What’s it Like Being an East-Asian Person Living in Nairobi?

(Wang/TYG)

August 14, 2013 • Online Content, Summer 2013 Blog, Summer Blogs • Views: 1301

BY CHRISTINA WANG

In May, I, along with two other Yale students, spent three weeks in Nairobi working with Honey Care Africa, a social enterprise that we were working with through a two-semester course and a fellowship provided by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. We were there to learn about social enterprise in the context of developing economies, and the business methods and social considerations that the company employs in its daily operations. When we return to campus in the fall, each group in the course will be completing a comprehensive case study on the company they chose to research.

(Wang/TYG)

(Wang/TYG)

While in Nairobi, I learned that traveling as a Chinese-American in a place without a lot of people of East Asian descent comes with its own set of experiences. This isn’t something I’d ever really experienced before – I’d travelled, volunteered and even worked abroad before – but only to places that were regularly frequented by travellers who, as I would later found out to be important, at least somewhat frequented by people of East Asian descent.

So why does this matter? Of course, I didn’t expect it to when I first arrived. Walking around Nairobi, and some of the smaller cities we visited, manifested some unique experiences that related directly to me being of East Asian descent. I can’t actually remember the last time I or someone I knew was “Ching-Chong’ed”, or “Konichiwa’ed” while walking down the street – perhaps by teasing boys in middle school, and probably regularly in anonymous internet forums – but never directly to my face. But it became a pretty regular occurrence whenever I walked around outside in Kenya. One direct quote from a young guy I met while disembarking from a ferry in Mombasa: “Chang chang! Are you Jackie Chan’s sister?” (Jackie Chan is sixty, by the way, so thanks for that…)

If I’m being entirely honest, this got pretty wearing and frustrating at times. But from an objective perspective, I realize that these comments were probably a factor of the unfamiliarity of East Asian people in Kenya, and not really a factor of the standard definition of racism. While there is a sizable Indian population in Kenya, with a cumulative population of over 100,000 in many of the major urban areas, the East Asian population is pretty much non-existent. The comments made towards me were probably just a result of excitement over seeing someone who looks completely new. When I visit China, I regularly see Chinese people asking to take pictures with white and black tourists, and this I know to be a phenomenon solely because of Chinese people’s excitement over the novelty of non-Asian faces.

So while the passing interactions on the street were a surprising experience for me, they were still justifiable rationally. However, the only resentment that the experience left me with is with regards to Asian American representation in Western media, which is what I attribute the “Ching Chong-ing” to. While the portrayal of Asians has improved slightly from the age with overtly racist portrayals, for instance that of the stereotyped and bucktoothed Mr. Yuioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there is still much to be desired of the role of Asians in Hollywood. Asian Americans are vastly underrepresented in US media, and the roles that are granted to Asians are often stereotyped, or at least niched, and serve to only perpetuate certain Americentric perception rather than comprehensive or authentic depiction of modern Asian society and culture. Just to name a few: Jackie Chan and Kung-fu, Mulan and Chinese warriors, Leslie Chow’s naked Asian gangster in The Hangover. And these are hardly the exceptions.

The implications of media portrayals are far-reaching. For people living in parts of world where there are few or no actual Asian people – this can be both within the United States and abroad – these portrayals are unfortunately sometimes the only interpretations upon which they are able to base their understandings of an entire race. So when the representation of Asians in Hollywood and other forms of media is inaccurate and only plays up a few certain strands of what is actually a complex tapestry of Asian culture, how can we blame people who have never been told otherwise, for believing accordingly?

Christina Wang ’15 is blogging this summer from Nairobi. Contact her at christina.wang@yale.edu.

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