Studying Abroad as an Asian-American (AAPI)

Jenny Oslund

In light of the recent hate crimes targeting the Asian American community in the United States, our Adelante HQ intern, Jenny O., shares her experience abroad as a first-generation Filipino-American. Her study abroad and travel stories shed a unique perspective on what it is really like for Asian students in European countries. 

My Asian-American Identity

If you’ve read my first blog about my study abroad experience, you already know that it was transformational. I fell in love with Spain, and will be continuing my studies in Madrid in Fall 2021! But there were a lot of hard lessons that I have had to learn for myself while abroad, and it has shaped me drastically to this day.

My experience abroad compared to my caucasian friends was unique because of the color of my skin, the shape of my eyes, and my curly dark hair. I never faced outright racist comments by people I passed in the street, nor did I ever feel discriminated against. And I’m privileged to be able to say this, because not all POC can say the same. On another note, each person’s experience as a POC or AAPI abroad will be something distinct to them. I can say that for me, it was challenging to be the unwanted center of attention or the only person out of my entire study abroad cohort to be Asian. But if I can represent the AAPI community abroad, so be it if I stand out a little more. While it won’t be easy, it’s definitely worth it once you’re able to say: Hey, I did that and I’m proud. But what’s holding others back from doing the same? Why aren’t there more of us studying abroad?

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Being Asian in Spain

Since I am obviously not the average caucasian woman, I did struggle to fit in for a while. It’s not to say that I’ll never fit in as an Asian woman in Europe, but it did take some time to accept myself. Common rhetoric was this: don’t draw too much attention and blend in. A part of me, in hindsight, realized how much this little thing slowly changed my identity. I had never questioned my Asian features until I discovered the caliber of fashion and stature in Europe (I realized how diverse California really is too). And I’m not saying that I was ever ashamed of my physical appearance. But when everyone around you is elegant and put together to just go to the supermarket, and yes, caucasian, it can make any foreigner a little insecure.

There’s also the over 300-year long Spanish colonization of the Philippines to think about too. Naturally, I could see how this fact alone would make it weird for someone of Filipino descent to be back in Spain. It raises some interesting questions for many in a similar boat: Is it weird for me to want to belong here? Do I have to prove myself to society even more?

The Awkward, “What Are You?” Question

I will say that I have received comments like: “You’re American, but where are you really from?” or “You like kind of exotic, what type of Asian are you?” While these comments aren’t usually meant to be negative, they are nevertheless pretty strange to hear. Word of advice: please don’t approach a conversation this way. If you’re well-intentioned and curious to know where someone is “really” from, you can always ask (at the right time): “What is your heritage?” or “What’s your ethnicity?” Your choice of words, even though it seems like such a small detail, makes a huge difference. And as a disclaimer, these kinds of awkward questions aren’t special to Europe – but it’s still important to talk about.

Reflecting on Being Abroad as AAPI

In a nutshell, don’t let the fear of being different or missing out based on your skin color or the shape of your eyes keep you from experiencing the same adventures as everyone else. I took a huge leap of faith, as among the ~6% of study abroad students that are AAPI do, to go to Europe. I was on top of the world. And learning to deal with awkward questions about our ethnicity and insecurities with our Asian features is part of the process. You will be so amazed at how ready the world is to embrace the newness you bring, once you can too. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.  The bottom line is: this is the sign you were waiting for. So study (or intern) abroad! Be different and be proud! Be bold and see the world! As always, keep the travel bug close and your dreams closer.

Until next time,

Jenny O

Adelante Abroad HQ Intern

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