Statistics of Otherness While Studying Abroad

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

  1. On an unreasonably warm day in Auvillar, France, seven (7) white people and one (1) yellow person — eight (8) beige-ish people cumulatively — look out at the Garonne river. Four (4) of these eight (8) are clearly tourists, three (3) of whom have cameras swinging from their necks and huddle together speaking French conspiratorially. The fourth (4th) tourist (coincidentally, the singular yellow person) dangles her legs from her vantage point on the overlook’s brick railing, munching on strawberries from the market.
  2. I am the fourth (4th) tourist.
  3. I don’t know how many people live in Auvillar. Maybe nine hundred (900)? Sure, let’s go with that.
  4. By now, Auvillar’s numbers have shifted to 920 because 20 newcomers (I count myself among them) have just moved into the gîte across from the art gallery. We are here for a college writing program and will be residents for the next month or so. Our demographics are:
  • 14 Yale students aged 18 to 21
  • our instructors (3)
  • our instructors’ spouses (2)
  • one (1) newborn baby named Adrian.

5. Amidst our ranks of fourteen (14), ten (10) of us are people of color. That seems like a large number. Imbalanced. But this same disproportionality is predicted for America herself in a few short years. White people (read: individuals of European descent) are soon going to be outnumbered by non-white people (read: individuals not of European descent). As a result, some Americans (read: the non-indigenous ones) are fearful, ready to pack their bags and move somewhere pure and Aryan like Auvillar, where white people are still the expectation.

6. Ten (10) years ago, Auvillar wasn’t as it is today, says Francis, our guide to the Valence d’Agen market. He has one (1) granddaughter who’s about to start nursery school, which worries him. Times have changed; there’s been an influx of North Africans (how many? Too many.) that has made France resemble “L.A. in the ’90s.” Once he notices the frosty reception to his statements, he pivots. He talks about his one (1) Mexican granddaughter and how her mother is beautiful — she’s 50 but looks 20.

7. One (1) of the town’s two (2) museums is called le Musée du vieil Auvillar. The museum is nostalgic, dedicated to conserving the “old Auvillar.”

8. Every year, Auvillar welcomes hundreds of strangers — pilgrims, walking the Camino — from June to October. Seventeen (17) pilgrim statues gripping walking sticks, tiny waists cinched by tiny seashell belts, stand sentry on ledges all across town. Clay representations of the glory in travel.

9. The gîte we’re inhabiting has furniture: two (2) chairs, one (1) table suspended the wrong-way-up from the ceiling. This décor is eccentric because the house’s owners are eccentric (a fully dressed mannequin we’ve named Marjorie startles all visitors to the living room). Entering this space, you might feel like you were the strange one, the one walking on ceilings. To be l’étranger is to accept being étrange. But not here; not in Auvillar. I speak the language, and the trees here — tall, maternal, branches bony like a piano-player’s fingers — remind me of New Hampshire.

10. New Hampshire was where I, who had grown up in China, first learned the politics of my difference. It was a state that was ninety-three (93) percent white, two (2) percent Asian. I felt like I had occupied so much of that two (2) percent when I was there. But still, I loved it. I loved the ponds gleaming with jagged skate marks in the winter, the tempura-crunch of the Mike & Sharie roll at the only Japanese restaurant in town I was willing to patronize. How the trees were exactly the kind one feels the strange child-like pull to climb.

11. An elderly couple — one (1) man, one (1) woman — openly watch me as I walk the streets of Auvillar. I wonder if it’s because they know I come from America or whether it’s simply because I look so different. What mental gymnastics does my existence inspire? Japonaise ou chinoise? they’d contemplate. Or they might just file me under the catch-all term “orientale.” I could be paranoid. Maybe they’re just wondering where I got this cool shirt from (Zara).

12. In a bustling market with twenty-nine (29) varieties of olives, there is one (1) stall that sells les plats cuisines asiatiques. Francis points it out to me. I smile supportively like, Yes, as I’m sure you can imagine, I do eat Asian food.

13. I don’t have much to say about Francis’s behavior. And I don’t feel angry, even though I know I’m entitled to be. I forgive him because I know he is only one (1) old French man (amongst millions). But also because he hasn’t been the only one (1):

a. I walk late-afternoon New Haven streets with friends. The sky hasn’t dimmed yet. We’re chatting, discussing this TV show we’ve been watching until a car window unfurls and somebody yells, “I’ve never had an Asian before!” We walk the rest of the way back to our dorms in startled silence.

b. A close friend jokes about my small eyes. Haha, how do you even see, haha. He laughs for a while after, his eyes ringing with good humor. Or something similar to good humor but not exactly it; I’m not sure.

c. I buy Haribo sour berries and honey yogurt from the campus grocery store at 11 p.m.. I head for the exit but I’m blocked by a squadron of drunk white boys. As they study me, my heart hammers hard in my ribcage, and I am suddenly hyper-aware that the Something-Terrible my mom always warned me about might just happen. “Hi, Asian girl,” one of them slurs, crooking a hand to touch my elbow. His palm is wet. I retreat rapidly as one of his friends pulls him back, chuckling — I push by them to get out the door, blood galloping to my ears. The evening wind is harsh and I return to my room, shivering.

14. I can never be angry at one (1) person in particular. Because it’s bigger than that. Bigger than Francis and bigger than Auvillar with its nine hundred (900) residents. After a certain point, anger no longer swells like welts on skin. Instead: it’s a tiredness that seeps into you. Watercolor folding through paper.

15. Maybe not having to be angry, fuming, positively enraged is a liberty.

16. I got to grow up, endure my growth spurt, nurture my first (1st) crush in a country where I looked like 1.4 billion others. A certain indissoluble understanding of who I am comes with that upbringing. Even when I was at school in New Hampshire, I got to go home for winter break. I’d board two (2) planes and 23 hours, four (4) meals, and seven (7) in-flight movies later, I’d have left that difference behind.

I know my worth.

17. I return to the one (1) stall in the market selling Asian food. Its offerings are greasier variations of the stir-fried noodles and spring rolls on which I was raised, but I recognize these foods nonetheless. What is referred to as mi xiao here (which sounds Chinese but isn’t) is also the shui jiao my mother would wrap on lazy afternoons. This is the food my people have adapted from their inherited cookbooks for the consumption of white people. This, right here, is marketing at its best.

18. I gaze at the array of food for a while. I catch a whiff of smells both tangy and sour. I make eye contact with the Asian man behind the cashier (read: comrade, fellow insider). “Bonjour,” I say, smiling.

19. “Bonjour,” he says right back. We stand there watching each other. Two (2) yellow people bonded by a frail thread of mutual gaze. Then it severs. His eyes fall to his goods, and I step back in sync with the twisting market crowd pushing forward.

20. I watch light catch on the Garonne’s waves as I eat my strawberries. Licking the pink wash from my fingers, I notice one (1) of the other tourists watching me. Maybe, to him, I am the real tourist attraction. I give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s an unreasonably sunny day and the brick is warm beneath my thighs. I eat my strawberries.

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