There it was – that tune. But, oh God, I wished that I were wrong.
Da-da-da-da-da-da, dah dah dah. Coming from somewhere behind me.
I turned my head slowly to the left, where my kid brother sat, propped up on a high stool. Our eyes met, and his narrowed. He’d heard it, too. The unmistakable ring of “Oriental Riff” – as in, that “stereotypical Chinese nine note riff.” You can find it under lovely names such as “That Asian Person Song” or “stereotypical Oriental song.” It gets played on shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy, or in movies like 16 Candles when A Really Asian Person shows up on screen and the melody gives you permission to giggle at the caricature of a buck-toothed, squint-eyed, heavily-accented Asian Person. I am sure there are even lovelier names for this floating on the Internet.
“You heard it, too, right?”
“Well, yes. But maybe it could have been…you know, another song.”
“Seriously, Jie Jie? What other song sounds like that?”
“Ah, well…uhm. Well that song in the beginning of the pilot of Gossip Girl.” I fumbled. “Young Folks? It was really popular for a while? Right?” Anything to let us forget about it while we’re having dinner.
I first whipped my head around to see where the tune had come from. Was it the friendly black waiter who had greeted my family at the door and politely seated us a moment later? There he was, doing his job so diligently. He could totally have hummed it. Was that a smirk I detected in the corners of his lips?
Or was it the dishwasher with the dirty blonde locks, scrubbing down the machine a few feet behind us? He had to be the one, because he was the only one not facing us. Clearly trying to hide his guilty face!
And then, I looked around at everyone else.
We were in Avignon in the South of France, where we had just come from a long drive from Carcassonne. We’d
painstakingly researched restaurants near me within a reasonable walk stumbled across a packed bistro called Le Vintage, which served things like beef tartare and angus steak and salmon wrapped in pastry. So, delicious things like butter and red meat and carbs, which I cannot live without.
There was an Asian-looking duo of women sitting down a few feet away from us. There was a French man dining alone next to me, determinedly sawing his knife through an enormous hunk of meat. There were two young men chatting amiably across the table from one another at the communal table we had been seated at, a half-open bottle of white wine between them. And, finally, my eyes rested on my mom and dad, sitting across from me.
They chewed slowly and contentedly, unaware of my and Leland’s harried conversation just seconds earlier. When I met my mother’s eyes behind the thick frames of her glasses, she cracked a smile. The crow’s feet around the outer corners of her eyes crinkled, and they were deeper than they’d been the year before, when I’d last seen her. My dad’s hair was thinner too. It floated lightly above his head in wisps of black and gray. He’d had stomach surgery recently and his teeth weren’t once they once were, so he chewed carefully.
“It’s good,” my mother remarked on the soup in front of her. “What about yours?”
“Mine is good, too, mommy.”
The short exchange pulled me back from analyzing my environs, despite the hotness that crept from beneath my neck. And even the awareness that there were exactly two other Asian-looking people in the restaurant didn’t save me. It was now my hyper-awareness of the white bodies around me – most of whom were just trying to enjoy their food – and the decided Chinese-ness of my family, that gave me literal pause. Because now, despite the friendliness of the host and the veneer of politeness of our waiter only minutes earlier, and despite the actuality that no one was paying attention to us…I felt like everyone was.
Being the Other and Growing Up Chinese
It would be pointless for me to dissect the possible reasons for someone, in Le Vintage, to hum that little tune.
If that had happened when I was still twelve years old, I wouldn’t have ignored it, smiling at my mom, and spooned beef tartare onto a slice of baguette. I would have, instead, allowed a deep flush to spread from my forehead to the tips of my toes, and would have spoken English just a little bit more loudly and a little more clearly.
I would have done all that, that is, if we were in small-town America when I was still twelve, where I had the language privilege to pretend just a little that I was a little bit less Chinese than I looked.
In small-town America, whether that meant we were in Western Massachusetts or Arizona, I would have been embarrassed of the four of us: the bony frame of my beloved soft-spoken daddy, wearing his ubiquitous cargo shorts and loafers; the limp perm and wide glasses of my strong mama, clutching her black pleather handbag, and then my brother and me, trailing along behind them. My mother would “tsk” over the overabundance of fried items on the unfamiliar English script of the oversized menu, and I’d dread the moment a chirpy waitress would come over, where her fast lines and cheery mannerisms were sure to throw my parents off. I tried to do most of the talking.
But no amount of English and talking would have protected us from our Otherness – specifically Chineseness in a place like southern France, where nary a local Chinese person wandered the streets (but I’m sure they were there) and busloads of Chinese tourists rumbled in and rumbled out, their squabbling inhabitants disembarking in single file. Monstrous cameras were strapped to their bodies and visored hats were clipped to the crowns of their heads. A loudspeaker and a waving tour flag. And the locals, who once upon a time, looked up in total bewilderment, at this organized chaos of Chinese people, now cluck dismissively and shrug.
