By Allison Chen
Our pale faces, high cheekbones, and black Asian hair catch their eyes.
Narrow streets of the Salé medina squeeze together as we stroll past streams of schoolchildren trekking home for lunch. While the sun warms our backs and the sounds of French and Arabic echo from Moroccan street vendors, the children twist their heads in synchronized motion at our eclectic group of foreigners. Although we all identify as American, our appearances are a mish-mash of ethnicities—there are, of course, blonde Californians, a Northeaster, and another Southern boy. However, we also have Pakistani-, Indian-, and Chinese-American travelers amongst our ranks.
In her crinkled, off-white school uniform, a Moroccan girl darts away from her friends and brazenly tugs my hair, grinning cheekily at the chunk sliding loosely in her grasp. The eyes of her companions—all the children meandering the street—flit past my friends, as excited whispers of “chinoise,” French for “Chinese,” surround us. We are all foreigners in this country, yet the locals’ eyes pronounce me and another Chinese-American as the most “other.”
We continue down the fish-watered streets; some teenage boys lounging against their motorcycles in red jackets nudge one another, loudly calling, “Chinoise! Chinoise!” then proceeding to whistle after our receding forms. As the smells of sweet, rotting fruit intensifies when we proceed into the main merchant area, one vendor spots me, twisting to shout “Chinoise!” alerting everyone else of the supposedly exotic sight. Soon, a symphony of “chinoise” peppers the area, as the vendors watch my group pass.
Exiting the multicultural spaces of America and entering any more racially homogenous country produces a similar reaction. Still, American and Spanish tourists frequently visit the country, and Morocco’s racial composition allows locals to comment that some in our ranks could pass as Moroccan or Saudi Arabian. But here, in the little town of Salé, East Asian faces are rare.
Chinese businesses have only recently begun major investments and trading in Morocco, which is why locals of the more international Moroccan cities, such as Marrakech or Casablanca, exhibit less surprise at my presence, but the cities of less international import remain largely unexplored to East Asian visitors.
My face flushes from surprise and memories of my elementary school identity as one of the few Asian Americans in our K-8 school. Mentions of Emperor Qin, lunar new year, and even kimonos warranted all my classmates to dramatically swivel in their seats to stare at me, which made me feel distantly “different” from my classmates. Either way, in modern America, if anyone dared to publicly call someone by his or her race in the streets, such an action would be labelled offensive, ignorant, racist.
However, the race-centered greetings in Morocco are not necessarily insulting—at least to me. In the Fez medina, the Berber crafts vendor waves his arms, covered in multicolored jewelry, nodding “Ni hao ma, ni hao ma.” The batbout merchant approaches with the Japanese “Konnichiwa! Konnichiwa!” Unlike in America, where weighted historical race conflicts imbue offensive connotations to those types of actions, the people in Morocco do it out of curiosity and as an attempt at communication rather than in a manner of degradation or insult. I’ve heard that the medina street vendors learn multiple global languages to cater toward tourists from around the world. While Morocco has its own race conflicts, the use of foreign languages or racial labelling seems to hold much less insult than it does in America.
I stroll through the wet streets of the Fez medina, my floral dress trailing gently behind me. A gaggle of girls whisper and smile, before running to throw rose petals on me. Sometimes, I like to dress more noticeably, with an eye-catching dress or a unique sillhouette—the whispers and head-turns quietly fascinate me.
In Marrakech, I encounter this much less. In Rabat-Salé, though, the “chinoise” uttered from the outward-facing men-only cafes, the “China lady” called from taxi drivers, the blatant stares that look past the other foreigners in our group reveal the perceived exoticism of East Asians in Morocco yet the relative harmlessness of their race-centered words.
Allison Chen is a rising sophomore. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.