At one time or another, we’ve been tourists. We’ve been guilty of toting backpacks, carrying cameras, snapping too many photos and looking at maps on our smartphones.
It’s true, however, that some people are better at disguising their tourist identities than others. Their picture-taking is subtler, using their smartphones instead of big, fancy cameras. They’re dressed more normally instead of wearing an “I heart wherever” shirt.
This spring break, I was a tourist in New York City. It was my fourth or fifth time there, but only my first time with an uncomfortable experience.
My friend and I had just gotten off the subway to transfer lines. As we tried to make our way down a flight of stairs clogged with passengers and Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers, I bumped into someone who had run into his friend who worked for the MTA. I stepped around the two men and said, “Excuse me.” The MTA worker heard me, smiled and enthusiastically responded with, “Ni hao!” which is Mandarin for “hello.”
I was baffled. I stared at the MTA worker with obvious confusion as he followed his greeting with, “Have a nice night!” I walked down the stairs with my friend, who heard the exchange and was about as appalled as I was.
What threw me off about my exchange with the MTA worker was that he was also a person of color and has probably endured his share of experiences with racism. I may be naive for thinking this, but I feel like there should be an unspoken rule of solidarity among people of color. We’ve had white people say intentionally and unintentionally racist things to us, so why do it to each other?
Two other things stick out to me about my exchange with the MTA worker: He assumed that I was Chinese and a tourist. Both of those things are correct, but the MTA worker also probably thought I was a stereotypical Asian tourist, traveling with a large group with a guide and stopping every couple of feet to take pictures. Of course, that depiction isn’t always accurate. In my case, I was traveling with friends and was born and raised in the U.S.
In retrospect, I should’ve spoken up, but I was too startled to do so. The next time you see someone who is a person of color or “looks foreign,” don’t jump to conclusions. Chances are, they know English as well as you do and don’t fit the stereotype that you’re creating in your head.