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Pet Sins November 2007

Westerners of non-European descent assumed to be non-Westerners

While on a weekend trip with a student group visiting Belgium and Luxembourg, I met an Australian and a Canadian, both of Asian descent. Their presence outright confused everyone (the majority of the students were of European origin ,including a few Euro-Americans) by the fact that they were native-born Asian Canadian and Asian Australian with heavy Canadian / Australian accents, and were not recent immigrants to Canada or Australia.

I thought the reactions from the other students were hilarious. Even I was surprised until I started reminding myself that Australia is closer to Asia than to Europe. I'm constantly reminded by my Australian friend that Australia has immigrants like Canada, the United States and Argentina. Asian students study, live and work in Australia.

In the United States and Europe, most people, including people of color, have the impression that 'Australian' equals 'White'. Just like how "American" is assumed to be equivalent to "White", despite Americans of color representing more than 20% of the population. Once I stopped grinning at the reactions of the European students to the Australian student, I began thinking, I like how Canadians, Australians and Americans of color are traveling around the world, breaking the centuries-old stereotypes about the national identities of all three countries, identities that were solely defined by European descendants, despite the existence and contributions of indigenous people, Asians and Africans in these countries.

People often forget that students live in a global diaspora - where their parents came from, and how they spread across the world. Identity plays a large role for Diaspora students. If we try to fit the students' origins into the popular definition of "Western" and "non-Western" worlds, the Australian and Canadian students would be considered Westerners, or specifically Australians and Canadians, if they went to visit their parents' home countries!

This happens to many Americans of color. The same goes for French citizens of color. For instance, whenever French-born T visits the country of her ancestors, Cameroon, her relatives in Cameroon playfully tease her for being "too French" to understand the culture of Cameroon. The cultural divide is obvious when she doesn't understand the local lingo, the "lack" of valuing time, the differences in cooking/preparing food, or the importance of local identity. Any Cameroonian traditions that her parents may have taught her were diluted over the years of growing up in France. T doesn't appear to fit entirely into Cameroonian society's definition of a Cameroonian. While in France she is considered "too Cameroonian" to fit the French definition of a traditional Frenchwoman. See? This expectation of fitting into a specific definition of American, Australian, Canadian or French goes both ways and can be confusing for everyone.

Being an Asian descendant didn't make the Canadian and Australian student any different from their peers, except for the surprised reaction from other students in our group who still can't wrap their heads around the Australian student's self-description, "I am an Australian with an Asian face."

I saw it as a learning experience for all of us.