Customs Control: In Transit

By Lisa Qian

Last August, at the Summer Palace in Beijing, I saw a Chinese father approach a white woman. He gestured to his two daughters, then held his hands up as if he was holding a box and bobbed his right index finger twice. The woman tried to speak—was it English or was it German?—but the father had already signaled for his daughters to line-up next to her, each flanking a side.


Then, the meaning was clear to her.


He wanted his daughters to have their picture taken with a white woman.


She agreed by placing each of her own arms around the two little girls, but looked far uncertain as the father gathered his proof, tapping his phone away.


I looked away uncomfortably, embarrassed by him–for him, maybe. In a country as homogenous as China (excluding the Western portions and Hong Kong), it’s understandable and perhaps expected that he had never seen a white person outside of the media. What was unexpected was that he would award her status simply because of her skin color—something I sensed she didn’t fully comprehend. For her, it could have been objectification, the feeling of living as a museum exhibit, there only for other people’s eyes. But to him, it was simple curiosity.



In Munich three years ago, I took a bike tour. Right outside of Hohenschwangau, a little village home, to Germany’s most famous castle, Neuschwanstein, a German lady pedaled past us and shouted “in Germany we ride our bikes on the right, not on the left like Japan!” For one, I’m not Japanese. But what upset me the most was that I was the only non-white person in our group and that alone painted a bull’s eye on my straight black hair.


My (white) friends and I laughed about it immediately afterwards, but when I returned to the youth hostel that night, I snuck away to the internet café to skype my mom. For her, as someone who’s spent more than half of her life as an outsider, first as a graduate student in England, then moving to Switzerland to be with my father, then immigrating to the United States, she was glad that something of this level had finally happened to me. My life in Ann Arbor, where I, as a Chinese-American, was normal wasn’t—isn’t—the international normal, no matter how much we wish it were. Not every city, not every society wants to welcome outsiders.



On Yale’s campus, I can’t walk through a Sunday without being stopped by visiting Chinese families who want to know where the best photo op on campus is, where the nearest bathroom is, where they can buy Yale sweatshirts and postcards. More often than not, the tourists speak broken English to me—I know they’re Chinese because I understand when they chastise their children for wandering off—which means that they could, potentially, stop any student walking through. But they stop me because I look Chinese, because I am Chinese and that’s something they can take comfort in.



At times like the present, I’m reminded of how seemingly mercurial race and reactions to race are. There is no intrinsic value to any race, yet we place our own value, our own judgments, some ignorant and myopic, prejudiced and parochial, but some earnest and admiring, sincere and thoughtful, depending on the context and experience. In China, a white woman is valued because she’s the unusual. But for the Chinese in America, other Chinese are respected because shared heritage is something they can grasp onto, something that reminds them of home. And in Germany, I felt negated simply because of what I looked like, where my parents are from and who I am – an identity that’s my birthright.


When we travel, we have to acknowledge this risk of foreign judgment, this risk that you’re going to be an outsider, whether that’s externally because of race, clothing and language, or internally because of religion, cultural norms and tastes. It means both good and bad, it means cultural exchange and education, but it also means being regarded with bewilderment, ignorance and sometimes, even hatred.


How people react to outsiders, to the alien, the provocative, the different speaks volumes about the society. To me, that’s as much of a cultural experience as watching La bohème or appreciating traditional calligraphy. It’s putting everything you know in transit and knowing that the destination is determined by a path you didn’t buy a ticket for. But if you’re willing to accept that risk, then traveling, then being forever in transit, can be the most didactic itinerary of a lifetime.

Lisa Qian ’19 is a freshman in Silliman College. Lisa can be reached at