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Odd one out:
dealing with race-based attention in Asia

Written by Rachel Hand, 3 years ago, 4 Comments
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I grew up in a multicultural city, largely unaware of people’s skin colour. I never thought about whether my friends were black or white or any color in between. And then I came to Asia. 

Farang, bule… what were you called?

Several hundred years of contact with white foreigners has led native Asians to come up with specific words to refer to white people. I was shocked that there are words for “white people”, and every white person is considered foreign. Regardless of background, even if you were born in Asia, Caucasians are considered foreign and labelled with these terms.

The Thai term farang, used to refer to white people, developed during the Vietnam War when Thais had more contact with white foreigners. In Indonesia white people are called bule, which can be defined as “albino” and is considered highly derogatory in some circles, but trendy in others.

In Java, the term londo is used. It comes from the Javanese word for Dutch, and refers to a time when Java was a Dutch colony and the vast majority of white people in Java were Dutch. Many other terms for white foreigners exist throughout the world including gaijin (outside person) in Japan, gabacho (antagonising Americans or French) in Mexico and laowai (old foreigner) in China.

Sticking out like a sore thumb?

I realised that no matter how long I spent in Asia, and no matter how much I was loved and appreciated by my Asian friends, to the average person in the street, I would always be a white foreigner.

My cousin recently cited this as one of her main reasons for returning to the UK after working in India for several years. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life being unable to fit in, always an outsider.

Travellers who stick to resort hotels and only come into contact with trained staff, as well as those on short visits, may not have to put up with any of this. However, anyone spending extended time in Asia, outside of an expat community, taking public transport, walking anywhere or eating locally, is going to attract unwanted attention based on their skin color and physical appearance.

Although my opinion is based on my own experiences as a white woman in South East Asia, I can tell you that black people also receive race-based, usually negative, attention. In fact, anyone who looks different will be made to feel it.

How to deal with unwanted race-based attention 

Some of my friends respond to the attention by engaging with the people who shout at them, or coming up with a suitable reply. Others correct the poor English used—where I live “hello mister” is often shouted at foreigners, male or female.

Some people get bothered and shut themselves away in order to avoid foreigner-specific attention. Travelling by car or by motorbike definitely reduces the amount of attention compared to walking. Being in a group of foreigners may garner more attention, but it feels less personal as it is directed at the group, rather than at you as an individual.

There are people who enjoy the feeling of celebrity caused by constantly being stared at, while others just shut their ears and ignore it all. In my case, it totally depends on my mood.

How have you dealt with foreigner attention in Asia? Let us know in the comments below. 

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About Rachel Hand

A native Londoner, Rachel has been captivated by Southeast Asia since her first visit back in 2000. She lived in Indonesia for four years before moving to Singapore where she is studying for a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies. Rachel loves travelling in the region, indulging in music, culture and spicy food. Check out her blog at www.anysomewhere.com

  1. Amy HuangMay 14, 2012, 12:57 am

    Isn’t it interesting to know it also happens the ‘other way round’? If someone was being described as ‘black’, ‘Asian’ or otherwise in UK or Australia we wouldn’t really blink an eye but you don’t really notice just how intimidating it is being described as different until it happens to you.

    It’s funny though. My husband never believed me when I mention that I am always just going to be ‘another Asian’ in Australia until we went travelling in Taiwan and it was his turn to be just another foreigner! :)

    I’ve just learn that most of the time it’s just an easier way to describe someone. Unless it is used in negative connotation I no longer take offence. We are who we know we are, not what other people perceive you to be. :)

    Reply
  2. Rachel HandMay 14, 2012, 3:52 am

    Nice comment Amy! I often wonder if, in the distant future, humans will reach a stage where they no longer make assumptions about a person’s origin based on their skin colour or physical appearance. But I think that’s a very long way off or perhaps just a dream!

    Reply
  3. Julia Salo ManiDecember 29, 2012, 8:55 am

    Living as a “white Indian housewife” has taken its toll many times. Being a New Yorker saturated in a very diverse environment, I guess I was more naive than I realized when I first moved to India and married a national. I was used to everyone’s tolerance and embracing other cultures that I wasn’t prepared to be “rejected” per se by my new environment. I come from a circle of friends of inter-racial marriages, never thought mine would be a problem!

    But I quickly found out that if I acted “Indian” in certain ways, people would appreciate me and compliment me by using the phrase “you aren’t American at all!” or “My daughter-in-law is very good, she doesn’t act like a foreigner.” My response is a hesitant..uh thank you? I’ve also noticed that I’ve been excused or looked over in some areas because I’m a foreigner and I wouldn’t be able to relate to the group, which can be very isolating at times.

    My husband and I knew the challenges that we would face and are happy to say that we doing well despite them, but he does get pretty annoyed at the ruthless public cat calls when we are out. One thing I’m afraid I’ll never get used to is the incessant staring, eyes bulging complete with drool hanging down men’s faces when I’m sitting on the subway..its like they are seeing a white lady for the first time in their lives!

    Reply
  4. Rachel HandJanuary 3, 2013, 8:51 am

    Thanks for your comment Julia. Your experiences sound similar to my own, and I can totally relate to the way you feel about being stared at!

    Reply

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