Sunday, December 9, 2012

Blending in with the Locals

If you haven't noticed already, I can pass as a local Malaysian. Penang is a little more than 40% Chinese, some of whom have been here for 7+ generations. As for myself, my grandparents were born in China, my parents were born in the Philippines, and I was born in the USA. When strangers meet me, they assume that I'm Malaysian... until I start talking and my accent gives me away. At that point, people ask if I'm from Hong Kong or Korea. I get the occasional, "Are you Japanese?" Only two people have guessed American or Canadian. In other words, I blend in really well, and no one assumes that I'm a Westerner at heart.

Asian minority in America
Growing up in the Houston, Texas, I was always in the minority. I think I made up one elementary school "tell us about your heritage" presentation because no one was there who knew about Filipino-Chinese traditions. There are a few incidences from my childhood when I was teased for being Asian. I suppose bullies pick on people for whatever reason -- too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, too Asian...  I remember being so thrilled as a young teenager that there was an Asian girl one time in Seventeen magazine. Wait a minute? You can be Asian and still be pretty?  By the time I reached high school, the Asian community in my area had grown, along with other ethnic groups. Roll call for my Chemistry II class sounded like the United Nations directory.

Thankfully, my kids did not have had the same Outsider experience when we were still living in Texas. Our neighborhood school there is diverse with 38% Asians, 11% Hispanics, and -- woo hoo! -- 6% mixed race students.

Blending into the crowd in Malaysia
Then, I moved here and was suddenly surrounded by people who look like me. We were at a restaurant in Penang when I pointed out to my husband that he was the only white person in the room. (Excluding my three half-white kids. If you count them, I guess there were 2.5 white people.) "This must be what it's like for you in America," he stated. Yup.

Looks Chinese, Doesn't speak Chinese
People assume that I can understand Hokkien, the dialect spoken in Penang by the ethnic Chinese. The vendors at the wet market and fruit stall finally recognize me and know not to quote the price to me in Chinese. I've been complimented that I speak English really well. It's the only language I know fluently, so I suppose it's good I've mastered it. Right? One day, I was pushing my shopping cart along the aisles of Tesco when a frazzled, Australian man loudly said to me, "Dooooo yoooouuuuu speeeeeaaaaaak Engliiiiishhhh?" He was absolutely relieved when he realized I could communicate with him and point him towards the rice.

Getting local prices
Tourists and expats are often quoted higher prices for goods and services than what locals are charged. It's nicknamed "The Skin Tax." Sometimes, this is unofficial. The owner of the little boat for hire to Monkey Beach sees that someone is a Westerner, and names a high price. Other times, two price sets are officially displayed on a sign. To take the funicular up Penang Hill, it's RM30 for adults -- unless you are Malaysian, in which case it's only RM8. If I'm the one to buy the family's tickets, I can usually get the local price. My white husband, on the other hand, was charged three times more for bananas at our usual fruit stand than what I typically pay. Since this amounted to all of US$3, he didn't really mind. (Perhaps thus supporting the idea that Westerners can afford to pay extra.)

I've noticed that when I'm at festivals with my husband and American friends, they get much more attention than I do. People push flyers and advertisements into their hands more frequently than into mine. Shopkeepers try a little harder to get them into their stores. It's as if they have a sign hanging around their neck reading, "I'm a tourist and have lots of money to spend." Not so much for me. I just fly by under the radar.

No paparazzi
The biggest perk to blending in with the locals is that we aren't stalked by "the paparazzi." If you are a Westerner living or visiting Asia, you may be surprised by the number of locals who want a picture of you. The number of cameras trained at you increases the younger you are and the blonder you are. So, if you have an adorable, little, blonde child with light-colored eyes, people will probably want a picture.

"The paparazzi" all over Asia. My father-in-law tells a story about  bringing my husband to Japan when he was a youngster. They were visiting the same circuit of tourist spots as a girls school trip. At each stop, more and more girls gathered the courage to take their picture with my guy (admittedly quite adorable at that age, so who can really blame them). Another family told me of being in rural China and having a hard time running errands with their four blonde kids because they were stopped so often. A friend in Shanghai has a beautiful daughter who could pass for Taylor Swift. She dyed her blonde hair brunette just so she wouldn't attract so much unwanted attention.

My kids have only had their picture taken once that I know of. They just don't look exotic enough. This is a relief to me. Most of my friends that this happens to get used to it after a while, and it doesn't seem to bug them.

Asian on the Outside, Western on the Inside
On the other hand, I sometimes find that whole blending into the crowd business a little strange. Is there a fellow American flashpacker at the next table proudly boasting to everyone on Facebook that she's the only foreigner in the crowd? When strangers judge this book by the cover, they are probably creating a fiction that is far removed from my real back story. On the inside, I'm just a gal who had a typical American upbringing.


  1. I hadn't heard of that before, "the skin tax", I sure do know what it means though! :-)

  2. Oh the Aussie in Tesco made me smile. We have had our own share of weird "blending in" moments that I would not have expected (more so when we were living in India) --- great post!

  3. Hello! Nice to see a photo of you, you are very pretty and if I saw you on the streets, I would also have thought you were Japanese. ;)

  4. Is it bad that I am laughing? "Doooo youuu speeeaaaakkk Enngggliiiiishhh?" Your poor husband getting charge so much more for bananas. My word! I briefly lived in Oaxaca, Mexico and being a red head with green eyes could stop buses. Yes, buses. Add that to my student friend was Korean, well things got interesting. People did want to take pictures of us because we were "exotic" (not so much so when we lived in the melting pot of Philadelphia). However, it was also dangerous at times because we would get stalked by what I determined to be scary men. My friend and I had to chase a few off with an umbrella. Great post, M!

  5. This had me laughing on some parts. Fantastic post, Michele! Thanks for the insight into what you and your family have experienced there. I'm glad your husband can finally empathize with you. I have heard similar stories of relatives and friends who visit the Philippines with their white husbands and they get ignored while the men get a lot of attention. I've gotten my share of 'You speak English really well'. This was when I was in college in LA and people found out I grew up in Guam ;)


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