Stepping off the airplane into another continent, I felt like I was in “Alice in Wonderland.”
One of the reasons I wanted to study in England was because I did not want a total culture shock. The fact that everyone spoke English in the United Kingdom was a monumental comfort to me. However, when I walked into Heathrow Airport from LAX, I felt immediately misplaced.
As a central Los Angeles native of Asian descent who is attending school in Irvine, I have always been in contact with Asians, whether it was through friends or family. However, this trip was different. This trip forced me to step out of my comfort zone; it forced me to immerse myself in other cultures beyond my Wikipedia knowledge of them. Asians were scarce when I landed, but little did I know that this would be a continuing pattern throughout the rest of my stay.
In the beginning, the trip was absolutely amazing. The program allowed me to meet Americans from across the country as well as become a part of the English community in Cambridge. I studied and played cricket when the sun was out and went to the local pubs and bars when it went down. I had a great time soaking in all the sights and sounds that Cambridge had to offer. However, the good life was about to end very soon.
Because the program was one that was open to schools outside of UC Irvine, I was able to meet people outside of my Irvine bubble. Therefore, I had the opportunity to befriend all kinds of people, from every race and walk of life. I never ran into any trouble while walking around in the UK with those that were young and not of Asian descent. However, doing the same with some Asian friends from the UC system proved to be a different story.
I became more aware of the stares and racist remarks when my cousins came to visit Cambridge as a stop on their European vacation. We were simply walking down King’s Parade, where King’s College is located when some locals called out “Ni Hao!” in obnoxiously loud voices. Not knowing to whom they were yelling, we continued walking. Due to a lack of response, the locals continued to shout from across the street. Instead of “Ni Hao,” this time, it was “Konichiwa!” Looking to see what was going on, we looked directly into expectant faces – faces that wanted us to legitimize their mastery of the Asian language.
Fortunately, my cousins were too tired to care. They had been assaulted with such racist remarks in Italy and France as well. Although offended, they could not do anything about it. I, on the other hand, was completely shocked. I had neither experienced nor expected such ignorance before coming into the continent. This incident left a lasting and sour impression on the rest of my experience in Europe, opening my eyes to how Asians were perceived outside of the melting pot that is the United States of America.
I experienced similar situations as I did in Cambridge while traveling other parts of Europe as an Asian-American. I stood out only a tiny bit, but that was just enough to elicit a response from the locals wherever I visited. Glances that turned into stares met me on the streets. Hollers in Asian languages and mock bows littered my path as I walked from one destination to the next.
I got it; I was an outsider. I did not belong in their land. No matter how much I wanted to explain that I was an American, the words just did not seem to want to come out of my mouth. I did not want to cause any trouble. I knew that once I started to explain myself, the politically correct word-vomit would never end.
Looking back on the experience, I feel foolish for not expecting a less than warm welcome. I have never felt too Korean. I was born and raised in California and my one trip to Korea was nothing more than life in a tour bus for two weeks. I did not feel different; therefore, it rarely passed my mind that I looked different.
In America, identities are meshed. There are so many different cultures here that the color of one’s skin rarely elicits a response anymore. Studying in the UK was quite the experience in many ways, but most particularly it was an experience that I never imagined I would go through in my life. Nonetheless, I am glad that I went through it; I came to slightly understand the psyche of the “other,” the outsider. That understanding then paved the way to a compassion that I never would have encountered without this experience.