiss their children. A black visitor might pat someone on the back, only to have the person cringe, or reach out to help someone who is tripping, and get a odd look in return. Then he concludes that people there are afraid of black men. But this behavior is not necessarily because people are repulsed by the touch of a black man. It is because East Asians are generally not used to being touched in general. Having locals cringe in response to a friendly touch happens to white visitors and to Asian visitors from more 'touchy' cultures too. A white woman friend was even told in Japan that she should not touch children too much when playing with them.

So instead of attributing every perceived snub to racism, I hope visitors can keep an open mind. I am not excusing Asian racism, just asking that people don't give it more weight than it really has.