Unlike the five people you meet in heaven, the nine people you meet on a cruise are people you don’t want to meet. A couple of months ago, I went on vacation with my family. We were on a cruise in Iceland and Scotland and saw some spectacular scenery. From waterfalls to hot springs to rocky fjords and black lava formations, the nature was wonderful and a welcomed break from the late summer heat. Being able to have the time off from work, the financial resources to take a cruise, and the physical condition to hike and wander around cobble stone streets are all immense privileges that have afforded me the opportunity to travel to a lot of places thus far in my life. But as I have stepped out into the world in an adult body, I’ve noticed in the past few years that travel, in particular, has placed me in repeatedly difficult situations, as people try to relate to me and understand my position in my family. A comment I get frequently when I talk about microaggressions is that they don’t happen that often, but please remember that all but two of the following interactions happened within a two week time period.
- The Man Who Can Only See You Are Chinese: My parents and I joined two other parties for dinner one night on the cruise. One couple was originally from Czechoslovakia, but currently living in Canada, and the other couple was from the United States. Interestingly, both couples had sons who had married Asian women. Comments were made about how all three couples at the table had connections to Asia through their offspring. The older American man leaned forward and asked me if I had been back to China. I remarked that I had and asked him if he had been with his son and family, and the conversation veered in other directions as we discussed that day’s sights. When our entrees arrived, the older American man leaned forward again and asked me, “Do you prefer to eat with chopsticks or a fork?” I responded that it depended on what I was eating and hoped that he wouldn’t ask me anything else “Chinesey.” But, inevitably, he did. He later asked me, “Which country, China or America, do you root for in the Olympics?” It was apparent that no matter what conversation topic, my only conversation value to this individual was the Chinese perspective. And finally, when our desserts and after dinner drinks came to the table, he commented to me, “I see that you’re drinking tea from a bag. You know, a lot of Chinese people won’t do that! Loose tea is the purest.”
- The Woman Who Fetishizes Asians, Too: We met and ate dinner several times with another older couple who were in their 70’s. This couple was from the Midwest. They were high school sweethearts who became successful even through adversity, and they absolutely doted on one of their sons. This son was married to a woman from China whom he had met in graduate school. They told us about this son’s academic journey, his romantic life, and they told us stories about their mixed-race granddaughter and traveling to China with their family. Towards the end of the cruise, on Captain’s Night, this woman walked out of a bathroom stall as I was entering the restroom. She stopped me and told me, “You know, you really are so beautiful. My son’s first girlfriend was Chinese, and I really liked her — we all really liked her — but for whatever reason it didn’t work out. Then he dated this blonde girl who no one liked except my husband and my son, of course. But I mean, seriously, the dog didn’t even like her! So he decided to end it with her. And then he dated that woman whom he was engaged to for four years, who was fine but kind of pushy. But when that relationship ended, he realized that it hadn’t worked for him and American women, so he told me, ‘Mom, I’m going to marry a Chinese girl. They’re the prettiest and have the best skin.'” I had gone into the bathroom simply to use the facilities, not to hear about how this woman and her son both fetishize Chinese women (note the use of the word “girl”). But I’ve learned by now that existing in my body opens me up to unsolicited comments like this no matter where I am — including the bathroom.
- The 72 Year Old Man Who Made Slant Eyes: My parents and I sat with a German (English, French, and Italian) speaking Swiss couple for several meals. He had operated a manufacturing company, and she had been a champion swimmer and swim coach. We ran into them quite frequently around the boat, and I even got to practice a little bit of my German with them. We had great conversations about American/world politics, travel, and other topics. They became somewhat like vacation friends, so I was especially shocked during one conversation at dinner, when the man began talking about how “people like me” are traveling around the world and investing in real estate. He proceeded to lift up the corners of his eyes with his index fingers and chuckle. I have never witnessed an adult person do this — only childhood bullies on the playground. I finally interjected, stating that I knew he meant no harm and explained why the gesture was problematic. His wife apologized for both of them, and he responded that he forgot the word for “Asian” in English, so that’s what he did to communicate what he meant. What was most saddening about this microaggression was that it came from someone I grew to like and whose company I otherwise enjoyed.
