From the first time I heard about studying abroad, it instantly became my dream. I wanted to live like Mary-Kate and Ashley in Paris or Lizzie McGuire in Rome. The romance, the adventure, and the cultural emersion were just too tempting for my American teenage mind. So when COVID-19 restrictions were finally starting to lift, I jumped at the opportunity to study abroad in London for a whole year. Right after returning to California from London, I went straight to signing up for another semester abroad but in Tokyo, where I am currently studying. Both have been fantastic experiences but have also really opened my eyes to the reality of how race is seen in different countries.
Studying Abroad in Europe
My starry-eyed self was so excited to experience life in Europe. But did it live up to my expectations? Yes, and sometimes no. I quickly came to the realization that I would not be living it up like some of my favorite childhood blonde actresses. Within the first week, I realized that being Asian, in my case, Japanese American, would now become a defining feature of mine. While in London the harassment was less common since it is such a large and diverse city, other European countries were less subtle with their racism. The most common way I felt this discrimination was when I would be walking on the streets, either alone or with friends, and men would shout obscene phrases at me to get my attention. They would then say things like “Ni Hao” or “Miss Asia” and then laugh as though it was funny. I could tell these were directed toward me as I would be the only Asian person around.
People told me that the reason they say those things is just because they’re not used to seeing people like me. I began to learn the way racism was excused due to this idea of foreignness being innately intriguing or unwanted. In a disturbing way, I was considered lucky to be thought of as intriguing rather than unwanted. I, however, did not feel lucky to be fetishized. It made me feel gross, like who I was was stripped away to just an Asian stereotype.
Although I had such a wonderful time studying abroad in London, traveling to over eight different European countries, and learning about all the various cultures, I still couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feelings those racist comments gave me.
Race and Tokyo
Coming to Tokyo has been a completely different experience but it has not come without having some racially questionable moments. Here, I fit into the crowd pretty seamlessly. I look just like everyone else! Unfortunately, there is still some blatant fetishization of foreigners who do not look East Asian. Particularly during the nights at Shibuya, my foreign exchange student friends are harassed constantly and sometimes even grabbed at by Japanese men. The men would shout whatever English phrases they knew to them just to get their attention. I have come to the disappointing realization that the way they treat foreigners is not so different from Europe. I am told again by others that it’s okay because it’s just because they’re not used to seeing foreigners.
From my own experience of studying abroad in Europe and now Japan, I have learned that being foreign can have some unpleasant moments especially if you don’t look like the predominant race in that country. In Europe, I was fetishized for being Asian, but in Japan, I saw the same objectification that happened to me happen to other girls who were of non-East Asian descent. Please know that every person’s study abroad experience is different and everyone reacts differently to racism. What I witnessed is not at all what another Asian woman may experience because I have also met some of my favorite people ever while abroad. I do not think my experience should deter anyone from studying abroad, but I do believe it is important to be aware of some of the realities you may encounter while in a foreign country and know it is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable at times. I think the fetishization of foreignness should not be excused as it is today and I hope that by sharing this experience, others who relate can feel justified in their disgust of this treatment.