Update from Jennifer Shyue - Peru
I have a confession: I enjoy watching Combate, the reality television program that is my host sister Tatiana’s favorite show. I could be spending those two hours of every weekday doing something more cerebral, but if Tatiana’s going to be watching anyway, why not? Maybe a redeeming fact is that my favorite challenge is “Ilumínate” (“Illuminate Yourself”). The hosts ask the contestants trivia questions as they stand under a flour-filled balloon being pumped with air by a member of the opposing team; one team’s turn ends when the balloon pops, sending flour cascading onto the unlucky person who didn’t answer quickly enough.
The other day, Miguel Arce of the green team was on the hot seat when the host asked, “Of what nationality was the poet Mario Benedetti?”
“Italiano, francés, británico,” said Miguel Arce.
“No, no, no.”
Miguel Arce smiled and shrugged and seemed to surrender to a floury fate.
“Bueno,” said the host. “Es americano – ¿pero de cuál parte?” Okay, he was americano – but from which part?
“¿En serio?” responded the disbelieving Miguel Arce. At that moment, the balloon popped. Mario Benedetti, said the host, was Uruguayan.
This exchange brought to my mind a discussion we had in my senior-year Spanish literature class. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but what it turned into was a heated debate over the meaning of the word “americano.” My Spanish teacher, who was born in Puerto Rico, maintained that “americano” applies not just to citizens of the United States but to all inhabitants of North, Central, and South America. One of my fellow students disagreed, insisting that “American” means from the United States of America, and since “americano” is a direct translation of “American,” Latin Americans should be content with identifying themselves by just their country, as he’s doing when he calls himself “americano.”
My inclination was to agree with my Spanish teacher, and I sought an analogy to help explain my conviction. How would I feel if the residents of the island of Manhattan declared one day that only they are real New Yorkers? True, people who live in the five boroughs of New York City are usually referring to Manhattan when they say “the City.” Nevertheless, I strongly identify with being from New York City, even though I live in Brooklyn, another of the five boroughs. I would think Manhattanites were arrogant and presumptuous, I decided – who were they to tell me who I was? These sentiments were echoed in my Spanish teacher’s reasoning as he tried to help my classmate see.
No wonder that in many parts of Latin America, there is such distaste for people from the States, I thought. If we want to call ourselves “American” in English, that’s perhaps acceptable because we should have jurisdiction over our own language. But, if we were to adhere to my classmate’s way of thinking, we’d be imposing our beliefs on another language whose idiosyncrasies we might not completely comprehend. We’d be taking away a part of an entire continent’s identity based on an understanding tinged with our own cultural and linguistic biases – the opposite of cultural sensitivity. Class ended before my Spanish teacher made any progress, but I walked out of the room vowing to always use “estadounidense” (an adjective that means “from the United States”) and not “americano” when introducing myself to Latin Americans.
Speaking of Mario Benedetti and Spanish class, a few years ago, a different Spanish teacher had my class choose one of two poems to memorize for our school’s annual poetry recitation contest. One was, fittingly, Benedetti’s “El sur también existe,” which translates to “The south also exists.” The other was Nicolás Guillén’s “Bálada de los dos abuelos,” or “Ballad of the two grandfathers.” In “Bálada,” the poetic voice speaks about his “abuelo blanco,” his white grandfather, and his “abuelo negro,” his black grandfather, and how his two grandfathers are different but nevertheless both influence who he is. I, too, am the product of two diverse backgrounds, though my two grandfathers had more or less the same skin tone: I am Chinese by heritage and American (or estadounidense) by birth. This fact is something I actively thought about only every so often when I lived in the States; mostly, it was an undercurrent that helped shape but didn’t necessarily define my identity. Here in Peru, however, I have become more conscious that I look different from most people here and, indeed, from the other volunteers – how could I forget, when children murmur, “¡Mira, una china!” as I pass them on the street, when one of my host mother Eli’s nicknames for me is chinita?
If I sound bitter, I don’t mean to. While the whispered comments were a little disconcerting at first, I have grown accustomed to them. In fact, I don’t hear them as often anymore, perhaps because the novelty has worn off a little. I certainly can’t blame people for following their queries of “¿De dónde eres?” (Where are you from?) with “¿China? ¿Japón?” After all, I could definitely blend into the population in China or Taiwan, where my parents were born, though perhaps not in Japan because I don’t look very Japanese. As for Eli’s affectionate sobriquet for me, I find its simply descriptive nature almost liberating. Though the word “chinita” directly translates to “Chinese girl,” it is used to describe all girls of Asian descent. And that’s all it is – a description.
One evening when we were walking together, Eli asked me if any of the other volunteers call me chinita. “No, they only call me by my name,” I responded. She pondered this for a moment, and then said, “When someone is blonde, we call him rubio, and when someone has freckles, we call him pecoso.” “Rubio” and “pecoso” mean “blonde” and “freckly,” respectively; they are simply descriptive adjectives and carry no negative connotation. And so I realized that “chinita,” too, is simply another descriptive adjective, one that Eli uses with love, especially when she appends “bonita” (“pretty”) to make “chinita bonita.” People are not so afraid to point out difference here – why should they be? Difference is not something to be scorned or feared; it’s something to be noted and maybe even celebrated. I wouldn’t want to be known just by what I look like, but that’s not what Eli’s nickname for me means. Chinita is merely one of her many nicknames for the girl she has also come to call hijita, daughter.
I am not giving people permission to start addressing me as chinita, since in English, in the United States, racial identifiers are weighed down by the burdens of stereotypes and historically negative usage. We estadounidenses like to pride ourselves on our progressiveness when it comes to race, but maybe the more progressive people are the ones for whom the significance of chinita is no more than that of rubio or pecoso. More valuable than any “colorblindness,” in my opinion, is that ability to recognize and appreciate difference – and then accept it as what it is and no more.