Widgets Magazine


The American tourist

“Where are you studying abroad?”

“Washington, so I guess not really ‘abroad,’ technically.”

“Hey, that’s cool, too! Why Washington and not, like, Florence?”

This has been an exchange I’ve had a lot recently, talking about my plans for next year. And, to be frank, I’m a little frightened by the possibility of studying abroad, not because of culture shock or the language barrier or even of the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment. Instead, it’s the greater fear of trying to come to terms with the role and the space I will occupy as an American abroad.

Last summer, I had the great privilege of participating on a two-week Stanford trip to Beijing, where I was born and raised for the first nine years of my life before I emigrated to America. While I would be hard-pressed to call myself a local these days, I’ve generally had fairly positive feelings in the times I have gone back to visit. For the most part, I felt familiar and at home, able to blend into the rhythm of the city and move freely and comfortably.

This time, though, I was there in the role of a foreign tourist, and everything felt incredibly different. Passing through street markets, the vendors that I’ve gotten used to simply sitting stoically, preparing to haggle with approaching buyers, are now rushing up to push their wares at inflated prices in crude English pidgin. Walking through the same hutong alleyways that I’ve cut through hundreds of times in previous years now felt like an intrusion into a space in which I was clearly not welcome, as residents stare at the group of Stanford gear-clad, backpack-wearing young people that just feels too big to comfortably fit into the narrow street. And looking back at the eyes of those who stared, I realized that it was the same looks of unwelcoming annoyance that I used to give to the double-decker Starline tour buses that cut me off at intersections in LA. And at that point, I really wish there was something magical I could say to the staring people – my former neighbors – that could make them see me differently: I lived here too! Right over there! I used to shop right there! I was born in that hospital! Something.

But there wasn’t anything I could do, because I was an American tourist. Whatever my past experiences were in that city, I no longer lived in it. I came in with an American passport that could take me most places in the world without needing so much as a visa. I paid bills with money I earned at a part-time campus research job that paid 10 times Beijing’s minimum wage. And, when the end of my time there came – whether it be in two weeks (in my case) or in 10 weeks – I could pack up and leave, and be permanently separated (unless I choose not to be) from everything I’ve seen and encountered during that time.

I say this not to disparage the particular program I participated in – it was a phenomenal experience – nor any other program that Bing or any other part of this school that offers, which I imagine are similarly phenomenal. But all of these experiences are, by their very nature, ephemeral, and have that same problem.

And if the former Beijinger in me couldn’t even stand the current tourist version of me, I wonder how different I would be anywhere else? Would I not just be a tourist, studying in a place for a brief moment, and being an intrusive noise that has to be tolerated more than anything else?

I don’t know, but if it takes me inconveniencing and annoying people with self-unawareness and an endless string of faux pas to find out, I’d rather not.


Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.