Being Asian, But Not Identifying With It
“Really? Are you mixed with something?”
I get this response a lot when people ask me what I am and I’m prepared for this follow-up question. It’s kind of crazy that people you don’t even know can challenge you on your identity. Sometimes if I don’t feel mentally prepared for the prodding questions I answer: I’m Black and Filipino. Some people who are biracial, identify with both, but others (like me) choose to identify with one because they feel more connected to it.
My mother came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin from the Philippines to study nursing like so many others who thought it was a gateway to a better life in the US. In the 1950’s and ‘60s, the US had numerous exchange programs and immigration laws that were very open to allowing Filipino nurses and other professionals to come to the United States. While earning her degree, my mother met an African American man from the South Side of Chicago. My father was definitely what you would consider a “Rolling Stone”. He’s done everything from being a hotshot management consultant to a traveling salesman selling hats out of his car.
My family structure has shaped me for better or worse and has influenced my travel inspiration. Even though my father and I are extremely close, for the first 15 years of my life…I stayed with my mom in Milwaukee and my dad lived in Chicago where I would visit him almost every weekend.
My Chicago visits ultimately formed my Black identity where I loved hearing stories from my aunt and grandfather about the Great Migration and their childhood stories of growing up in Greenwood, Mississippi. My dad’s family has experienced everything from slavery, to helping Harold Washington become the first black mayor of Chicago, and then seeing their young, charismatic Senator Barack Obama become the first Black president.
When I travel, I am inspired to understand the Black experience within each country because we’re everywhere and we have made such an impact.
Chicago has been a hotbed of social and political change and as soon as I could, I made the decision to go to college within the city to obtain an engineering degree. Majoring in engineering in itself was a rebellious act – only 1% of engineering degrees are held by African American women. My college experience further solidified my identity as me and my other Black classmates (less than 10 out of 392) banded together to survive the challenging coursework. My career path was not a default in my community. Becoming an engineer has been instrumental in funding my travel lifestyle and in meeting my future husband!
Fast forward 2 years later after graduation, I found myself in Silicon Valley where I met and married Nelli. I was already used to a multicultural family background, but Nelli’s family was horrified that they were not able to arrange his marriage according to their particular caste, religion, let alone country! The transition into Nelli’s family hasn’t been easy but they eventually accepted me. My only saving grace was that I was American and light-skinned which is like hitting the marriage jackpot for an Indian groom/bride. I’m so glad I hid my crazy long enough to get wifed because it has been a non-stop adventure being exposed to different viewpoints, cultures, and traditions of India.
Growing Up In India
I am from the piece of land mass that attracted everyone from Columbus to the British, from the country that gave the world spices, Yoga, Bollywood to name a few. No prizes for guessing! I am from India!
My dad (now retired) used to work as a bank executive. His job took him to different parts of India. He is an avid traveler so I guess I can say I caught the bug from him. As I type this, my parents–who are still based in India–are making final preparations for their upcoming vacation to Australia. Talk about enjoying retired life! I lived in an orthodox, semi-conservative household and growing up my and I brother traveled quite a bit around India with the family. I think these trips with the family in a way shaped my travel aspirations.
Education is extremely important to Indians. It is a ticket out of the middle class and to the big leagues for most Indians. One common stereotype about Indians is that all Indians are in IT/ software or are doctors. Nope. We are in other professions as well. I am elated by the recent success of brown folks in the American entertainment industry. These guys can serve as role models to the other brown kids growing up in the US and show our parents that there is a life outside of medicine and engineering.
Even though things are slowly changing, my parents’ emphasis was always on getting good grades. Sports took a backseat and an interest in history and archaeology was unheard of. Nevertheless, these subjects intrigued me and to this day are my passions. According to Indians, these subjects don’t translate into good careers so I had to default to a Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) career which is how I became an engineer. I came to the US under a student visa and after graduation found a company that would sponsor me through an H-1B visa – a visa that has come under intense scrutiny under Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order in April 2017.
