Asian Americans Are Sharing Their Experiences Of Racism While Traveling Abroad, And How It Compares To Racism In The US

When my younger sister went to Europe this summer, I was admittedly a bit worried. Between stories from my own family, friends, and even Asian American women on TikTok, I'd heard enough stories about racist experiences in Europe (and it's not limited to East Asian women, let alone Asians).

Google review of Paris nightclub where people often mention "racist" and "skin color"
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However, it's pretty normalized and not often talked about — especially considering how glamorized European travel often is. So, in an effort to center Asian American experiences and raise awareness, I asked Asian Americans to share their experiences of racism while abroad. Here are some of their stories:

Note: These stories are naturally limited to the responses we received by readers and are not reflective of the experience of all Asian Americans (a diverse identity that encompasses more than 20 ethnicities). 

1."In 2016, my sister and I saw the first showing of Cursed Child in London. Afterward, we tried to get Pizza Express nearby. The waiter was from Italy and acted like he was too busy to seat us; however, he was only refilling some waters and chatting with his coworkers. After waiting for 20 minutes, we realized he had no intention of seating us and left. This was the most blatant form of racism I experienced in a long time, and I still think about it to this day.

Thames River

"The US is not perfect, and there are definitely overt acts of racism that we see every day in the news — especially with the pandemic — but there is an insidious undercurrent of racism in the UK and Europe where you feel second class."

emilyrxyang

Karl Hendon / Getty Images

2."When I was young, I travelled a lot. Once, at a hotel, they wouldn't give my family a room despite having a reservation. They told us we were at the 'other' location. When I later backpacked through Europe myself, the same thing happened: The hotel staff said they were full and wouldn't allow me to stay, but their website showed they had rooms available."

puppylover4eva

3."The racism was different than in the US because it was much more overt. While out at a bar in Portugal this past summer, this guy yelled, 'Samurai!' at me. He then made a karate chop motion and tried to grab the mask off my face.

street in Portugal

"I froze at first and then yelled at him to back off."

—Anonymous, 27, California

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4."I studied abroad in Florence for a year, and while most of my experiences with locals were lovely, I was often asked, 'Where are you from?' When I'd answer, 'California,' they'd say, 'No, where are you really from?' When I'd repeat, 'California,' they'd ask, 'Where are your parents from?' I'd tell them, 'China,' and they'd then nod along and say, 'Ah,' as if they'd known all along.

overhead view of Florence

"My roommate, who's fifth-generation Japanese, also got asked that a lot. She'd always answer, 'California,' and some people would ask her as far back as her great-grandparents before giving up."

—Katherine

Suttipong Sutiratanachai / Getty Images

5."When I was in the UK, my boyfriend and I were taking the Tube, and some French guys, about my age, were speaking loudly in French, insulting every person in the carriage. There were Black people, people wearing hijabs, a person with a caretaker — these guys mocked the color of their skin, the way they dressed, and their religion, and made assumptions all while laughing hysterically. It was infuriating. Then, they got to me, an Asian girl. They started going on about my 'yellow' skin color and my accent (lol, what accent?) before calling me some seriously racist names in French. Well, the joke was on them, because I'm a francophone. I blasted them right back in French until they were tomato red. They stopped immediately. I swear they stopped breathing.

The Tube

"Their absolutely stunned faces are still etched into my memory."

—Anonymous, 33, Canada

Cultura Rm Exclusive / Getty Images/Image Source

6."When I was in Venice with my grandma, she wanted to buy a souvenir shirt for my cousin. Almost immediately, the shop keeper started mocking her and saying things like, 'Ching ching, chong chong.' I didn't want to make a scene, but I was livid. This woman has been nothing but loving and kind to everyone. My mother and grandfather joined us shortly at the shop, and the shopkeeper blew up, screaming, 'Four people at this shop, and all you will buy is one T-shirt!' He then ripped the T-shirt out of my grandmother's hands. We were in the store for, at most, 10 minutes, and the store was completely empty. My mother ripped him a new one and stormed out.

A street square

"The most frustrating thing is there isn't anything I could say back to him that would make him feel as shitty as he made us feel."

