Asian invasion

Opinion by Madeleine Chang
Oct. 14, 2015, 9:00 a.m.

A sign on the door of Margaret Jacks Hall (building 460), home to English and Linguistics Departments, reads: “Building access for Stanford business only.” Below, the phrase is translated into Chinese and Korean. I passed by this notice on my way to class the other day and wondered, why single out Chinese and Korean?

And then I remembered: the tourists. The building faces the Oval, where large tour groups often gather and disperse, selfie-sticks and DSLRs in hand. When I asked the English Department, I was told tourists enter building 460 in search of bathrooms and it has disrupted the departments to the point of posting a sign. Having it written in Chinese and Korean is quite practical, as indeed, the vast majority of non-Stanford-led tours include Chinese and Korean speakers. So I must assume good will on the part of the building staff.

Yet as an Asian American student, I momentarily asked myself if I did not count as “Stanford business” because I could recognize (but sadly, not read) the Korean script. To me, the sign says, “Asians not wanted here.” If I came in tomorrow carrying a Stanford Bookstore shopping bag and using an iPad as a camera (like a classic tourist), would I be turned away because I look like I speak Chinese or Korean?

I was tempted to try. I ran through the scenario in my head: I would come in, be mistaken for a tourist, would whip out my student ID and triumphantly declare, “Ha! I go here!” All I would have gotten is a villainized front desk person just trying to do their job coupled with a festering and familiar indignance crawling up my windpipe struggling to yell, “I am not like those Asian tourists, I belong!” despite my squinty eyes and yellow skin.

My fear of being associated with Asian tourists stems from the way we Stanford students imagine Asian tourists as quintessentially foreign (but not in the trendy way, so I suppose I mean Other). The phrase “Asian tourists” elicits a universal eye roll, and for founded reasons. These tourists are known for invasively peering into classrooms, talking too loud, blocking bike paths and crowding the main quad. Five different articles in this paper attribute this behavior to “Asian tourists.” They make us feel like animals in a zoo — observed, photographed, awed at.

What they don’t know is we see them as the animals — faceless beings travelling in packs, entering buildings meant “for Stanford business only.” When we say “Asian tourists,” we mean “annoying tourists.”

Extreme Chinese economic growth in the past two decades has created a new class of people with enough money to travel but, perhaps, unequipped with traveler’s savvy. As quoted in the New York Times, China’s vice premier Wang Yang addresses the issue: “They make loud noises in public, scratch graffiti on tourist attractions, ignore red lights when crossing the road and spit everywhere.” According to the same article, Chinese tourists spent $8.8 billion in the United States in 2012, and now constitute the “world’s biggest tourism spenders.” This has left us in a situation in which we want Chinese money but not necessarily the people themselves.

Where does that position diasporic brethren? I feel zero connection to China but am often seen as from there, and worry I will be lumped-in with my less “attuned” lookalikes. But perhaps they are not less attuned travelers, just less white travelers. Part of the Stanford attitude towards tourists is the fact that white tourists can blend in, and Asians cannot. You don’t see the sign written in German or in French, though I am sure there are visitors (tourists) from Europe.

A similar phenomenon exists internally on campus: we have many Asian American students but still undervalue Asian culture. One in five Stanford undergraduates are Asian (excluding non-American Asians, who fall under the “international” category). Yet there is only one class this quarter listed under the Asian American Studies department, a class called “Transforming Self and Systems: Crossing Borders of Race, Nation, Gender, Sexuality, and Class,” which as the name would suggest, includes but does not focus on Asian America. We have achieved representation in numbers, but not in academic importance.

This is especially disheartening in the Stanford context because Asians have been in the area since the mid-1800s. Chinese immigrants first arrived to work on our very own Leland Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad. Stanford built his fortune, in part, by underpaying Chinese workers (60 percent of what Europeans were paid). I bet he never could have imagined his university’s halls full of students who look like his laborers.

Here we are, 178 years since the first Asians arrived on these shores, now comprising 22.6 percent of undergrads, and still being made to feel out of place by the pejorative “Asian” in the phrase “Asian tourists” — not the model minority but the perpetual foreigner.


Contact Madeleine Chang at madkc95 ‘at’

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