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Latin America Kevin Dispatch

Help! Call 911! Identity Crisis in Peru!

Everywhere I go in Peru the people appear consistently friendly and eager to meet me. I love the Peruvian's open and inviting attitude, which is equally helpful to visitors from anywhere. Yet, one of the things I find annoying is that an overwhelming amount of people assume that I am either Japanese or Chinese! (I was born in Vietnam. To learn more, check out my "Meet Kevin" Page.)

President Fujimori of Peru is of Japanese descent
It is true that over one-sixth of the world's population comes from China, and about 125 million people live in Japan. Interestingly, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, known here by all, is of Japanese descent. However, I find this assumption, which tends to be the preliminary topic in all of my conversations, to be rather tiresome day after day. If it were not for the fact that I, as a child, did not know the difference between a Peruvian and Bolivian, then I probably would not be able to smile and patiently explain who I am each time. Then again, most people who presume that I am Japanese are not children. Surprisingly, they are actually older than I am.

Polite people usually ask me, "De donde es? " (where are you from), and with them I am certainly willing to go through the whole long saga: Vietnam, airplane, Philadelphia, France, San Francisco etc, and anything else they want to know. But many others just come right out and tell me, "You're from Japan, no? " It is a lose/lose situation for me because when I say, "No, I'm from the United States, " they never believe me. They persist, "But where are you REALLY from? " Believe it or not, they often demonstrate why I can not possibly be from the United States by pulling on the corner of their own eyes with their index finger, just to indicate to me a feature in my face that perhaps I have not noticed all these years.

Clearly I realize that these gestures are not meant to be insulting, but I can't help feeling the approach of the big "I" pass before my (slanted) eyes ("I" for Ignorance, not Inti). Sometimes when I am feeling particularly annoyed, I respond by making them try to name at least a few other countries in Asia until they guess right. Some refuse to bother, and instead continue to say Japan or China, perhaps in the off chance I'll come around. Of course once they accept that I am from the US, then they get to go for round two of "where I was born. " One man who believed I was born somewhere in Asia listed, "Thailand? Indonesia? Hawaii? " I wondered if the last one counted to him as being from the US or not. When I become extremely frustrated I usually respond to the persistent question of "Es Japones?" by a clever retort of, "No, es de Ecuador? " We usually call it even right there.

For some reason, people are less adamant about claiming that I am Chinese than Japanese. Vendors usually just call out to me, "Chino! " as I walk by, probably because the two short syllables are easier to call out than "Ja-po-nes! " Occasionally someone will cry out, "Chiniiiiiito" in a sorrowful voice usually asking for a handout. Do they not realize that "Norte Americaaaaaanos" generally have much more money to spend than the average person from China does? I suppose the term "Chino" does have a cute little (belittling) ring to it, and surprisingly enough I have grown accustomed to it by now.

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The problem is that often people have just never heard of Vietnam. In this case I end up having to explain that it's...well... just below CHINA, which brings a smirk to their face and gives them a funny feeling of satisfaction much to my dismay. For others, just the mention of Vietnam stops the conversation entirely and they simply move on to mistaking the next tourist. Once, an eleven-year old boy who was selling postcards asked me where I was from. I decided to play the guessing game with him, too, and much to my surprise he managed to rattle off about ten different countries before even mentioning Japan. Perhaps he was just making fun of me since he never mentioned the United States, but rather countries like Sweden, Egypt, and Italy.

I have actually met a few young Peruvians that are of Chinese or Japanese heritage. From what they have told me, they have been mistaken for the other ethnicity that it doesn't really phase them anymore. They, too, get frustrated at having to reaffirm their identity as a Peruvian especially since they were born and raised here.

What do you think? Does Monica look Peruvian to you?
Monica (of Filipino descent, but born in Canada) and I have had very similar experiences with this mistaken identification here in Latin America, and it's a relief to be able to laugh about it with her. Of course whenever we are together everyone assumes we are either siblings (from Japan) or perhaps a liberally mixed couple from Japan and China. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if the President of Peru were of Vietnamese descent. Would everyone then assume that Monica and I are from Vietnam? Gee, for her sake I would certainly hope not. In any case, I suppose that this is just one of the many aspects of having Asian eyes that appear so different to Peruvian eyes while here in Peru.

Do you ever have your identity challenged in the United States? Do you prefer to always be called "American, " or to use a hyphenated term, such as "Asian-American" or "African-American, " or maybe "Latino"? Please write me an e-mail and let me know how you feel.


Kevin - Temple O' Temple! Make Our Garden Grow!
Abeja - ...And We'll Put the Mini-Mall Over There, Where Those Alpaca are Grazing
Shawn - Dry Land is not a Myth!
Kavitha - There's a Guerrilla in the House: The Sendero Luminoso in Peru's Central Highlands
Team - The Dark Side of the Shining Path
Meet Kevin | Kevin's Archive
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