—Emily

Jorg Greuel / Getty Images

7."I've traveled extensively in Europe, especially as I'm married to a German woman. In France, while I was with a travel group of all Asians, waiters on the street would mimic karate moves at us as our group passed by. At the base of the Eiffel Tower, a French teenager shouted 'konnichiwa' to me in a crowd. He instantly regretted this when I displayed the fullness of my New York upbringing inches from his face. Seeing him cower away in fear was very gratifying. The first time I met my wife's German grandparents, they had no qualms — while talking amongst themselves — using words like 'ching chong' in reference to me. They said it openly in front of me, as if I wouldn't mind. My wife was horrified and corrected them, but for a brief moment, I was going to kick some old German ass and enjoy doing it.

base of Eiffel Tower and lawn

"Overall, the racism I've encountered in Europe has been largely similar to the racism encountered here in America."

—Yikui (Coy) Gu, Pennsylvania

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8."I found that the racism I experienced in Europe was based more on plain ignorance than willful racism, though it definitely depended on the city. When I worked as a language assistant in a small French town, many students would ask me if I was adopted. I thought it was a curious question as I've never been asked that before, but then, I realized the only three Asian students in school were all adopted, so they genuinely thought that Asian Americans must've been adopted as well. In Marseilles, an elderly couple approached me in a park to chit-chat, and the husband asked where I was from. When I said the US, he went, 'Americans don't look like this, though,' and proceeded to do the slanty-eyed face with his fingers. His wife then dragged him away. Another time, while on a wine tour in Bordeaux, the owner casually mentioned that he doesn't sell his wine to Chinese buyers as they just buy in bulk without appreciating the wine.

A crowd eating outside at a cafe

"However, these were just a few instances from an entire year spent in France and traveling around. Most people were perfectly pleasant, friendly, and welcoming. On the other hand, nowadays in North America, everyday racism and violent racism are way more prevalent.

"For example, while I was waiting for the bus as a college student, someone yelled at me to go back to where I came from and that he would gut and drown me like a kitten if I didn't leave his country."

—Anonymous, 28, Washington

Gary Yeowell / Getty Images

9."Before traveling to Ireland, everyone was telling me how friendly Irish people are. Needless to say, my sister, cousin, and I (we are Chinese American) were extremely excited to meet the locals. One night, we were staying in a major city and walking back from a pub when two drunk men across the street started to try and get our attention. When we finally looked over, they repeatedly screamed, 'KONNICHIWA!' at us while laughing and waving. My cousin tossed back a 'fuck you' and flipped them the bird. I'm generally a non-confrontational person (as I never know if the other party will start being aggressive toward me or not), so I just ignored them and kept walking.

A street in Ireland

"I honestly do not understand what people who do that are trying to accomplish, but it definitely left me feeling really shitty."

—Anonymous, California

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10."My mother and I were at a McDonald's in France and asked an employee if there was a restroom we could use. I spoke French so she'd understand us. The employee heard my question, turned her back to us, and then walked away as if we didn't exist."

McDonald's

—Anonymous, 42, Iowa

Erithjohn / Getty Images

11."I've traveled to 23 countries, and I'm not sure why, but the most racism I've experienced has been from British tourists. I have many examples, but these stood out: A teenage British boy in my tour group wanted his granny to take his picture and said, 'Shall I do Asian eyes?' He then looked at me and a couple behind me, the only Asians in the group. Another time, in Portugal, this older British couple in my tour group made constant, micro-aggressive comments about a young Asian couple taking pictures of the winery we were touring. Of course, they never made a comment about other white couples in the group doing the same thing. In Thailand, a group of young British women mocked our Thai tour guide's accent in front of the whole group and talked loudly anytime he said something to the group. It got so bad I finally shushed them, and they were so shocked that I stood up to them. They then proceeded to be rude to me throughout the rest of the trip.

A vineyard

"Imagine! Taking pictures of a winery while on a tour visiting another country! The audacity! And, mind you, in Thailand, we were hiking through the jungle, so I really wanted to hear the important information he had to say.

"I'm American, and I have had my fair share of racism here in America, too. But for some reason, when traveling, I seem to see and experience racism from British people the most."

—Anonymous

Carlos Sanchez / Getty Images/EyeEm

12."Once, I was in Barcelona with my girlfriend, who is of European descent and from Spain, to meet her parents. I'm Japanese and was raised in the US. The trip was mostly fantastic, except for a few things. First off, I could not hail a taxi for the life of me. They would not stop for me, but they would stop for her. We actually tested this several times. I'd stand on a corner and hail a taxi, and none would stop. She'd stand a block away, and taxis would stop for her. Now, maybe you're thinking this was because she's an attractive female, but both male and female cab drivers would pass me by and stop for her. She'd then make the taxi wait while I walked to join her. Sometimes, the driver would apologize and say that they didn't realize we're together or didn't see me. Other times, people talked down about me and made interesting comments, not realizing that I understand Spanish — but that's a whole other story in itself.

