The aroma of red wine perfumed the narrow dorm room while heavy fake Puerto Rican accents sang from the computer, “I like to live in America, life is alright in America,” while three of my friends and I giggled about how odd-looking the boys are in the movie version of West Side Story but still admiring the athletic choreography. Being the only American, I told them about how in America no one is just Puerto Rican, or just German anymore–everyone’s blood is mixed. They laughed when I told them that I am half Cuban, because you could never tell that I had any Latin blood just by looking at me. It frustrates me sometimes, because my sister is so obviously dark and ethnic looking, while I have freckles scattering my white cheekbones. Why do people jump to culture conclusions about other people by making an obvious assumption about the way they look?
My friend from Italy explained that in Europe, if you said you came from Verona, Italy, it meant that your entire family to as much as you can trace back is from Verona. It seems medieval to an American, doesn’t it? Especially to me, whose blood can be traced from Hungary, Cuba, the Canary Islands, Italy, and the Basque country. How could someone possible be influenced by one culture their entire lives?
“Life is all right in America, if you’re all white in America,” the musical continued. Obviously, the movie is a little outdated, and obvious racism toward “non-whites” has subdued (except maybe with the Tea Party…but that’s a whole other issue). And it got me thinking about how much America has progressed since the days mirrored in the movie, and I thought that Europe had to be way ahead of us, right?
I have blue eyes, blonde hair, white skin and a neutral American accent–I realize that things are easy for me in Europe just by the way I look, and I take it for granted. Tonight, six of us got all dolled up and bought cheap wine and intended to have a really good night out in Lausanne. As girls in dresses with rosy cheeks, we already knew that we might get some unintended attention, but what we encountered really shocked me.
We made the trek from the Metro station to McDonald’s in the freezing cold, all of talking at once excitedly in our various accents (Japanese, British, Italian). Two Japanese, one Mongolian, one British girl with Chinese blood, an Italian, and myself laughing and bonding over learning the Swiss way of life.
I have never felt threatened in Lausanne, but tonight the boys on the streets seemed bigger and stupider than before. About five times between the station and McDonald’s, I heard some boys say “damn chinoise” or mock my friends’ Japanese accents. Some would just walk up and say “ni hao” as if this was a hilarious joke, completely belittling whoever they were just talking to without a care.
What was ironic that one group of guys were actually speaking Spanish–they are foreigners too, how could they pick on other foreigners? I thought Switzerland was supposed to be neutral and smart, home to the United Nations in Geneva, why are foreigners such a target? It isn’t just Asians I have encountered this blatant racism with, but Africans as well.
The air felt three times colder and my heart sunk to my stomach as I watched my Asian friends pretend not see or hear the boys cat calls. I wanted to say something, I felt like I should’ve said something, but I was afraid–we were all girls against a bunch of boys who clearly had no problem targeting us. Even if I said something, they wouldn’t understand me unless they knew some great choice words of the English language.
This was the first time I have felt helpless as a woman, but I could not even imagine what my Asian friends were feeling. Switzerland, what is going on? Did all your idiots congregate in one place tonight, or is this normal behavior? I thought Europe was supposed to be the cradle of western civilization, but what about mocking some girls that are here to learn about the language and culture is civilized?
Our night ended pretty briefly after our McDonald’s adventure and a few of us walked home together. I expressed how angry I was about the whole situation, but it seemed like I was the angriest, and I was not even a target. If we had been boys rather than girls, I know the situation would have been really different. Would the boys on the street have made fun at all? Would we even be a target? There are so many issues in this incident that are just so backwards.
To see the British/Chinese version of the situation: http://thefonduefiles.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/you-get-arseholes-wherever-you-go/
Most of you are thinking “I would have said something!” But would you if you were a 5’2″ female around 115 pounds wearing a dress and heels in the middle of the night?