This summer, I studied abroad for 3 months in Prague, Czech Republic. I knew I wanted to do this program before I even started my freshman year at the University of Michigan, so this was really exciting for me. Aside from Prague, I also had the opportunity to visit other small cities in the Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary and Austria. It was a great experience to be able to go to local events, immerse myself in different cultures and meet people abroad who I wouldn’t normally run come across in my New Jersey hometown or at school in Ann Arbor.
That being said, I soon began to realize that as an Asian-American girl in Europe, I was a “rare breed.” That meant that I was getting a lot of stares while just going about my day, minding my own business. This is something I’ve experienced heavily in China as well, but the context in Europe was totally different. In China, people stared at me because I looked Westernized, American (or at least I presume) –– they knew I wasn’t “one of them”. In Prague, people stared at me in a fetishizing, she’s-so-exotic way.
This was very surprising to me given what people told me about the sizeable Vietnamese population in Prague and the fact that most of Prague’s mini marts, Asian restaurants and nail salons were run by Asian people. So my first thought was, of course they’ve seen Asians. But I guess it’s different when it’s an Asian who is American (or doesn’t speak Czech) and does not work in their service industry. Often times I would be heard speaking perfect English in a perfect American accent, and still get asked if I was from Asia –– and not be believed when I said I was from the States. Men would fetishize me because they’d “gotten sick of seeing white European girls all the time” and I was “different.”
If there was one thing I learned from my time in Europe, it was that Europeans don’t view race in the same way Americans do –– and this makes sense, given how racially homogenous countries like the Czech Republic are. In Europe, the distinction is based more heavily on nationality. I noticed that Czech people had clear distinctions on who was Czech and who was Slovakian or Slovenian –– even within the country itself, there seemed to be a split between Bohemia and Moravia, the two main regions of the Czech Republic. So in a sense, Europeans were seemingly unaware of the effects of racism and/or color in their society and don’t realize the ramifications of this lack of awareness. The distinction they made amongst people was much more heavily based on ethnicity and nationality, so it was confusing for many Europeans when I told them I was American when I am a person of East Asian descent.
While I had some awkward run-ins with this, it gave me a broader sense of how people from other countries understand race and identity –– and not all of it was ignorant. Some Vietnamese shop owners would speak to me in Czech and ask me where I was from because they were excited to see another familiar face in the city and others would ask me about my experiences in America. Overall, studying abroad didn’t “change my life” in the cliché way, but it definitely enriched my life. Though the experience wasn’t perfect, I do have that special place for Central Europe in my heart and have gotten better with leaning into slight discomfort by attempting to learn Czech and pushing myself to take more of an initiative with things I wouldn’t normally think of doing back home.