I’m Asian American. Here’s how the pandemic changed how I view travel.
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These are Chinese and Japanese greetings that I expect to hear while traveling abroad. Not that these phrases are anything bad on their own.
But I’ve come to realize that sometimes, a “hello” isn’t simply a hello.
Often, it’s accompanied by a smirk and a contrived accent. With one single phrase, it blurs distinct East Asian cultures into an indistinguishable monolith. It assumes that I, as a person of Asian descent, may not speak English. After all, Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners.
Other times, it’s no words at all. An impenetrable stare lingers long after one’s eyes have moved on. As an Asian American who frequently travels abroad, I have come to tolerate — and in fact, expect — microaggressions such as these.
Hear it, brush it off and move on.
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But something changed late last year that made me more deeply consider my Asian identity, especially as it relates to travel.
The wave of hate and violence that rattled the Asian American Pacific Islander community also unnerved me too. It was the direct result of anti-Asian rhetoric associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
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It made me more deeply ponder an element of travel that I took for granted for far, far too long: my own safety.
In late February, I had a staycation at Hotel 50 Bowery in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood. It was an area of town that I’ve come to embrace as a home away from home.
I wandered the deserted streets near Canal and Bowery in the evening with another friend, also of Asian descent. Typically, the vibrant Chinatown sidewalks would be crowded with hawkers and food vendors, filling the air with shrill, yet familiar sounds and tantalizing scents.
But the pandemic’s devastating effect on the area’s businesses — coupled with the brisk winter cold — created a more desolate atmosphere.
It was only after we got back to the hotel that I learned an Asian man — not much older than myself — was attacked in a hate crime 24 hours earlier at the exact spot where I carelessly frolicked.
It wasn’t just an isolated incident. According to statistics from Stop AAPI Hate, there were 6,603 reports of anti-Asian hate from March 19, 2020, to March 31, 2021. But sometimes, it’s one particular event that triggers an avalanche of emotions. For me, this was that one event.
Fast forward to this summer.
I recently traveled to Portugal to cover the country’s reopening, my first major international trip in many months.
In the weeks following that particular incident in Chinatown, I began to realize how important travel was in feeling empowered. Travel not only fed my soul, but it also opened my eyes to the stories — and the people behind those stories — that help make the world a much less scary place.
However, in practical terms during this trip, I was more hyperaware of my surroundings — and people’s intentions — than ever before. The increase in crimes against Asians instilled a newfound sense of “stranger danger.”
Asians are culturally conditioned to withhold. But after the incidents of this past year, I told myself I’d speak up more and ensure that my voice was heard when I felt like it needed to be.
So when several people asked me about my experience traveling as an Asian American in Portugal, I felt like now was the time to share a small glimpse into my own story.
Their question was some variation of this:
How does it feel to be Asian and traveling internationally now in the COVID-19 era?
At the end of the day, I can only speak for myself and my own experiences, both learned and unlearned. On one hand, there is lingering fear and distrust. My parents always warned me to be cautious of others — and that upbringing isn’t easy to break down.
But on the other hand, the pandemic also instilled in me something surprising. It’s a feeling that I can’t quite pinpoint exactly.
It goes something like this: There is a certain sense of gratitude for being able to traverse the world and slowly break down the hate and intolerance that others have built up.
And after the events of the past year, I am empowered more than ever before to show that Asians have a voice that can’t be taken away, wherever in the world I might be. That was the case in Portugal, and wherever I may be going next.
Travel runs deep in my veins, and I’ll continue to use it as my method to uplift my community, those around me and myself.
Featured photo of Hong Kong by Florian Wehde/Unsplash.
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