Suburban Macondo

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Not exactly Canal and Broadway

Less than a week ago, our friends Lisa and Susie came to visit us from New York for the week. They would be our last visitors for a couple of months, and we were excited at the chance to share our space and our lives with American friends once again. But there was one difference between their visit and those of our other gringo friends that made us feel a bit uneasy: Lisa and Susie are both Korean-American, which meant they would face the full brunt of Venezuelan parochialism, homogeneity and ignorance. Welcome to Mérida, ladies!

It’s not that Venezuela started out homogeneous. According to our World Book Encyclopedia, the country is typical of the Caribbean in that it has had three distinct racial groups: Numerous Indian tribes lived in what is now Venezuela before the 1500's, when Spain colonized the area. The Spanish conquered many of the Indian tribes. They also imported black slaves from Africa. Many of the Indians, Spaniards, and blacks intermarried. Today, about two-thirds of Venezuela's people are of mixed ancestry. People of unmixed white, black, or Indian ancestry make up the rest of the country’s population.

In terms of immigration, World Book doesn't have much to add: After 1945, and especially in the 1950's, many Europeans and Colombians moved to Venezuela to seek jobs. Most of the Europeans came from Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Many Colombians entered Venezuela illegally in the 1970's and early 1980's.

So most of the country has a mixed-race ancestry. Sure, there is a bit of racism between those who consider themselves of pure Spanish blood (read: those Venezuelans who are very light skinned) and those who are darker skinned, but if the biggest immigration to report are the equally mixed-race Colombians, well, it seems to me that Venezuela is fairly homogeneous.

Interestingly enough, though, there have been Chinese restaurants and/or Eastern Asian general stores in nearly every city and town we've been to in Venezuela, all of them run by employees of Asian descent. How they got here is a mystery; maybe some worked in the oil fields years ago during the petrol expansion here, maybe others had come to South America and just stopped when a business opportunity opened up for them. Who knows? What is certain is that you rarely see an Asian person outside of the chinos, as the general stores are called. In the streets? Every once in a while. At the movies, or at a bar? Never.

And really, you can't blame them. The same brown-skinned Venezuelan who tells you that racism is a rich, light-skinned problem will turn around and pull the corners of his or her eyes to make them sufficiently "Chinese" when talking about Eastern Asian people. In fact, that's common: Rarely does the average Venezuelan talk about an Asian person without pulling at their lids. For example, "Your friends who are coming are Chinese?" (Eyelid pull.) No, they're Korean-American. "But they're like this, right?" (Extended eyelid pull.) Ugh, whatever. "That's what I thought, like this." (Embarrassingly long extended eyelid pull.) But it gets worse. Brooke used to teach English to a young Venezuelan boy, and his father, who had lived in England and is currently there working as an intern, once said to us: "I hate Chinese food. You know why? It's dirty. And the people, too. You know what I call them? Chino cochino."

It translates two ways, neither of which is nice: filthy Chinese, or Chinese swine. At least he thought it was funny.

Another thing is that all Eastern Asians here are Chinese. It doesn't matter if their countries were at some point oppressed by the Chinese; to Venezuelans, all Asians are Chinese. When I tried to explain the absurdity to this to some of my friends by making the point that they would be highly offended if I referred to them as my Mexican or (gasp!) Colombian friends (even though they speak the same language as Mexicans and Colombians and have similar post-colonial heritages), they still didn't get it, and almost denied the amazing cultural and linguistic diversity of Asia.

So it was into this environment that Lisa and Susie bravely stepped. I imagine that people of Asian descent face quite a bit of racism in most of the world outside of Asia, but the gawking and absurd comments from our friends' week in Mérida were pretty shocking, at least to Brooke and me. First of all, they were stared at everywhere they went. Two Asian women wearing American-looking clothing, walking around in the centro? If they had 10 limbs and were wearing nothing but body paint they would've drawn less attention. Secondly, everywhere we went some guy would drive by in a car and yell out something like, "China!" Thanks for that. Next time I'm in a car and I drive by a bunch of Latinos, I think I'll yell "Uruguay!", just for shits and giggles. Thirdly, any Luis or José that walked by thought it was his right to not only gawk but also grab and say things like, "Ah, china buena" or worse yet, make pidgin-sounding kung-fu movie sounds. A great way to pick up girls, guys.

