Foreign Like Me: Reflections on Being a Minority

It was midnight and I exited the car fuming mad, almost to the point of shaking, yelling swear words and fighting the urge to kick the tire. I slammed the door and our taxi sped away. Turning to my boyfriend, I said, “It’s just not fair! We are good, honest people! Why does this stuff happen to us?” But I already knew the answer to my question; it happened because we are white.

As an immigrant, you are always aware of how vulnerable you are to the intentions of your peers. On this night, our taxi driver took advantage of our language abilities and drove the wrong way. I knew exactly how to get home and I tried several times to tell him, “No, you’re going the wrong way,” but my language skills just weren’t good enough. He knew what I was saying, but he could pretend he didn’t and get away with it. After all, I’m just a foreigner, what do I know about the layout of our city?

Living in South Korea is a challenge and has taught me a great deal about what it’s like to be a visible minority. People stare at me, proposition me for sex, laugh at and humiliate me, and try to take advantage of me financially.  Often I think about the treatment of Hispanics back at home in the United States, and I feel a great deal of sympathy for their plight.

In high school, the Mexican girls in my class were always either ignored or treated as if they were sluts. The boys were always thought of as thugs and druggies. Both were considered less intelligent. I’ll never forget one teacher who called my friend Jorge stupid when he asked a question in class. As adults, life gets even more unfair and complicated. People give Hispanics dirty looks, call them inappropriate names, consider the only fitting job for them to be fruit picking, and constantly harp on their ability to speak English as if the very fabric of America is being undone with each utterance of a Spanish word.

But the worst and most disheartening injustice aimed at minorities is recent legislation in several states to limit their rights and treat them as second class people. New legislation, particularly SB 1070 of Arizona, has in many states granted police officers the right to racially profile people, asking for identification and immigration papers on the spot whenever they feel “reasonably suspicious” that the person in question is an illegal immigrant. Additionally, they can arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant. Is it not worrisome that suspicion alone is enough to justify the arrest of an individual? Are we living in a George Orwell novel? Thankfully, there are judges and prosecutors who care enough about equality and the constitution to put stays on this kind of legislation, but how long can they hold back the tide? It appears that America’s anti-immigration radicals are growing.

I sometimes say that I know what it’s like now to be an immigrant but I hardly know what it’s like to be one in America. I can guess about what life is like for Hispanics but truthfully, I don’t know. Even in largely homogeneous countries like Korea, white people are still considered “good” immigrants because we bring money, are educated and speak an internationally dominant language (even if we are taken advantage of from time to time). On the whole, we are treated well.

I’d like to believe in altruism and that equality is possible–and achievable!–but I’m losing hope when I read the news, watch TV, visit the mall and talk to my friends. It seems that more and more people are content to scapegoat immigrants for all of society’s problems these days, and too few people are standing up for their rights. I wish I could give everyone the gift of being a foreigner for a year of their life in a country where they are a noticeable minority. Would it change the way we treated each other? I believe it has for me.

When the taxi driver finally dropped us off, I lamented the doubled size of our fare. But the truth is, many immigrants have it worse than I do. I have no idea what it’s like to be facing a future of questions about my immigration status every time I get pulled over, or the possibility of homelessness if I can’t prove my status on rental applications. Life in America is not easier for Hispanics (and other visible minorities) than in their home countries. It’s hard to be judged on how you appear rather than on how you behave. My taxi fare may have been double, but paying a little extra money hardly compares to the injustices non-white immigrants face each day in the United States.

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

8 replies on “Foreign Like Me: Reflections on Being a Minority”

I think you misunderstood me. I meant to say that other Mexican kids in your class did not think so poorly of co-ethnics. It was not (I think) everyone in the class, as the piece suggests, that had those views of Mexicans. Mexicans have opinions too, and theirs count, as I see it. I would think, the Mexican kids in class probably did not think of themselves as sluts, druggies, dumb and so forth.

Were you in the Yakima Valley by chance? I have heard many stories (some fairly recent too — but that is true all over the country, unfortunately) about how hard it is for Native Americans and Mexican immigrants in the region.

