Asian American in Central America

I had wondered what it was going to be like, not only being Asian, but Asian American, during our travels. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but so far, it has been a mix of moments that have either been humorous, cultural, and educational, with only a few incidents based on the ignorance or curiosity that stems from lack of exposure to people like us. In general, if we don’t happen to be having a conversation, most locals tend to assume we are from mainland China (or Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Thai, usually in that order), and therefore we are greeted in some fashion in any one, or a mix of, these languages. If we are overheard speaking English, I’m sure it is assumed that we are from the United States (aided by our Western looking travel duds). This usually elicits the following reactions: 1) nonchalance, in areas where Western tourists are fairly common, 2) solicitations to purchase something, 3) unabashed open stares or 4) calls of “Chino!” (pronounced “chee-no”) or “China/chinita!” (pronounced “chee-na” or “chin-ee-ta”), meaning something close to “Chinese guy/girl”.

In Nicaragua, we were told by our friend, Mark, whom we stayed with, as well as later by several of our teachers that “chino” and “china” are not meant to be offensive terms-that culturally they are simply descriptive words, used the same as “skinny guy” or “tall girl”. One of our grammar teachers even went as far as to say that these terms are actually terms of endearment and affection, which initially I was a little (really, a lot) skeptical about. We often overheard mainly children, but also plenty of adults calling out “China” or “Chino” as we passed or over their shoulders, in what wasn’t always necessarily in a friendly, nor “affectionate” way. However, my skepticism decreased somewhat over time. For instance, we were on a night tour of some caves with a large group from the Spanish school, during which the tour guide had taken some pictures with my camera. After which, I had found myself at the back of the group when she called out, “Where is the Chinese girl?” This drew some awkward looks from many of the socially conscious, politically correct fellow Americans, but to me it was a kind of proof that my ethnicity (aside from the fact I am not Chinese) is simply a visible fact, at least it is here. That Asian is asian (or simply “Chinese”) to most people in Latin America-that it’s not meant to be derogatory, the way it would likely be taken in the United States, where by now, it is assumed that people are aware that there are different ethnicities and cultures within the broad classification of Asian Americans. The equivalent of this would be how people might say “Mexican” in regards to anyone who appears to have ethnic roots in Latin America, regardless of whether they are Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Panamanian, Chilean, Argentinean, etc. Another example that comes to mind is one of the staff members at our school, a local Nicaraguan whom Jeff befriended. As a daily greeting he would shake Jeff’s hand and say, “Tranquilo, chino!” (the rough translation being, “It’s cool, Chinese dude”), with the same amount of respect and affection of a typical friendly greeting. Our teacher even told us that everyone in the town refers to his 4-year old as “chino” because “his eyes are on the small”, so to speak. The local gas station attendant is greeted as “Chino” (although he is clearly not), simply for the same reason, as well as the fact that no one knows his name. We also spent part of a lesson learning popular jokes in Spanish, where the punchline is a Spanish phrase made up of a combination of “asian” sounding phonemes. This may be totally politically incorrect, but given the circumstances, I just had to laugh.

For me so far the lowlights have occurred during times where we have been walking through markets or towns and locals, most likely as I mentioned before out of ignorance or mere lack of exposure, have started spewing what can only be described as “asian word salad”. They start shouting out any and every word related to anything that might be considered “asian”. For example, on my way through some stalls at the market in Managua, I was followed in one instance with shouts of, “Ni hau…..Konichiwa?…..Chow mein?……Ho Chi Minh!!”, none of which I bothered to acknowledge. While heading out of a tiny town in Honduras, in the back of a pickup, Jeff and I were treated to a some martial arts moves, complete with sound effects including “ching-chong, ching-chong” and a hand-on-crotch pelvic thrust in our direction by a couple of young boys. Jeff, at this point, was ready to sling something back, but refrained. As I said, lowlights.

Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that what really matters, at least here and for now, is the spirit in which things are done and words are used. It is different from what I am used to and how we are groomed to think, and the way we perceive similar behavior at home, but I am learning to accept, and in some instances embrace, these cultural differences for what they are-differences and cultural realities.