It’s just the way things are now, they say.
How Chinese Tourists Took Over the World
Growing up, I didn’t even know that Chinese people traveled. Except that one time I took that one Chinese tour bus down to Washington, D.C. But that was mainly because my Gong Gong – my mother’s father – was coming to the United States for the very first time, and my parents’ knowledge of U.S. history was sparse at best. Long gone were those days where my mother would hand over a list of questions to my seven-year-old self and she’d hammer off the names of presidents in anticipation of her naturalization exam.
They passed, by the way. Ask them today what the branches of the government are and my mother is likely to snap “Of course I know,” and hastily change the subject.
So we got on that bus, and despite having exactly 15 and a half minutes for a bathroom break for 30+ people and 21 minutes and 47 seconds to see the White House, I don’t remember not having a good time…
The Chinese tour bus, instead of being a once-in-a-while idiosyncratic pocket of travel imagery, is now a full-blown comedic and oft-ridiculed cultural phenomenon. There the Chinese tourists are, with their tour guide flags held aloft, a loudspeaker or three, in their Gucci sneakers and Rayban visors and their hot pink fishnet shawls.
And they’re totally overtaking the tourism sector, where they already spend more than a fifth of the money spent by outbound tourists , and that number is only expected to grow. In my partner’s town of Ancona, the small port city on the East Coast of Italy, which houses not more than three Chinese restaurants, luxury stories now house smiling Chinese salespeople – one for every shop. There are now direct flights from this little city in Le Marche to China. Ancona is a city where perplexed whispers of “la Cinese!” still occasionally followed me on nighttime strolls in the harbor.
Ancona, my lovely: You’re about to see a lot more Cinesi.
Aside from the sheer volume of Chinese holidaymakers, the behavior of this newly-middle class demographic is another story entirely. “When Chinese people visit other countries,” my dad says drily, “They still act the same as they do in China. They spit, they pee, they don’t know how to stand in line patiently. China is a big country.” I vividly remember walking in the Beijing airport and watching a little middle-aged man throw his head back, hawking a big one, and shooting it straight on the shiny marble floor of the terminal.
Complaining About Chinese Tourists Makes Me Love My Parents More
“God, there are about a million Chinese tourists here,” I said, as another bus pulled into a Lookout point on Lake Tekapo.
Yes, there are about a million Chinese tourists there. But there they were, with their children, and their smiles, and their cameras. No one spit (not even outdoors, no). No one threw a tantrum or cut me in line when I tried to buy some smoked salmon. They milled about, got excited about photo spots, bought boxes and boxes of salmon and crackers.
And then they piled back into their buses and were gone.
I remembered the first time we’d gone to Europe together. I was fourteen.
This was before the age of superpower smartphones, and my dad had had a beautifully adorable obsession with Rick Steves. His books littered our kitchen table and hid in the crannies of our living room. I read guides on Spain and Ireland from cover to cover.
Armed with those guidebooks, a tripod, his withered fanny pack, and three cameras, he guided the three of us, like a pack of mules, through London, Paris, Barcelona, Hamburg, Venice, Florence, and Rome. This family of four schlepped through Europe on a shoestring budget for two weeks, stayed in hostels with students and partiers, and slept in bunk beds. My dad asked for instructions on the street and was often rebuffed: “I dunno, mate.” When he was, he whipped out his little pocket language books (one for each country!) and flipped to the phrases he’d wanted to use, saying them slowly out loud, so sincere and earnest in his attempts that even the most surly local would have softened up.
We didn’t get on those Chinese tours, but we weren’t anything but Chinese tourists.
There I am, sitting in a crowded bistro, in the south of France. My parents, both over the age of sixty by now, quietly finished a delicate soup and a medium-well done steak between them, sipping the red wine that I’d ordered.
I still do all the talking, because I’ve seen the impatience in the eyes of a concierge or a driver when my parents, completely assimilated to the American accent, ask them to repeat themselves a third time. And I’ll be damned if I let them roll their eyes and sigh at these older Chinese people who can’t seem to speak English.
And as I looked at their faces, and saw the age etched onto their skin, the pockmarks on my mother’s still flawlessly smooth cheeks and the little pouches beneath my dad’s eyes, I remembered the Rick Steves guidebooks and the hostels, and the two times he was pickpocketed – once in Paris and once in Barcelona.
I remembered the tirelessness of them waking up in the top bunks amongst a room full of 16 teenagers and my dad proudly speaking the little French that he knew in Paris.
Later, when we left the restaurant, I noticed the one next door – a Japanese and Korean restaurant with a modest number of patrons – the numbers nowhere near the packed house we’d just left. I linked arms with my mom.
“Did you like the food, mommy?”
She slipped her hand into mine. “Yes, very much.”