No way on earth would I suggest Latinos have it easy, or that I’ve had a magical American dream life. In fact, I think SB1070 set off the worst years of anti-Latino affect I have ever seen among individuals and policymakers alike. As you correctly point out, the animus has grown and laws have followed in many states and cities. We are now legislating on our worst, racist and xenophobic views and that is very frightening to me indeed. I feel like America turned its back on Latinos, including those of us who are American citizens, and no one in authority gave a crap. (sorry for the tangent there…)

Lastly, I am not an immigrant. I’m 2.5 gen (dad is MX born, and mom is Mexican origin, but that side has been American since literally, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo). All the same, I absorb the vitriol framed as “anti-immigrant” but, as we know, is really about being anti-Mexican or anti-Latino.

Ah, yes, I think we have both misunderstood each other. Many apologies. If the article suggested that my Mexican classmates felt that way about themselves, that was not my intention. No, they definitely did not think of themselves as druggies, thugs and sluts! Some of the most chaste girls I new in high school were Mexican–it was the white cheerleaders that were sleeping around most! It was really just the white kids who felt that way about them and unjustly so. As you said, xenophobia… It’s rampant in small farm towns. (I didn’t grow up in Yakima but pretty close! And it is really bad.)

I’m really worried about the growing racism in America. It’s scary how demonized immigrants have become (no matter what ethnicity one is) and shocking that the government is allowing it to continue and even become law! And citizens too because you’re right, anyone of a different skin tone has been disenfranchised regardless of their status. (That too deserves it’s own article!)

There is a good deal of racism in my own family. A few Christmases ago, I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle for the last time. After Christmas dinner, my uncle laid into me about teaching English in China and said, “Why would go teach those chinks how to speak English? They’re just going to take our jobs and come to our country and steal our tax money!” I said something back about how narrow minded that was and that everyone deserved a chance at success–American or not. The last thing he ever said to me was, “Well, why don’t you just go live with them since you like them so much!” And I did. I left 6 months later and I haven’t been back in four years. (Not surprisingly, I don’t speak to this part of my family anymore.) I don’t know if I’ll ever return to the US to live permanently but I do have a great deal of interest in what happens there and the policies our government is adopting. I just can’t stand the inequalities of life there.

Thanks for sharing your view and thoughts.

That is a pretty amazing story. You are right that there is a racial and phenotype hierarchy in this country and aversion to non-white is louder than ever. The shifting demographics have created a backlash against all of us that fall into the ‘other’ category, no matter how “American” we are (see for example President Obama’s birth certificate nonsense).

I admire the fact that you found a path that suits you — where you do meaningful work and can enjoy a lifestyle that makes you happier — and acted on it. That too is worthy of a separate post. Paz. ;-)

“People give Hispanics dirty looks, call them inappropriate names, consider the only fitting job for them to be fruit picking, and constantly harp on their ability to speak English as if the very fabric of America is being undone with each utterance of a Spanish word.”

Similar issue here, who are the people that see Latinos in the way you describe? Most Latinos — including Latinos who are American citizens and do not speak Spanish — do not share these views. There is extensive public opinion data to this point dating back at least 20 years. When talking about opinions of Latinos, it is unfortunate when Latino opinions are silenced by exclusion from the discourse.

Hi Lucia, I appreciate you comments and I’m glad you didn’t feel treated like this while growing up in America. Perhaps one’s experience and perspective can be related to where they grew up?

As for my experience and my perspective, I grew up in a small farm town in Washington state where I assure you, these attitudes do exist. My Mexican classmates were indeed treated as I said and were even outwardly discriminated against by teachers. Maybe some of my Mexican classmates didn’t feel discriminated against (though I doubt it), but as someone who stood on the other side of the proverbial fence, I no doubt saw other white people discriminate against them and say terrible things. Many were basically quarantined by our primarily white community and either ignored or treated as if they perpetrated every societal ill from welfare to the drug trade. No, not every white person felt that way and though I didn’t mention statistics or percentages from my community, my experience and the things I witnessed or no less true or less present in our society.