Posted: April 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Belize | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Cayes, Caves, and Crackers


It has been a couple of weeks since we have been able to post, due more to lack of consistent (free) internet access than lack of activity. We weren’t able to leave for Belize as planned via ferry, due to rough seas, so we hung out with a group of fellow stranded travelers, discussed alternate plans, and ended up staying as a small group in the nearby town of Omoa. The five of us took what I felt to be a semi-arduous hike, through ankle-deep mud (in flip-flops no less!) in an attempt to reach a waterfall, which turned out to be more like a small babbling brook. We must have taken a wrong turn, but it was a fantastic hike and we were in good company. The next morning we got on the ferry and made it to our respective destinations in Belize, where we parted ways (if you guys are reading this, hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip!). We spent one night in Placencia, a small, very quiet, beach town with seemingly not much more to do than snorkel, swim, and lie around. Luckily a couple of local girls befriended us, giving us the local lowdown, and we had a fun evening at happy hour (with free nachos!) at the new Rumfish bar in town. Spent the night at Deb and Dave’s Last Resort, cabin-style lodging, and my first shared bathroom experience. But shared baths are really only such if you actually have to share them, and in our case, it was always open and vacant when needed (yay!).

The next morning we caught a water taxi (getting used to these now) to take us across the lake to catch a chicken bus from the town of Independence to Belize City. Four and a half hours later, of which half the ride was spent sitting three persons to a seat, we arrived in Belize City, taxied to the ferry building and took another ferry to Caye Caulker. Apparently, if you go to Belize you either go to Caye Caulker or Ambergris Caye, as they are pretty much set up for tourists. That being said, we did pretty well staying on our limited budget, found a guesthouse cabin for $10 a night per person, complete with private bathroom and porch with hammock. Aside from Jeff experiencing backspasms towards the end of our stay, which rendered him bed-bound, we had a great time. We completed our first scuba dive (technically second, but really the first dive done without the security blanket of our instructors in Roatan, upon whom I had developed an incredible amount of faith in). Needless to say, the dive was spectacular. Within seconds of descending, we saw several nurse sharks swim by, followed later on in the dive by giant green eels (I’m sure there is a more scientific term), lobster, stingrays, and varieties of colorful fish that I have never seen.

We had been planning to go back to Placencia to experience the whale shark migration with our two new friends, however after doing an indepth cost analysis, and with Jeff’s back going out, we had to make the decision to keep heading in our original direction. After another ferry-taxi-bus combo, we made our way to San Ignacio, where we found very spare and semi-clean lodgings at a hostel. By the sheer coincidence that sometimes occurs during travel, we spotted a couple whom we had met as stranded ferry companions back in Honduras. We arranged to take the much talked about ATM tour together the next day. I have to say I was a little wary, given that everyone had said it was “the coolest tour ever” and all the guidebooks herald it as “the one must-do experience in Belize”. All I could hear was a little voice in the back of my head saying “overrated”. Luckily, I was wrong. Splashing, slipping, swimming, crawling, and climbing through ancient caves, seeped in Mayan culture, shadows, shining stalagtites, and rock formations, through clear cool waters was, I cringe to hear myself say it, magical. Totally NOT overrated. Definitely one of those moments I had hoped to have during our travels.

We are currently in Flores, Guatemala, a beautiful island town with views of the water, shops, restaurants, hotels, tour companies, and not much else. It feels almost like a ghost town during the day, as most visitors take day trips out with the various tours to places like Tikal. We did just that a couple of days ago. Instead of going with a tour company, we took the advice of our friends and tried it on our own. We arrived at mid-day, stayed at one of the only three hotels in Tikal, and bought a park ticket that was good for the late afternoon as well as the full next day. Our afternoon at the ruins was awesome. For some reason, we ran into only a handful of people during our entire stroll, sat atop Templo IV as the sun went down (but not set, as that would have cost us 50 more quetzals), gazed in awe at the well preserved ruins in the Gran Plaza at dusk, then raced out of the jungle as night fell. We had planned to enter the park again at six a.m., but a debilitating case of traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning prevented that from happening. Instead, after some time spent on and above the toilet, I attempted to shuffle my way out of the room and through the park (I should also mention that I had somehow managed to strain a leg muscle the day before), armed with a roll of toilet paper. We saw some cool wildlife, but I was feeling too crappy to learn their names. As expected, I did not enjoy much of the day. We took off soon after, somehow managing to survive the one and a half hour ride back to Flores, where I now appear on my way to recovery while Jeff gets his turn to experience the full wrath of Montezuma’s revenge.  This has been only to the benefit of our budget, as we have subsisted on Gatorade and crackers for the last two days.

Posted: March 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Belize, Guatemala | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »