The University of Iowa

Racial Ambiguity Across 12 Countries

October 17th, 2016
Diversity Ambassador Maile Davis

Dear Prospective Study Abroad Students,

My name is Maile and I am an undergraduate student studying Human Physiology (BS) with hopes of entering the holistic medicine field. I am a first-generation, half-Vietnamese student from Southern California that came to Iowa seeking a different environment so naturally the next progression for me was to travel abroad to experience an entirely new culture.

In the spring of 2016, I embarked on an amazing travel opportunity with Semester at Sea. Semester at Sea is a study abroad program sponsored by an American university that travels across oceans to multiple countries by ship. The ship is our home and the world our classroom. I traveled to Eastern Asia and areas of Africa. My itinerary included Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco and then docking in Southampton, London. By the time I returned home, I had traveled to 17 different countries over the course of five months. Rather than cultural immersion, I experienced cultural comparison. That being said, the context of my travels must be explained to fully understand my observations and experiences. Since I traveled to many countries, I had a limited time in each country - only about six days. My observations of countries were tastes of the cultures, but by far do not represent the countries completely.

As globalization becomes an ever-increasing phenomenon, multi-racial individuals are easy to come by in many parts of the world. Myself being an example, my American mother grew up in Colorado while my father was born in Saigon, Vietnam, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Despite only having a cultural heritage tie to Vietnam, I easily blended in with almost all the countries I traveled to. Nearly all my life, people would always ask me my race, but not until I went abroad did I understand my racial ambiguity. People would approach me speaking Afrikaans in South Africa and ask me if I was part Indian in New Delhi. Sometimes my ambiguity would allow me to go unnoticed. In many parts of Asia, a predominantly homogenous area, typical-looking Western foreigners intrigued locals and were asked to take pictures. I distinctly remember being shooed away from iPhones and cameras.

Throughout the trip, I began to embrace my identity and ability to blend within various cultures. It started as a conversation starter and sometimes after getting to know people, evolved into a connection. At times, I felt I received a more authentic experience since locals would not treat me as a foreigner.  However, at times my friends and I did face prejudice. I tried not to allow myself to be offended, but use these interactions as opportunities to explain the inaccuracy of stereotypes and misconceptions while addressing my own preconceived notions.

My experiences with Semester at Sea have given me a deeper understanding of my heritage, cultural awareness, and lifelong friends. I encourage you to study abroad and learn more about the complex world we all inhabit.


Please note that the opinions and views expressed by diversity ambassadors are solely those of the students and do not reflect or represent the views of International Programs or the University of Iowa.