Despite this, I am very proud of India’s cultural contributions to the world. I am from a small town called Manipal in the Southern state of Karnataka. Manipal was sparsely populated up to the 1950’s when the establishment of a hospital (Kasturba Hospital), the first in the region, completely transformed the local landscape. Prior to this, folks had to travel 50 miles one way to get to the nearest hospital. Subsequently, a bunch of professional colleges were set up leading to the creation of Manipal University.
This region is also known for its numerous temples, beaches, forts and its cuisine. The South Indian “Udupi” cuisine originated in my hometown. Monks in the temples here were vegetarian and had additional restrictions on top of that such as no garlic or onions. The temple cooks had to be innovative and resourceful based on religious necessity which inadvertently led to the creation of novel curries that made them famous.
The Struggle Traveling As An Asian Couple
Most of my travels, in the beginning, were places like Central America, Europe and the Caribbean where I didn’t need a tourist visa. I didn’t even know what a visa was until I started traveling to Asia for the first time with Nelli.
During one trip to India, I applied online for a single entry India tourist visa. After spending a week in Manipal with Nelli and his family, we took a side trip to Sri Lanka before heading back to California. We were very late arriving at the Colombo airport for our departure home and I thought I could breeze through security but I was sorely mistaken because I wasn’t allowed back into India! According to my Indian tourist visa, I could only enter India once and my return flight had a layover in Mumbai (hence “single entry”…DUH moment for me)!
I had to travel alone and drop a considerable amount of money to buy another ticket (didn’t get a refund for my other ticket either) to fly back via AirEmirates. On the flip side, I had a layover in Abu Dhabi where I got to see how fantastic their airport was and firsthand how much the Middle East relies on Filipino labor – every store, restaurant, and kiosk had a Filipino worker. Did you know that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the most overseas Filipinos next to the United States and Canada?
Being with Nelli has definitely opened up my eyes to the difficulties that non-Americans face when traveling internationally. There have been many times where I’ve waited hours at the airport waiting for him to get out of customs and countless trips we’ve had to pass because it was tough for him to get a visa.
When we travel, airports are always really tense for him and we usually arrive very early in case there are any problems. I really admire people who are committed to seeing the world and who put in a lot of work to get those travel visas despite the obstacles. I’ll never forget when we returned from Cambodia: Nelli was held up and questioned for 5 hours at SFO customs because he wasn’t supposed to travel within a month of his visa expiration date. This one experience has come up as a red flag on our green card interview so getting stopped at airports really shakes him up.
Even though I travel often, airports are places where I dread going because of my racial profiling experiences, especially in US and European airports. I’ve noticed that Brown people tend to get picked for “random” screenings more often. I have had my fair share of experiences with customs and TSA, etc., that anytime I don’t get pulled out of a line, I am surprised. What’s interesting is that I am a savvy traveler and I travel light. And yet I get profiled all the time. Not fair! All the additional scrutiny at airports and attention (when you return to the US) is stressful and takes the fun out of vacations. I am sure other people of color have faced similar situations that involve racist/ discriminatory behavior when traveling.
Having an Indian passport makes travel plans more challenging. I have to allocate a lot of time for the prep work so that I can research the travel visa requirements for that particular country. It’s not as easy as buying an airline ticket and flying to the place. Prior to our trip to Iceland, I had to apply for a Schengen visa. I had to submit everything from bank statements, pay stubs, tax returns, employment verification, and an itinerary as part of the visa application. Once my application was reviewed, I had to be interviewed by the embassy and only then was I finally granted a visa.
Travel for me was always challenging and has become even more difficult through the policies of the present administration. I would love to visit what this administration calls “shit-hole” countries or some countries in the Middle East but I don’t think it’s possible or worth it given the current political climate. I am an immigrant within the US, so I have to be careful and given that the ultimate goal with these new policies being enforced seems to be the creation of a White ethnostate, it is not going to get any easier.
The Triumph Traveling As An Asian Couple
Unlike Nelli, I think I’ve had an overall positive experience traveling internationally because of my ambiguous identity and the privilege of an American passport. In terms of how people perceive me, it’s difficult for people to place me and at the very most, I get a few stares as people try to figure out where I come from. When I travel abroad, most people can identify that I’m a Western tourist with my backpack/clothing and if I am approached it’s to sell something to me. In India, there is this preconceived notion that all Americans are rich and I was temporarily taken aback that I had to pay a more expensive rate to get into tourist sites while Nelli could enjoy a discount by showing his Indian passport.
