Yes, I’m from Asia. No, I do not know Lucy Liu.
I was at a club in downtown Buenos Aires when a girl I’d met in the toilets told me, “Orientals are my favourite”.
It was dark, so she would not have seen my raised eyebrows nor the awkward smile I’ve been conditioned to give in response to this often-heard comment.
I’ve heard this particular ‘compliment’ several times, though there was something particularly telling about this exchange. She truly meant it to be kind and English was not her first language. Importantly, unlike the countless catcalls, there was no imbalance of power: as a Mexican native, she too was alone and far from home. Instead, her curiosity spoke to broader themes of confusion and my irregularity as a woman of colour, travelling alone.
My family is from the Philippines, a country in the global south that many gap yah students tell me is the next Bali (but the food is a bit questionable, definitely don’t eat the meat there). Beyond thanking them for their input, I tell them I’m quite familiar with the country, having visited family there many times. There, I am one of many Filipinas travelling home, to beautiful bahay. In South America, this was not the case. As a woman travelling alone, I was deemed brave; yet as a woman of colour, I was also an anomaly.
A study published in The Services Industries Journal investigated this link between ethnicity and travel. They found the British industry catered primarily for white consumers, largely due to the misconception that ethnic minorities mostly travelled to their homelands.
I was not in South America to rediscover the homeland – I was far from it, despite my fellow travellers often mistaking me for someone from Peru or Bolivia. In truth, I was there to see new things, meet people and experience new cultures. I was there to have fun.
It was in South America, travelling alone, that I saw Buenos Aires dancing to its own beat. Here, sixty-year old couples tango in the plazas of San Telmo every Sunday. Alone, I saw the lunar landscapes of the Bolivian altiplano toying with the light; in every detail there was something, a rock or rising steam, reminding you how beautiful our earth is.
These experiences are no longer limited to men. In fact, according to a report from the George Washington School of Business, two thirds of travellers are women – change is happening. However, further study is needed on the income and ethnicity of these women, as well as greater understanding of how other minority groups are interrelated. For example, during my gap year, I worked at a well-known travel agency. Despite the scale of the company, it still remained difficult to ensure step-free access for disabled customers in their hotels.
Reflecting upon that night in Buenos Aires, I was not mad at my new friend. I couldn’t be. Her ignorance spoke to the few Filipinas, and women of colour in general, that travel purely for their own enjoyment. It also spoke to the value in meeting new people: she had never met anyone from the UK and likewise I had never met someone from Mexico. We were both interested in one another’s culture, as well as the reasons we had both elected to fly thousands of miles away from home and find ourselves in a dingy Buenos Aires techno club.
“¿Vamos a tomar una cerveza, te gustaría acompañarme?”. We are going to get a beer; would you like to come with me?”.
It was not despite, but because of her ignorance that I replied, “sí, me gustaría mucho”.