- The Women Who Can’t See Why Colonialism Is Hurtful: After this egregious production by Holland America midway through the journey, I thought it was important to go to the talk-back event with the production crew. After hearing a little about their training and choreography, I had a chance to ask a question. Given how racially insensitive and imperialistic the One World production [Read full article: here] had been, I asked one of the lead singers, “If you felt that any of the dance moves or costumes were culturally disrespectful or stereotypical, how much power would you have to alter the choreography?” The singer cocked her head and furrowed her eyebrows, obviously confused even though the motif of White male colonial rule was beyond explicit. She answered honestly that the dancers don’t have very much power. They all sign contacts to do what they are told, but she acknowledged that the singers do have a little bit more leeway than the others. Perhaps it was in response to my question, or perhaps the elderly woman would have said it anyway, a woman in the audience ended the Q&A session with a comment: “I just want to say how happy I am that so many of the theater cast are Americans.” Though there weren’t any cast members of color, I’m sure she wouldn’t have felt so fondly of Americans who were people of color. Did she think about how comment was supposed to make the Australian or the Italian dancers feel? I felt like snidely retorting that she must have a hard time in the dining room where nearly all of the staff were comprised of Filipino or Indonesian people but kept the remarks to myself.
- The Robe Man You Avoid The Entire Time: There was a middle-aged white man on the ship who wore a robe from the Lotus Spa (of course the spa on board had an Asian connotation) 90% of the time he was walking around. I could tell he was a frequent visitor there, and he seemed like the type who enjoyed getting massaged by the Southeast Asian women who worked there. During interactions with others, I observed that he would place his hands together and submit his body to a low bow whether they were Asian or not. I knew immediately that I would spend the whole time on the boat avoiding his gaze.
- The Women And Man Who Assume You Are A Cruise Employee: In 2018, I had three childhood watches quit working, so I decided that perhaps it was time for me to get a new one. While perusing the watch shop on board, a man grabbed my attention and asked the price for the product he was holding. This situation happened twice more — once by a woman on the ship while walking through the ship stores and once by someone while I was in the dining room. The assumption that I was a member of the cruise staff was clearly because I was a young person of color, like the vast majority of the lower ranked employees, and unlike the majority older white American, German, and Dutch populations on board as passengers. Cruise staffing follows an unfortunate, but predictable hierarchy of the custodial and dining staff being nearly all Latin American or Southeast Asian workers, mid level program managers being people from Japan or Canada – more developed countries with some room for diversity, and the lucrative positions as entertainers, cruise director, captain, or members of the captain’s bridge being predominantly all white men from Western nations.
- The Man Who Is Clearly With An Asian Woman And Stares At You Anyway: While sitting at dinner with my family, my mother leaned over to me and noted in disgust that a young man in the dining room had been looking at me. I subtly glanced over to the nearby table where the man was sitting with an older white couple, and next to him was a young Asian woman. She didn’t say much during the conversation, and based on her appearance and clothing choice, I would guess that she had grown up in Asia. I looked down and noticed the pair wore simple wedding bands on their ring fingers. And despite his apparent lifelong commitment to the Asian woman sitting next to him, his eyes still veered in my direction during the duration of the meal.
- The Photographer Who Insinuates That You Are Your Dad’s Girlfriend: There was, of course, this instance which happened on a different cruise line four years ago when I was with my parents. [Read full article: here] “I was sitting beside my parents at a large dinner table, when a photographer came by and jokingly called my grey haired dad a “young man.” His wry humor continued as he asked my father to “get closer to his girlfriend,” gesturing towards me. The smile on my face immediately disappeared, replaced by a deadpan expression. My mother quickly interjected that she was the wife, and we gave the camera stale smiles to match the stale mood created by that comment. . . Did this photographer truly think he was funny? I found his comments extremely offensive to everyone involved. The idea was first demeaning towards my father, suggesting that he was some Asian fetishizing, old guy. The comment gave me the role of an appendage, relegating me into a sex object for my father’s use. Lastly, the photographer’s “joke” annihilated my mother’s value as an older woman by completely ignoring her and dissolving the 36 year marriage between my parents into nothingness.”
- The Man Who Calls You Sexy (As A 10 Year Old): Many years ago I was on a cruise with my parents, godparents, aunt, and uncle. It was so fun to be on a vacation surrounded by people who loved me, and it was especially exciting because my godmother made me wonderful dresses to wear on the formal nights. One morning, I was eating breakfast with my mother, and one of the restaurant servers came up to the table and told me that I was sexy. What was perhaps most bizarre about this situation was that my mother was sitting right next to me, and I cannot comprehend what he might have felt comfortable saying to me had she not been there. My mom immediately stepped in, stating that I was only ten years old and not sexy because I was a child at the time. She reported the staff member to the cruise management, but this remains a soured vacation memory in both of our minds. I attended an event a couple of years ago on the Asian American female experience, and many reported having similar experiences as children. The hypersexualization paired with the infantilization of Asian women (Japanese school girl and politics of cuteness) cannot be ignored when addressing adult comments like this to little Asian girls. These are not isolated instances.