Brooke Goes Global: My experience as an Asian Woman Abroad

November 4, 2018

“I pick you” shouts a tattered, stranger man from across the street.  I look up to see his scraggly finger pointing in my direction.  He stepped off the opposite curb and began moving towards me.  “But I don’t pick you,” I shouted back.  My friend grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to her.  She said jokingly “sorry, but she’s mine.”  In my blue dress, I continued to walk down the sidewalk with five other girls by my side.  To him, I was nothing more than a body.  The body of a woman he felt justified to sexualize and objectify.

I arrived back to our hostel.  I looked in the mirror and saw my exposed arms and legs in my short, blue dress.  I changed quickly into joggers and a long sleeve tee, an outfit that covered my skin and my feminine curves.  Now, looking back, I hate that I did that.  I hate that I let the sleazy man affect my mind and my behaviors.  Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of a woman.  Nothing more, nothing less.  

“So where are you from?” asked my tour guide.  “The United States,” I responded.  His face said it all.  My answer was not adequate.  Where was my light skin, my pointy nose, my wide eyes?  “No but where…”, before he could finish I cut in.  “I was adopted from China”.  This answer was satisfactory.  He only stopped when his ethnocentric ideals were proven.  I fit the stereotypical mold of an Asian.  I, however, did not fit the stereotypical mold of an American.  Despite me living in the United States and holding an American passport, he would not accept me as an American.  The tour guide proceeded to take out his phone and show me pictures of himself with Asians.  “This is my brother’s girlfriend from Taiwan.  Isn’t she pretty?”.  In my head, I was taking out my phone and showing him all my photos with white people.  But on the outside I humored the bigot’s microaggression and smiled like the passive woman of color I was expected to be.  Now, looking back, I hate that I didn’t speak up for myself, for Asians, for people of color.  I hate that I let the ignorant man affect my mind and my behaviors.  Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of an Asian.  Nothing more, nothing less.

In these instances, I felt like the only thing I had to offer the world was my body.  My body that just so happened to be female and Asian.  My mind was of no importance.  My personality was of little interest.  And my opinions, perspectives, and experiences — all irrelevant.  

It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to travel across countries all with the binding construct of a social hierarchy.  The amount of respect, dignity, and humanity you receive is based on your placement on this hierarchy.  You have no control.  You have no influence.  Society has the final judgement, labeling you as a superior, equal, or inferior.  Why is this the accepted norm?  Why is this okay to nations, communities, individuals?  I share my stories to demonstrate how rude acts of ignorance, even if small, perpetuate dehumanization.  

There’s growing popularity of the false notion that the way you dress can, will, and should affect the way you are treated.  As I walked down the streets of Cape Town, my blue dress caught a particular man’s eye.  My blue dress caused distraction and attraction.  My dress allowed him to label me as property.  Property that could be easily chosen and then discarded.  I should be obedient and honored that he would “pick” me.  My dress demoted my human status to object status.  If I hadn’t worn such a “revealing” outfit, I would have been treated as a proper woman.  I wouldn’t have been catcalled.  I wouldn’t have been objectified.  As the woman, I am the one to accept the blame.  It is my job to behave within the standards of appropriateness and sophistication.  This idea is ridiculous.  Clothing is not the perpetrator.  My actions, as a woman, should not be dictated by the limited self-control of a man.  Patriarchy and misogyny is excused while women are blamed — while I am blamed.

My program, thankfully, is not short on feminist women and their allies.  I have ample support from intelligent, creative, beautiful women with different perspectives across limitless topics.  Nonetheless, my support falls short in the area of race.  In a group of 25 students, over half of them are people of color.  Nonetheless, I am the only one who identifies as Asian.  I did not understand how much comfort and support my Asian friends provided until they were no longer there.  Within the group, I have sympathizers but no empathizers.  On days when the world seems to grab at my feet, pulling me backward, situations like these make me feel like a blank canvas, an empty body.  My self-confidence diminishes and my accomplishments are forgotten.  These seem to slip my mind but, thankfully, are fully appreciated and vocalized by my peers.  Those days do inevitably come but seem to be few and far in-between.

