*Disclaimer: Race is a sensitive issue. This is just what I experience and while that doesn't dictate what anyone else should feel or will feel, it is equally valid.
I have never been more aware of my race than in a country that doesn't believe in racism.
Just to make it clear, I was born in the United States (Boston, actually) to parents who were both born in China and moved here for better education. I have lived my entire life in the U.S., but I do speak/understand some Chinese. So, I do consider myself American, but even more so Chinese-American. When I first arrived in the Netherlands, my program gave us an orientation seminar on the Dutch version of racism. The word "racist" is quite taboo here, calling someone a racist is equivalent to calling someone Hitler. The Dutch have their fair share of controversial racial issues (look up Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete, and you'll see what I mean) and Islamophobia. They warned us that the Dutch are very frank and straightforward; the bluntness of their speech might be shocking. At the same time, the Dutch are tolerant people, though not out of kindness but out of pragmatism. My program also briefed us on the concept of having our first identity be American which might seem strange, and how we would be more cognizant of our American-ness.
This was a lot during the first few weeks of massive cultural immersion. However, now that 2 months have passed by, I've become much more expectant and accustomed to my place in Amsterdam as a person of color. My first confrontation with race was innocent and almost humorous. A smiling elderly man zoomed up to me on an electric scooter while I was reading in a park by myself. He asked me, "Are you Japanese?"
"No, I'm from the U.S."
"But what is your background?"
"Are you sure you're not Japanese? You look so Japanese!" I laugh, purely out of awkwardness and the inability to answer such a strange question. Of course I know I'm not Japanese.
"Ok have a nice day!" he said and then zoomed away with the same smile on his face. This is nearly verbatim. It was my first time going outside alone and exploring, and apparently without any white friends with me, my background was to be questioned.
Not all experiences have been so charmingly odd. Catcalling is an unfortunate experience every woman faces, and Europe is no exception. My experiences of catcalling have involved shouts of "koni chi wa" and "ni hao." One night a German girl (who is Chinese) and I were in Brussels just buying some fries and they didn't believe that we weren't sisters, though I had just met her that day. When I asked her about the koni chi wa's, she attempted to explain how it was offensive to call someone Chinese but assuming someone was Japanese wasn't racist. When I went to Berlin on my own, the store clerk refused to speak to me in English, instead wanting to jokingly speak in an exaggerated, inaccurate Asian "language."
When I tell these anecdotes to my parents, who were raised in China, they don't find them offensive. They merely find them humorous and silly, failing to find any offense that would make them feel inadequate. Is that okay? Is it my job to educate them on what is racist? Or if they don't feel offended, is it better that I don't explain? My first international friend at Tufts asked me why race was such a big issue in the U.S., why I call myself Chinese-American rather than just American. But it's clear that when I am abroad, "American" isn't my first identity. In fact, I recall once spending several minutes trying to convince someone that I truly am American; he didn't believe me.
Race had never been a big deal to me. I was lucky enough to grow up in a community that was generally tolerant, and I felt safe as a relative minority. Tufts provided another safe space for me, although I do believe it gave me my first insight into the complexities of race through educated conversations and thought-provoking class discussions. Asians are often thrown to the side as a model minority when it comes to conversations of "traditional racial minorities" that are marginalized in society, and the lack of dialogue resulted in a lack of awareness. I had to go to a completely different continent to fully understand the impact of my racial status on my daily life. Many people talk about political correctness and how it's been taken too far in the U.S., and Tufts is certainly one of the many politically and socially aware universities that are sensitive to these topics. With the election of our next president Donald Trump and his history of rhetoric against political correctness, perhaps things will be changing soon in the states as well. The validity of my American identity could very likely be further tested in the following years.
These experiences aren't meant to turn you away from studying abroad if you are a person of color that is considering it. Honestly, though they aren't the most pleasant moments, they are vital to understanding the world a little better. These aren't experiences that have ruined my time abroad either. I have had so many other amazing experiences that far outweigh these brief stings of racism. I personally haven't been offended so much as I am utterly confused why people think they know my race better than I do. I just think that study abroad is often described as a mystical, life-changing, greatest-time-of-my-life kind of experience and in some ways it is, just not in the ways you always expect. In a lot of ways it reveals darker lessons about your identity and the fragmented perceptions in our society. It's all part of the experience, and I think it's important to be transparent about it.