I’m privileged in that I haven’t experienced racism like so many Black people abroad or the fetishism that many Asian women face. I have layers to my ethnicity that go even beyond my Black and Filipino parents. I haven’t discussed my grandmother much as I never knew her because she died in a car accident before I was born. I’ve seen pictures of her and she is very light skinned – I’ve heard rumors that my grandma’s parent’s union was extremely taboo (different races, not married, or possibly not consensual). As a result, I have straight hair which automatically factors me out of the Black identity equation and my light skin color could represent a number of ethnic groups.
I feel for other Indian interracial Indian marriages where the in-laws were unhappy because their future daughter-in-law was too dark. I can usually use my appearance as an advantage, blending into my surroundings without the prodding questions, which works out because I’m pretty reserved. My first trip to India was definitely a culture shock when I first stepped into the airport and I was greeted with overcrowded lines, busses with people shouting, and taxis beeping their horn to no end. I usually let Nelli do the talking with the locals and it’s something he definitely enjoys.
I am friendly by nature. Even though I identify as an introvert, I am not one while traveling. You should talk to people! I haven’t had any bad experiences while traveling. People around the world love two of India’s exports – Bollywood and Indian cuisine. Did you know the national dish of England is not fish n chips but “Chicken Tikka Masala”!? I have met so many cabbies, travel agents, guides, wait staff who love Bollywood movies and recite lines from their favorite movie or talk about their favorite Bollywood actors to me. I love chatting with cabbies, especially because they always have tips and useful recommendations for the city. I have had so much good food at these hole-in-a-wall kinds of restaurants while traveling thanks to a recommendation by a cab driver.
I haven’t faced any hardships while traveling in India because I try to immerse myself in each region’s culture. Despite this, as a dark-skinned South Indian, I am well aware of colorism within India and many other countries. A majority of Indians are obsessed with fair skin as a result of the British legacy. Fair skin and Eurocentric features are often thought to be the epitome of beauty in my country.
There is a systemic devaluation of people who don’t have fair skin and as a result, India has its share of racism towards dark people from the North/East India who have physical characteristics similar to Chinese people. In Bollywood movies, these women are often made fun of and sexualized due to the large amounts of illegal human trafficking occurring in East India. Also, Nigerians (one of the largest African communities in India) have a negative image in our society due to a small portion of individuals who engage in illegal activities.
Traveling while Asian is very beneficial in and around Asian countries.
I have been taken care of by my fellow Asians. The best anecdote that comes to mind is from Cambodia. Our guide was this older lady, a devout Buddhist. During an initial conversation with her, I mentioned that I was influenced by the teachings of Buddhism. From that point onwards, we were treated preferentially compared to the other tourists and considered more like family. At any Indian restaurant run by Indians anywhere in the world, all I must do is chat in Hindi (one of the main languages spoken in India) with the owner or the main wait staff and *boom* exemplary customer service! I currently understand 7 Indian languages and it’s definitely one way I can connect with the hundreds of cultures of my country. Being multilingual helps a lot – nothing puts people at ease than to hear someone speaking their language.
Sometimes in a multicultural family, one culture dominates the other, which was very true in my case. My mother’s culture was essentially snuffed out and I never learned the language, ate traditional foods, learned the history or celebrated holidays and festivals. As an avid traveler and being in an interracial marriage myself, I’ve made it a point to focus on these things when I explore new places and especially when it comes to Nelli’s Indian culture.
My favorite travels by far have been to places where there is a mix of cultures such as Trinidad & Tobago, Bali, Cambodia, and Cartagena. Places like these give me a hope that different people can coexist and meld their traditions into one while retaining unique aspects of their culture.
I’ve had struggles trying to connect with my Filipino identity.