The past 12 weeks of my life have been hard, but they have also been so full of joy and growth.  I would not trade a single moment of my abroad experience.  It’s been a main contributor to the development of the individual I am today.  I am a woman.  I am Asian.  And I am proud to say that I am both.  However, I am also a daring adventurer who flew over the coast of South Africa, ziplined over waterfalls, and snorkeled with seals.  I am also a vulnerable and compassionate individual who studies with the hope of promoting and progressing health as a human right.  I am also a sarcastic ass who will not pass up an opportunity to make a joke.  These are all things my body cannot show alone.  These are all things society cannot come to understand when they limit me to a spot on a hierarchy.  But I have come to understand, societal constructs are not my loss — it’s theirs.  

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Despite the ocean temperature barely reaching 50 degrees, snorkeling with seals was a great experience!

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True friends cheer you on as you fly over waterfalls.

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We went dwelling in the Congo Caves that were formed millions of years ago from something as simple, yet as powerful as water.


Brooke Goes Global: South Africa

October 18, 2018

The birds sang their morning song as I began to wake.  I blinked my eyes continuously and rubbed last night’s sleep from their lids.  I slipped on long pants, a cozy sweatshirt, and some warm socks.  I tiptoed out of the room and headed up the stairs.  I crossed the lawn to the metal staircase, twirling and winding up the side of the building.  Quickly, I ascended the stairs and struggled to catch my breath at the top.  The hostel roof, unmistakably, offers its best views before 6:30am.  I sat close to the edge so as to not miss a single wave produced by the vast blue ocean.  My cheeks burned as the salty ocean breeze brushed them red.  The morning mist dotted my hair in a layer of damp cold.  The weather invited families of clouds to scatter across the sky.  But the waking sun was not to be silenced.  Finding the only break in the clouds, the sun peaked its way into existence.  Sun beams slowly reached their arms out of the dark clouds and spread across the sea.  I smiled and turned my head to what I once ignored.  To my surprise, the green luscious mountain, standing close behind, applauded the performance.  I closed my eyes tightly to fathom this moment, this experience, this life.

Muizenberg, Cape Town sunrises became my first friend on the continent of Africa.  After the third day at the beautiful ocean town, I reluctantly waved goodbye to the hostel and said hello to a new homestay, in a new country, in a new continent.

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The morning’s view from our hostel in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Here I am, in South Africa.

My homestay in Cape Town is in the historic neighborhood of Bo Kaap.  Houses stand side by side in organized, bright, colorful rows.  People are neighbors streets away.  Neighbors are friends and friends are family.  The Bo Kaap is the epitome of a community that cares for one another.

We had just arrived to the Bo Kaap, when we starting following the lead of my homestay mother, Omi Mia.  She led us through the streets, pointing out houses and pairing them with her many friends’ names.  All conversation in that moment was ignored as my brain concentrated on what the eyes were sensing — beautiful, bright rainbow houses.  All connected.  All so inviting and radiating.  My daydream was abruptly ended when Omi stopped us in front of a bright yellow home.  We emerged into a quaint and cozy living room filled with family photos and memorabilia.

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One of the beautiful streets of the Bo Kaap neighborhood. I live in the very last yellow colored house you can see in the photo.

Dinner after dinner, I excitedly sat at the table and listened as Omi shared her life story with us.  Omi is an intelligent, witty, and incredibly caring woman.  She is the oldest of four children.  At 72 years old, she is the hub of social gatherings among her family and friends.  On the night of our arrival, the table was set for seven.  She apologized for the small gathering that night, and I chuckled thinking back to normal family dinners with just my mom and me.

The Omi Mia household is one of 24 other households in the Bo Kaap housing IHP students.  The families hosting us students all know one another.  They adventure together.  They vacation together.  They eat together.  This is a community.  This is a neighborhood that cares for one another.