An empty street

"The taxi thing happened so many times that we made a joke about how I turned invisible only when I wanted a taxi. However, this power of invisibility happens in the US, too.

"I once went on a two-month road trip around the western US with my white-passing, South American roommate. My invisibility powers worked at several restaurants in some northern parts of California, Oregon, and Arizona. We'd walk into a restaurant, and I'd approach the host since my roommate was still learning English (I spoke to him in Spanish). They'd always look right past me and to him. He'd then just point back to me, and I'd ask for a table.

"Overall, for most of the trip, I was not invisible and was treated well, but it did happen. We'd laugh it off, but we knew how ridiculous it was. I could go on and on, but I thought I'd express my experiences with passive racism making me invisible while abroad and at home."

—John, California

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

13."Once, I was taking the train from Barcelona to Murcia to meet a friend. I wanted to make sure I got on the right train, so I asked an old lady, in Spanish, if she could tell me where to go for help. She responded to me in Spanish, 'Go away, don't talk to me, stupid Asian.' I was shocked and sad, as I was traveling alone and feeling pretty overwhelmed already. When I told the front desk at the hotel about it, they said that, sadly, they weren't surprised, and that racism against Asians was relatively common in the area. However, I do want to note that I didn't experience any issues once I found the help area of the train station. I think with locals, you just have to be more careful.

"I hadn't experienced a situation like that since I was really little, and it was when another kid was picking on me. He called me Chinese in a negative tone, though I'm not Chinese (not that it mattered to him)."

—Anonymous

14."When my wife (Vietnamese) and I (AAPI) were in Italy in 2016, we arrived in a small village and were seated at a table outside while we waited for our food. My wife then said, 'Did you hear that?' I asked her what she was referring to, and she said, 'I think we were just discriminated against.' She explained that she heard someone yell, 'Chino! Chino! Chino!' but I didn't hear anything, so we dismissed it. A few minutes later, we both heard, 'Arigato! Arigato! Arigato!' coming from a portly, local youth hiding behind the church. I admitted to my wife, 'Yes, and we had to come half way around the world to experience it.' This experience was different in that we didn't feel threatened but were mostly made to feel like outsiders.

A street at sunset

"Plus, the offending party was probably 6 years old, so we just laughed it off by amusing ourselves with the idea that we may have been the first Asian people this kid had ever seen."

—Tyler

Gary Yeowell / Getty Images

15."I'm a transracial Korean adoptee. I studied abroad in Italy and then moved there for work. Prior to leaving, I had an Italian professor tell me that I might face some racism, as well as an older Korean student who shared their experiences in Italy. At first, I lived in a diverse city in the north. However, people would assume I was one of the Asian restaurant workers and often ask me when a certain place opened. They'd speak to me in Chinese or Japanese, bow to me, tell me I was pretty for an Asian girl, stare, and point to my eyes or gesture to my face. I've since moved to a smaller city in the south. I still feel the stares and curiosity, and when people find out I speak Italian, I get lots of questions about where I'm from (I know 'the US' is not the answer they're looking for). Even though I wanted to be angrier or more upset than I showed, I resigned myself to shoving all these racial experiences in with the rest of them.

people walking down a street in Milan

"Honestly, it was for the best (though maybe not mentally) because I loved my study abroad experience and the friends I made, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. After moving to the south, I did feel like knowing the language and customs helped me blend in a little better, and my American-ness was seen as 'cool' — even though I probably sound like a child speaking Italian.

"In the US, I've experienced more overt racism. I went to college in a central PA town where, in the very beginning of the pandemic, I was shouted at by a truck driver to 'go back to your country and die!' I've had people call me slurs when I used to deliver pizza, saying, 'Oh, some ch*nk delivered this, we need to wash our hands.' Similarly, older men who served in the Korean War tell me I remind them of a lover. I've been fetishized since I was 15, dealing with jokes and comments about wanting to date me because I'm Asian.

"The racism I've described doesn't even cover all the micro-aggressions I never really processed as racism, simply because I was too tired. Some of the racism came from fear, others from a misguided, generational view. Some people have Asian fetishes, while others were well-intentioned but still offensive."

—Anonymous, 22, Pennsylvania

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