The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: Handling stereotypes

December 21st, 2011

Reflections on Race and Ethnicity

Dear Prospective Student,

My name is Michelle Gin, and when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa I went abroad more often than perhaps any other students before me. I spent time studying, working, interning, researching, and traveling in over 20 countries. I have spent significant time in France, The Netherlands, The Gambia, Costa Rica, and India.

I am a “toubab.” This is a term used in West Africa to describe a foreigner. However, when directly translated it means white person. It is accurate in the sense that I am an American. However, my appearance does not properly reflect “toubab.” My family originates from Hong Kong. When in the United States, many times I am asked the very familiar question of, “What are you?” I always respond Chinese. This is because it is assumed that they are asking about my racial background. Being abroad, everything changes. Many judge me at first glance and presume that I am from some Asian country. However, once I speak, my American accent comes out and people realize I am from the United States, or Canada.

I have never found it offensive when someone made a mistake about my background when trying to get to know me. However, over time when pesky people on the street shout out, “Ni hao!” and cat call you, try to sell something to you, or hope to gain a green card by marrying you, it gets very aggravating. They sometimes try to get my attention through Mandarin when the language I have some familiarity with is Cantonese. People will constantly just yell out “Hey, China girl!” or perhaps “Hey, Indian girl!”

It made me upset that I was automatically grouped into this category. I classify myself as American rather than Chinese when abroad. This is because I was born and grew up in the United States. This is the history and culture I am accustomed to.

Though annoyed, I brush it off. I have come to learn that I might be the first foreigner a person has ever seen. I cannot fault anyone for a lack of knowledge since access to education may be limited depending on what part of the world one is in. A child in Southern India thought I was from Northern India because “she looks like them.” I was the first foreigner he had interacted with.

It is absolutely true that people will judge you based on your appearance and even have stereotypes in mind. Your job is to teach others that their preconceived notions may not be accurate, while learning about another person’s culture so your misconceptions about then can be set right, too. Others may not have an educational or social background that encourages cultural sensitivity, but you can demonstrate this value in your interactions regardless.

As cheesy as it sounds, you are about to embark on a life changing experience! Embrace everything, try new things, and do not let anything hold you back. Take time to digest everything, but make sure you jump in and you’ll never regret it! This is your chance to learn about yourself, the world, and catch the travel bug!

Now get out there, have an incredible time, and come back in one piece!