Lisa and Susie were great, though. They ignored the most idiotic of comments, and Susie even told off a 13-year-old boy on the cable car ride down from Pico Bolívar. I don't know if I could do it, but then again, both of them had to deal with insufferable Italian men while studying abroad. If you can survive that, you probably can survive anything.

The most interesting point they made came in reference to Brooke's similar complaints of being singled out by men here, particularly when she's drawing in this or that plaza, for being a blond foreigner. "The thing is," Susie said, "being blond is a more respected exoticism here. People dye their hair blond here. Being Asian is exotic, but less respected than being American or European, and so we are less respected."

We'd hoped to teach our after-school group of middle-schoolers about stereotypes and prejudice last week, and Lisa and Susie were going to come help. As if the country were conspiring against our best intentions, the school was closed due to a teacher’s strike. Change happens slowly here.

The one pleasant surprise of the week was that our friends, thank God, made no ridiculously out-of-line comments to Lisa and Susie. That doesn't mean, though, they weren't thinking it. After the two of them left for New York, a friend asked me, "Did people pull back their eyelids when they saw your friends in the street?"

Yes, I replied.

"Hmm," the friend replied. "Have you ever asked them--I don't know the answer myself--but have you ever asked them if they can't see as well as us?"

Now why would I ask them that?

"Well, it's just that when I pull my lids out like that, I can't see much at all," the friend replied, smiling. "I just figured it must be hard for them to see."

The encyclopedia tells us that Venezuela has "an open society" with regard to race and ethnicity. Open, I suppose, as long as you look the same as everyone else.


  • With this to go by, in retrospect it's probably not a bad thing that I wasn't able to convince Juri to take a trip with me to Venezuela. She was worried about whether or not she would be able to communicate at all without knowing Spanish. I blithely assured her it would be fine, judging from experiences in Taiwan, rural Malaysia etc. I didn't realize that my white skin was probably working subtly in my favor there.

    In order to communicate, both parties have to make an effort. So long as I'm in Japan, I'll never escape from a small group of people assuming that I can't understand them and they can't understand me because I am white. It doesn't matter whether I am speaking Japanese or not, occasionally I encounter a person who is convinced I'm speaking English and is very confused. It's frustrating in another way too. Other times the super polite Japanese clap and make a huge fuss if I say something like "good morning", or "thank you".
    These are mild examples, and I but most of the racism in Japan is very subtle (discounting racism against other Asians, which can be highly visible and atrocious) Still, there's a prejudice and an attidude problem to overcome before I can speak to many people. ("It sounds like he's speaking like a human being, but that's impossible!)
    I have no experience in a situation with open and blatant racism. But I know Juri cringes at the quiet racism of her countrymen, or the racism I tell her about in America. I can certainly imagine that she would have been pretty unhappy with the situation.

    By Blogger Gaijin, at 9:33 PM  

  • Insightful and honest musing...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:38 PM  

  • I'm from venezuela (sorry my english it is not so well). I guess you dont'n know the venezuela culture very well yet.

    I beleve in what you say about the ignorance, but go to US and contanct normal people and ask about muslins, and the middle east, I'm sure the ignorance will be worst!! and racism also.

    Maybe in venezuela is due to ignorance because people doesn't know that every body in Asia is not "CHINO", but there is not rasism "per se" you can go and do what ever you want, (if you are chinesse also can).

    of couse north americans will be treated better than locals (venezuelans), ins't it? have you notice it? tell us, so are we racist with us?.... I think you should learn little bit more about us... and you will realize that the manual say it is true, we are a very open culture, open to every body.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:44 PM  

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