By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
As an Asian American, I did not expect my presence in Ghana to go without attention. This sounds self-centered. And it is.
In the winter of 2012, an invitation from a school friend led me to the southern coastal city of Cape Coast, Ghana for vacation.
This laid-back beach town has a dark past given its history with “slave castles,” or large commercial forts, found along the coast of Ghana. Slave castles were initially built by European traders to barter gold, but were eventually used as institutions to run the transatlantic slave trade, which oversaw the enslavement and transportation of African people from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Most enslaved people were shipped from West and Central Africa and taken to North America and South America. Cape Coast is home to Cape Coast Castle, one of the biggest and most well known of slave castles on the coast. But there is a lightness that exists in Cape Coast now.
You see this reflected in the town’s chill atmosphere. It’s found in the ebb and flow of the ocean to the perpetually sunny disposition of locals. A place so warm and welcoming that the phrase, “It’s nice to be nice” is a common mantra to hear around town.
We stayed in a hostel-cum-restaurant on the beach. During the day, the joint served as a dining spot for guests and beach bums. At dusk, the space became a popular drinking hole that drew foreigners and locals together over several rounds of beer.
Ghanaians are friendly people and it was easy to start conversations at the bar. My day excursions around Cape Coast quickly revealed that I was one of few Asians in town, and this gave way to some inquisitive questions from locals while drinking.
When prodded about my ethnic origin, many had never heard of Vietnam. My identity was lost on them. The only way they could make sense of my background was connecting Vietnam to one of only two Asian countries they knew — China and Japan.
One night at the bar, I found my friend in the company of a Ghanaian man who, by the looks of it, was trying to charm her with unsuccessful results. I walked over to join their conversation, and the guy turned to acknowledge me.
“Ching chong ching chong,” he said. It was a greeting said without any trace of irony or flippancy. He was serious.
I paused, but my friend glared at him.
“That’s an incredibly rude thing to say. You shouldn’t say that to people,” she said. I had similar thoughts, but I was too stunned to say anything.
The guy blinked in response. It was clear that he didn’t understand the ramifications of his greeting.
In the United States, if someone makes a pejorative statement like that to your face, it’s considered racist. You’re offended by their audacity. You call them out. You rage. Similar situations had happened to me back home and in other Western countries, and the racist implication is never lost on the perpetrator.
But I’m not so convinced that was the case with my Ghanaian friend here.
I think, as a person of color, the immediate response is to be up in arms whenever a racial slur is made. There is hypersensitivity. We’re brought up with the idea that, if anyone ever says anything derogatory about our race or ethnicity, they’re racist. And this is true back home.
But here, at this beach bar in Ghana, this guy didn’t know better. He meant no offense in the “greeting.” He didn’t have any awareness about my cultures or experiences, nor did he understand the social cues that come with such offenses.
This interaction revealed context to me — understanding your surroundings and readjusting your expectations. I realized that I expected people to understand my experiences and to be sensitive to it — that people would adjust to me. The reality is that they cannot even begin to understand my history and experiences, just as I cannot truly understand theirs.
Back home, racial slurs will always be made. There will always be someone in the media mocking Asian eyes and accents, or another offender ready to get his or her best yellowface on. But when you move about in this world, away from the cultures and experiences that have shaped you, there will always be people who do not understand your story. And that forces you to confront your own perception of identity and sense of place in the world, and the people you encounter within it.
Did I get attention for my skin color in Ghana? Yes.
But self-centered expectations were challenged. I learned to adapt. (end)
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.