These attitudes are reflected in legislation like the one I mentioned in my article (I included two hyperlinks which are difficult to see because of the link color, but find them and click on them to see some statistics from Gallup and other pollsters) and recent debates on whether to make English our official language, which would include a language test for all immigrants. These policies and perspectives are blatantly discriminatory and largely supported by a majority population with no idea what it’s like to be an immigrant or a minority. That is the perspective in which I write from–the perspective of a majority member made a minority through migration to another country, and how through such an experience I have come to understand, relate to and respect the challenges minority populations across America face each day. It is not in anyway my intent to silence any opinion or experience of any Latinos or Latino immigrants, but rather to make people think about what it’s like to be taken advantage of and treated badly.

I hope you write a follow up piece about your positive experiences as an immigrant and how included you felt in the larger American dream! I think it would be wonderful to hear a good story about someone who grew up with equal opportunities and equal standing in the community while still being part of a minority population. Many thanks for your comment!

“In high school, the Mexican girls in my class were always either ignored or treated as if they were sluts. The boys were always thought of as thugs and druggies. Both were considered less intelligent.”

Could you please be clear about WHO thought of Mexicans as sluts, druggies thugs and stupid? As written, the reference sounds like everyone in the entire school and/or community. But, as a Mexican girl myself, (well, Mexican American, but that distinction does not seem important to your post) I am pretty sure other Mexicans did not share the view you described. Thanks for sympathizing with our plight though, glad to have allies who share their POV so clearly.

I’ve heard many similar things about South Korea and issues with white workers, especially English teachers. It’s true what you say, that although you (the general you) can certainly learn to sympathize with those who are in the minority, who are immigrants, after you’ve experienced it yourself, that as a white person, almost no matter where you are, you have privileges afforded to you.

While not quite the same situation, a couple of years back I briefly worked in Iqaluit, Nunavut, where the population at the time was somewhere between 60-75% Inuit. For the first time in my life I was the minority. It was instantly clear however, that non-Inuit (mostly white) people in Iqaluit on the whole, lived significantly better than the native Inuit citizens. Non-Inuit had better housing, much better jobs, more education, etc. I worked a day job with the federal government, and although the territory has a hiring policy that at least half the workers of any public office should be Inuit, it was not even close to that. In my office of thirty people, I can recall two people who identified as Inuit.

That isn’t to say I didn’t experience some alienation. At my evening job at a department store, most of the employees were Inuit, and they made it clear they had no interest in being friends or being friendly. On lunch or breaks, they would sit on the other side of the room from me and speak in Inuktitut. A handful of times, someone leaned out their car window as they drove by and called me a name that in Inuit is either an affectionate or rude term for a white person, depending on the inflection. But they certainly weren’t being affectionate. And you know, it sucked. But when I looked at everything else I had going for me there, it wasn’t even comparable to the experiences of visible minorities elsewhere in North America. I had it made. I still do. For every rude person there were fifty who were gracious, kind, and open. I’d have to say that Iqaluit is one of the friendliest places I’ve been in Canada.

While I can say that I have been a minority in a community, I find it hard to profess that I know what it is like to be a minority. It feels incredibly loaded and inappropriate. My privilege allowed me the ability to escape that scenario. I don’t think that I will ever really understand.

Being the minority in a foreign country and within your country of birth are world’s apart in terms of experience, though, and I recognize that.

This was really insightful Thanks for sharing.

Thank you Seekwill for sharing your story and leaving a comment! I briefly touched on what you illustrated so well: even as a white immigrant minority, we have it better. And it’s unfair. The topic deserves it’s own article!

As a teacher here in Korea, I have better housing, a better paying job, and more vacation (though 5 days feels pitiful!) than most Koreans. Once, a Korean teacher found out what I made and was astonished that as an unqualified teacher, I made twice what she did with half of her education. (She was icy toward me for many months afterward.) Like you, I have had so many wonderful experiences with Koreans that the bad ones certainly have less sting. But if I were Chinese in Korea… Well, it would be an entirely different story. I hear it at least 3 times a day in the classroom; “Teacher! China is dirty!” It’s eye opening to have these experiences and realize that no matter how bad I’ve got it, someone else has it worse.

You said, “My privilege allowed me the ability to escape that scenario. I don’t think that I will ever really understand,” and I fully agree. Thanks you so much for sharing.

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