From 1948 to 1991, the Apartheid government attempted to make the city of Cape Town a whites only city.  This resulted in the Group Areas Act of 1950 forcing the segregation of different ethnic and racial groups.  Families were forced from their homes, told they only had minutes to put their belongings in a truck that would drive them to their new government issued house.  During this era of segregation, the Bo Kaap was, by law, deemed a Muslim only area.  The neighborhood’s history shapes its present.  Today, the Bo Kaap is a community of mostly Muslim families.

Unfortunately, gentrification and greedy politics are forcing families out of their Bo Kaap homes — homes that have been in their families for generations.  With the growing popularity of South African property, the Bo Kaap has become a hotspot for development.  It is in the central part of the city.  The waterfront harbor, museums, and countless amenities are all within a short distance’s walk.  As a result of this perfect storm, the demand for Bo Kaap property has exponentially grown.  This increase in property value causes taxes to soar.  New city regulations require monthly fees never charged to families before but are now deemed required and necessary.  Older generations pass and their children are unable to afford the adjusted finances of the now million dollar homes.  In turn, families who’ve grown up in the area are priced out of the Bo Kaap.

Gentrification is pushing history out of the neighborhood.  People move in for the convenient location while ignoring the community’s culture and individuality.  South Africa’s oldest mosque, over 200 years old, is located on the streets of Bo Kaap.  In practice with the Islam religion, the mosque plays a call to prayer at certain times of the day.  Within the past few years, an individual from Europe bought a house in the Bo Kaap.  Annoyed by the daily 5am wakeup from the call to prayer, he complained at a community meeting.  He demanded for the call to prayer to be stopped.  He believed as a foreigner, an outsider, and a non-Muslim that his needs should come before everyone else’s.  He willingly bought the house in the Bo Kaap.  He willingly moved in to this historically Muslim neighborhood.  But now, he is unwilling to accept the community he moved himself into.  Thankfully, his request was denied.  And at 5am, I happily lay in my bed listening to South Africa’s oldest mosque’s call to prayer.   

Another problem within the Bo Kaap is the consequences of tourism.  The Bo Kaap is deemed a must-see destination for South African vacations.  Tour buses park at the entrance of the neighborhood so their customers can get out and take photos.  Tourists ignore the privacy and property of the street’s natives and climb on their porches to snap the perfect photo.  Tour guides lead groups through the community’s sidewalks, spewing ignorant and downright wrong information about the neighborhood.  Omi has overheard tour guides tell groups the houses were painted different colors as a solution to them not being able to identify their own home when they come home drunk.  Yet, as a predominately Muslim neighborhood, most individuals do not drink in their town.  Tour guides still continue to share inaccurate and disrespectful rumors about real people, living in this very real place.  Tours of the Bo Kaap are advancing tourist companies, the city, and the outsiders.  Those living in the Bo Kaap are not reaping any benefits from tourism.  Instead their reputation is tarnished and their property is trespassed.

Nonetheless, I am thankful to say I am part of the SIT/IHP abroad program.  As a student of IHP, I am contributing to the preservation of the Bo Kaap and its stories.  Our homestays are compensated for housing students.  These working class families are paid generously by our program for kindly inviting strangers into their house.  Students learn from the families.  They learn the truth, the facts, the reality from citizens of the Bo Kaap.  But also we share our experiences, lives, and stories with the families too.  It is important to remember reciprocity when you’re abroad.  As much as we take from a foreign country as American students, it is just as important to leave a compassionate legacy behind.  I am honored to share the stories born and cultivated from Bo Kaap history.  I do not take this task lightly.  To have the opportunity to share someone else’s story, through my eyes, is truly a powerful adventure.  I am grateful to have this platform as an occasion to share the stories of these beautiful people in Bo Kaap, Cape Town.  

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The sea and the mountains — what more could you ask for?


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