Chinese-American in Senegal

A couple months I talked about viewing my PC service through a lens of positivity. It’s been working really well for me. It has helped me laugh through uncomfortable moments, cherish awkward misunderstandings, and overall love what I do and where I am. Though, I noticed I become disheartened by conversations and comments regarding race. Here, I am going to be as honest as possible meanwhile sharing my experiences surrounding this topic through understanding the local culture.

We, as Americans understand the difficulty of comments/conversations/jokes regarding race. It’s always been a sensitive topic because America is a melting pot. America is filled with people from all over the world, and although we have our struggles, we understand at the end of the day, we are all human. We are all interconnected by our humanity and compassion. The word “racist” only exists in parts of the world that have the luxury of experiencing different cultures. The western world is educated, they understand the world is made up of people with all different backgrounds, and most importantly they respect each others’ sensitivity to the topic of race. They have the money and education to travel and see the variety of culture, meanwhile those that have been oppressed during the era of imperialism, struggle to see what we see.

Senegal’s history with the western world has been limited and mostly negative. The French have occupied their country for so long and have created such a reputation that the locals have succumbed to name calling, aka “toubab”. Anything French is called toubab. And now it’s become a more generic term meaning anyone foreign or anything surrounding the French language or culture. Most of Africa has been ravaged for resources and much of it has had aid thrown at it that does very little to improve the living conditions. This is evident in children especially. Since a young age, children think foreigners have money, and many foreigners just give things away. This concept is so embedded that I’ll walk anywhere and any child will come up to me and say “toubab mymaa sant franc” meaning, “foreigner give me 100 cfa.” This asking comes in all shapes and sizes. I’ve been in a local boutique before where a child has said to me

“I want a banana, Rokhaya”
“You have money in your hand, are you going to buy one?”
“No, you’re going to buy me one.”

Or even a grown woman
“Rokhaya buy a yogurt for me”
“I only have money for me”

It ends with her chasing me back to my house trying to wrangle money from my hand… Though it makes for a memorable story, tackling these issues in my PC service has proven to be perplexing and frustrating.

Then we have their perceptions of Americans. The Senegalese people love Americans. We’ve been in their country since about the beginning of PC. There are about 220 volunteers in this country; one of the largest programs in Africa. We speak local languages and have been working alongside locals for about 50 years. Now on the opposite end, their opinions of the Chinese are not as positive. In fact, many Chinese corporations have been buying large pieces of land all over Africa, and the Senegalese don’t appreciate that someone else is developing their land. As you can imagine, this makes being a Chinese-American difficult. I’ve always grown up representing 2 cultures, and it’s evident in my appearance and where I have spent my entire life. Because of the local negativity towards Chinese people, I feel almost ashamed to admit I’m Chinese. I’m much prouder of the fact that I’m an American, but truth is, that’s half of my identity. As a PCV I’m representing America 24/7. That’s one thing that has been pounded into our brains since we decided to join, so naturally I want to represent America, but I should represent all aspects of American culture, including the diversity within.

There’s the background. In my mind I understand all these limitations in Senegalese culture, but my heart does feel a twinge of discomfort when I talk about my race. I’m going to give 2 examples of conversations that I have had that give you a good idea of what I experience here.

Example 1:
“Why are you riding the bus? You are young. You can walk this distance easily”
“I am riding the bus because I don’t like being called toubab (‘foreigner’ in local language) or chinowa as I walk. Taking the bus is just easier.”
“Well if people don’t call you toubab, what should they call you?”
“They should address me like they address Senegalese women, madam or soxnasi (‘madam’ in local language) are fine.”

This conversation is one that happened to me recently, but I believe it represents something that all PCVs face. In situations like this I think, am I not a human? Can I not be called Madam because I’m not a human who is female? Am I so different that the only thing you can do is call me a name that means foreigner? What should people call me? What? Did you really just ask me that? How about my name or a respective term for a stranger in the streets? If I was in America, no one would ever cat-call me in streets by shouting CHINESE-AMERICAN, but here it happens over 20 times in a single day. Why can I not be treated equally as a local woman?

I won’t lie to you, it sucks not feeling like I’m being treated equally. I can’t say that America is perfect and being a minority in America means I get treated equally, but I would say in America, we hide a lot of our thoughts through social courtesy. For many of my peers this is the first time they have ever felt this way, but for me, I have felt this way in the past, and it’s heartbreaking feeling this way again.

Example 2:
“Are you Japanese?”
“No, I’m-”
“Oh, Korean”
“No, I’m-”
“Oh Chinese!”
“No, I’m American.”
“You can’t be American, you are joking. You are Chinese.”
“I was born in America. I speak English. I went to school in America.”
“No, you aren’t American”

I have conversations similar to this one quite often, but this specific conversation happened when I was with another volunteer, and she had to step in and confirm that I was indeed American, like her. My reactions included: if you are asking me question, why won’t you let me answer? (This is actually a regular occurrence when I talk to men, many times they don’t hear me until someone else sticks up for me. A post about gender issues is coming soon) Why is it so hard to believe? Why don’t you believe me when I say I am American? Is it because of the way I look? Is that the only thing that defines me?

Having conversations that challenge equality and half of my identity are hard to swallow. I deal with rudeness, disbelief, racism, and discrimination everyday, and it’s not easy. But, locals are not to blame for this misfortune, though they are the ones who implement it, the real culprit is an oppressed culture that has been struck by poverty and hardship. This is why we are here. We are here to impart knowledge in areas we are trained in, promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of locals, and vice versa.

So, now we’re at the end of this post and I want to end with my new goal. My new goal is to have more patience surrounding topics of race and do my best to keep sharing my background in hopes that someday someone will understand my 2 parted identity.

Wish me luck!
Tiffany

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