How to deal with racism as an Asian traveler

Alright, let's face it. We Asian travelers have a branding problem. To our own detriment, we've succeeded in gaining a reputation as camera-touting, mass-market tourists who do little to learn the customs and language of the places we land in. To illustrate, let me refer to one conversation, more memorable than most, which I had with one Caucasian traveler.

He was recounting his various escapades from around the world and brought up the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage trek in Spain. I had never heard of this trek before and was intrigued already.

"But don't bother going there," he said. "The Koreans found out about this place a few years ago and it's not worth it anymore."

You could say it was a bit awkward for me to hear this seeing as how I am a Korean-American. Still, I knew what he meant. Another otherwise pristine travel destination had been spoiled by the onset of Asian tourists like a swarm of locusts on a crop. It's sad but this is the perception I have to contend with when on the road.

One of the uglier aspects of travel for any minority is that you'll face racism in brand new forms you may not be familiar with from your home country. Call it another way to learn about the local culture. And expect to be treated differently in each place you visit as the social ranking your ethnicity affords you moves up or down. To be frank, it's a problem Caucasians are often exempt from facing, as the world seems to have unanimously voted them the coolest kind of traveler to be. Congratulations to them.

So if you're an Asian traveler, here are my tips for dealing with discrimination abroad.

1. Absolutely do not take it personally

It's so easy for us to blame ourselves when an interaction with a local or fellow traveler doesn't go well. Maybe we said something offensive. Maybe we came off as too boring or pushy or bitchy. The cycle of self-doubt is endless.

But if you find yourself here, turn down the volume on that noise in your head. Reflect on the possibility there were factors at play that have nothing to do with your personality. Not everyone you'll meet will have had the privilege to grow up in a cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse environment and their actions will speak to that reality.

2. Let the small stuff go

Get used to hearing quotes like the following:
  • - Touts calling out both "Nihao" and "Konichiwa" as you walk down the street like a construction worker looking for the right catcall to make you turn your head.
  • - "I think you look like Chinese. No? Japanese! No? Okay, Korean!"
  • - If you're an Asian-American and choose to tell people you're from the US like I do, getting a lot of incredulous looks accompanied by a line like "But your face look like China".
I know these little microaggressions tend to accumulate and fester like a bunch of parasites lodged right under the top layer of your skin. And it gets to a point where you just want to punch the next guy to tell you Nihao in the mouth.

But my advice is to let it go. People usually say these things because they're curious and want to know more about you. And one way for them to do that is to place you within the context of your heritage.

Look beyond their poor choice of icebreaker and move onto a more productive conversation. Do enlighten them by giving your ethnic history and making it clear China and Asia are not synonyms. But try to do it without that condescending tone I know you have sitting under your tongue.

3. Stand your ground on the big stuff

Sadly, I have heard some touts will go as low as targeting Asians specifically because they perceive Asians tend not to protest as much when cheated. In that same vein, I've heard some men target Asian women for sexual harassment.

If you see trouble coming, use your head and stand firm to protect yourself. It's always tough deciding when to make this call. But just remember, you'd much rather come off as rude early on than have to deal with the fallout from being preyed on.

4. Be more open-minded

The best advice I can give to avoid discrimination altogether is to be more open-minded everywhere you go. Be present, engaged, and genuinely interested in hearing other peoples' stories. Most of all, eat crazy food and smile often. Nothing can melt away the racial stereotypes of ignorant minds better than a bright personality.

5. If all else fails, just leave and come back later

I included this piece of advice because it happened to me once with surprising success.

If the relationship between you and the country you're in is going the way of a bad breakup, just go ahead and leave. See other places and come back in several years. You'll have matured as a traveler with a new set of eyes to see the world. And the people of that country should have slowly dragged themselves out of their own intolerance to some extent. With globalization, they pretty much have to. So if you can give it another try, you may do more than just salvage your impression of the country in that second visit.

I hope these tips are useful. As for the Camino de Santiago, my interest in this trek has not abated. It's in fact true the trail saw an influx of Asians beginning in 2007 due to factors such as the publication of a popular book from one Korean pilgrim. Beginning that year, not only did the demographics of the pilgrim population change, but overcrowded housing establishments along the trail suddenly became a big problem to contend with.

One day I'll walk this trail and and make the judgement for myself how much I like it. I guess I should thank that traveler for introducing me to the idea.

Photo credit: Sunshine and Siestas


  1. Wow Kelly, darn good writing and topical too. You are an enlightened traveller.

  2. Thanks Don! I hope you're doing well! I miss being over there for dinner.