[Conversation with a vegetable stall owner, in Mandarin]
“What kind of vegetables are these?”
“Are you Chinese?”
“Uhh, yes.” Great. The last thing I want is a conversation about me being a tourist. I just want to know what vegetables these are.
“No, you’re not. Right? You’re not Chinese, you’re one of those Chinese who lives in another country.”
“Hahaha, yeah…” I am so uncomfortable right now.
“Right? I knew it, you really aren’t Chinese.”
As a non-white, non-Serbian woman living in Belgrade for eight weeks, I knew I would face some challenging cultural situations, but this was completely unexpected.
Last Sunday, my host family and I went to an area of New Belgrade that has a high concentration of Chinese people. Although I have been eating (too) well here, I missed Chinese food, so we thought this would be a fun trip. This conversation occurred early in the day, and although the rest of our outing was very enjoyable (filled with food that tasted like home), I couldn’t shake the way the conversation made me feel.
Since arriving in Belgrade, I’d gotten used to people staring at me on the street or on the bus, but I wasn’t expecting to be stared at in a place like this. On top of that, the man went out of his way to point out just how different (and wrong) I was. I felt like a fraud in my own skin when I really should not.
Just as I had begun to settle into the natural rhythms of life in Belgrade, I was reminded that even when I look the same, I don’t quite fit. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling – for many Asian Americans, everyday life occurs in a liminal space of “not quite enough” – but at the same time, it is a feeling I may never get used to.
The good thing about experiences like this is they remind me that, as much as I would like people to learn about my experiences, I have infinitely more to learn about others (especially in an unfamiliar country). Experiences like this serve as motivation to press into discomfort from cultural difference and embrace opportunities to listen.