My relationship with my mother on our best days can be considered strained and it’s difficult to develop a meaningful connection with her. Stories of my mother’s childhood are few and far between and, surprisingly, she has not returned to the Philippines for over 20 years.
When I tell my mother I’d like to visit the Philippines with her, she refuses and says she’s not ready or that she would rather pay for her family members to come to the US. When I come back home, I often see our house stacked to the ceiling with boxes of clothes and treats she plans on but never sends back to the Philippines. These boxes are called balikbayan boxes, named after the Tagalog word for a returning Filipino and are a common way of helping relatives back home. I wonder when she’ll have accumulated enough over the past decade to prove she’s “made it” in America. I sense that going back to her homeland is a huge emotional burden and financial responsibility to give back to her family. I believe in her mind, she hasn’t proven herself or she’s a different person from the girl growing up in a small province of Manila.
For now, my mother prefers the first world comfort of traveling to different states and recently came back from Hawaii and New Orleans. Ultimately, I am going to the Philippines with or without her in the next two years and hope to understand more of my culture. Living in the Bay Area, I’m fortunate to have a close community of Filipino friends but not having that while growing up affected my identity.
Speaking of the Bay Area, I’ve lived in San Jose for about 7 years and definitely would consider this home. San Jose is among the top 10 most populated cities in the US and the Bay Area as a whole is considered one of the most ethnically diverse metropolitans in the US. About half of the Bay Area is Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or African American. Did you know the famous Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee opened its first store in the Bay Area in 1998? I would encourage people to come during the summer months (June – August) to take advantage of the warmer temperatures. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always sunny in California and we can always spot a tourist when they recently purchased and wore a San Francisco hoodie.
Traveling Respectfully Through India
Similar to the Bay Area, there is a lot of diversity in the regional cultures of India mostly due to the influences of the various dynasties that ruled the subcontinent. India is slightly more than one-third the size of the US. Comprised of 29 states with each state having a distinct subculture, a unique language, traditions, and religions – India is a complex and complicated country.
The stuff you see in Bollywood movies or poverty porn movies “Slumdog Millionaire” is misleading and often superficial.
Every part of India is different but they all have one thing in common: India is a foodie heaven. For example, the state of Goa was a Portuguese colony till the 1960’s so you will see a lot of seafood and pork. I would encourage visitors to come to India to try the food, especially street food. My advice is to follow the “Bourdain Rule” and eat at the food cart teeming with the most locals.
I would highly recommend visiting India during the festival seasons. For example, Holi is in March and Diwali is in October/November. The “Holi” festival is my favorite time of the year and North Indians especially love this festival. For travelers that are unfamiliar with this festival, it’s where they throw colors on one another similar to the “Color Run” in the US.
I would avoid eating beef in India unless it’s at a high-end restaurant. Hinduism is the majority religion in India and they don’t eat beef. Chicken, lamb, goat, fish, pork are consumed by most Indians contrary to popular belief that we are all vegetarians.
If you are visiting North India try not to visit during the peak summer months which are April and May. Also, if visiting Delhi and you have allergies or asthma, carry your inhalers and other medication and as with any other country, take your shots prior to the trip. Some of the cities and small towns do have a lot of stray dogs. Don’t be alarmed if you see a cow in the middle of the street. Cows are a common sight in small towns.
Lastly, Follow the dress code and the local rules especially when visiting temples and monuments. Cities are liberal for the most part but small towns can be conservative
Whether you live in the US or India, a few isolated incidents do not define an entire culture or country.
People in these countries are like you and me. They have similar aspirations around a better life for themselves and their kids. Have an open mind while traveling. Traveling is so much about the journey and the people. Don’t let others define you or your experiences. Be confident and proud of who you are. I’ve learned that it’s possible to coexist and still embrace what makes you special.
About the Authors
Francesca and Nelli are engineers based in San Jose, California. They like to hike, watch Netflix, eat out and explore new places. They love to write about their experiences in their blog, Fran ‘N’ Nelli, navigating through the world in a relationship that spans across cultural, religious, and racial boundaries. We like to share our personal journey in hopes of helping other interracial couples and to just provide people insight into the places we’ve been. Follow their journey below: