QUICK DISCLAIMER: This is a telling of my own personal experience as an Asian/Pacific Islander American Peace Corps Volunteer and not a generalization of the experiences of Chinese Guyanese or other A/P PCVS around the world.
For all those who are curious, I am Filipino American.
I don’t always know how to start or have this conversation with others. The one about stereotypes, racial slurs, and micro-aggressions towards Asian/Pacific Islanders. It’s sensitive and I’m always afraid to say the wrong thing (god knows I have before). But I hope what comes out of this blog post is helpful and insightful for those who read. And if not, ignore it and we can move on.
Phew, ok. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s start with some fun facts.
There are 6 ethnicities represented in Guyana. Ameridian (indigenous), Afro-Guyanese, Indo-Guyanese, Portuguese Guyanese, European Guyanese, and Chinese Guyanese.
How this came to be was a mixture of colonization and the immigration of slaves, indentured servants, and refugees.
Chinese immigrants began arriving in Guyana around the 1860s. Most of them came as refugees and indentured servants that worked in sugar plantations after slavery was abolished. Over time, Chinese immigrants contributed greatly towards infrastructure, technology, retail, food culture, and even politics. I recently learned that the first president of Guyana was actually a Chinese Guyanese man by the name of Arthur Chung. Ain’t that something?
Now, these are just historical facts and they don’t explain the social constructs that developed over the last century when it comes to how Chinese Guyanese people are known and treated today. Upon arrival, I was told that most Chinese Guyanese live in Georgetown, make all the money from their small businesses and restaurants, generally keep to themselves, and that there were no racist behavior towards them.
I can’t tell you whether Chinese Guyanese feel discrimination the way that I do as a Filipino American, but I do wonder.
For me, living in Guyana has only amplified the stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination I have already experienced in the US.
Most of the time in Guyana people assume:
- I must be Chinese… no possible way I’m from America or that I’ve descended from any other Asian country.
- I can’t speak or understand English so I’m treated like I’m incompetent.
- My skills are limited to making fried rice and selling cheap clothes.
- I’m obviously related to Jackie Chan and therefore I share his ass kicking DNA. Don’t they know who Manny Pacquiao is? (just kidding, not funny)
Sometimes they’re joking, sometimes they’re just being jerks, but most times they don’t know any better.
Even so, listening to things like this during my Peace Corps service (and also my whole life) has taken its toll on my self-esteem and my identity… often times making me feel inferior, muted, limited, and reduced just because I’m simply not any of those things. Yet, they follow me like a shadow.
Being Chinese is not shameful. There’s nothing wrong or unworthy about not speaking English or cooking for a living. Its the assumption and the treatment and characterization behind those words that I can’t get over.
Just after one look… Why am I suddenly being treated lesser than? Why is the ability to speak English a measure of my intelligence? Why are you looking at my work as if it is less worthy than yours? Why am I being treated like a joke to you?
This might not be your intention, but it’s often how I perceive and have internalized these comments.
For these reasons and more, I think it is really challenging to be an A/P PCV. I have run into situations where I don’t fit the “idea” or “image” of America/Peace Corps and I feel as if it was a disappointment to those I work with. Or when my presence and input are disregarded next to a volunteer of a different skin color.
I feel sick sometimes not knowing what to say or do about it.
On a good day, I try to kindly correct people and educate others on who I am, where I come from, and how certain things are offensive to me. This is definitely done with someone I feel would actually care. And believe it or not, it does make a difference.
On a bad day… well, I don’t always handle it gracefully. I have yelled some inappropriate (but totally appropriate) language at a group of men who were yelling “chinee gyal” in my ears as I passed by… who then proceeded to laugh at my disdain. It was humiliating. I try to remember that I am more than what they say or think but sometimes the anger and sadness just spills out of me.
I don’t know that there is a perfect way to deal with the kind of harassment and treatment A/P PCVs go through, honestly. But here’s what helps me:
SELF-VALIDATION–I can’t change everyone’s opinion or beliefs about Asian//Pacific Islanders. I can, however, remember and remind myself that I am and will always be more than the stereotypes, racist comments, and micro-aggressions that get thrown at me.
TALKING TO OTHERS EXPERIENCING SOMETHING SIMILAR TO YOU–I admit, I’m not the best at this. I’m still processing how this experience is impacting me so I don’t always open up. What I do know is that sometimes there isn’t an easy solution to a racial issue, but it does help to know you’re not alone.
PERSEVERING–there’s so much in the world that is out of my control, so I focus on controlling my own actions. I quickly learned that in Peace Corps. But I’ve also learned that with time and patience for yourself and others, things get better. Its hard not to take things personally, but I try keep my head up high and focus on my goals as a PCV.
I was once asked how one could be an ally to Asian/Pacific Islander American volunteers and my response is this: acknowledge that not all Americans experience the same privileges overseas, recognize our accomplishments have come with adversity, and give others the space to speak for themselves.
That’s been a big realization for me. Even though I experience very unique challenges and hardships as a A/P PCV in Guyana, others do too and I have no idea what that feels like for them.
This experience is tough for all PCVs, no matter what the color of your skin is, but we find a way to keep doing what we came here to do.
I’ve learned a lot from this part of my service. About myself, about others, about how people are perceived and treated based on presumed beliefs. And although it’s made my service hard, it hasn’t stopped me from doing great things.
I hope to learn more about how I can continue being part of this conversation because it’s an important one to have. With everyone.
Thanks for reading.