"What are you?": Traveling as a Multiracial Woman

One of the first things I think about when traveling to a new place alongside the obvious (safety & budget): How I will be perceived based on the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes. It makes sense, considering all of my life I couldn't go too far without someone, strangers and acquaintances alike, inevitably asking me, "What are you?"

When you're traveling, your identity is constantly being questioned. You really think about who you are, your cultural values, your traditions, your philosophies, etc., when you are literally in a place that may be completely opposite from what you're used to.

For me, my race was always a question, whether traveling or not, whether in Brooklyn or in Spain. Being multiracial, and therefore completely ambiguous racially, combined with a lack of knowledge about my family history, race is a topic that is always on my mind. So when I travel, one thing that I inevitably wonder: What kinds of questions/stares/looks will I get when I walk the streets of this country?

Some may argue that Americans are the ones with the biggest hangups about this idea of "race." After all, we don't have one "typical" American look, as much as media seems to mainly portray blonde hair, blue eyed folk. But still, the vast mix of cultures and races keeps these two things in the forefront of our minds when we are meeting people, especially those who look different or "exotic."

To be honest, though I've had my fair share of encounters with racism abroad, I do have to say that it is true to an extent. As almost habitual as it seems at this point for me to wonder how I will be perceived abroad, what I have found is that more than anything, first and foremost, most people would simply identify me as a foreigner. The focus shifts from racially ambiguous to American or New Yorker. In fact, after being in Spain for two years I had gotten used to people being so intrigued by my being a New Yorker, that when I met an American girl whose first question was, "What are you?" I was surprised and shocked. And now here I am back on the streets of NYC and just last week a stranger randomly came up to me and his first question was that.

In every country it is different. During my three month stay in Costa Rica when I traveled with other foreigners people often asked where they were from but never asked me because they assumed I was Tica. That was the first and almost only place where I have truly felt like I belonged because of that. For the first time I wasn't seen as someone ambiguous or "exotic." I was a native.

In Spain, the lack of diversity across the country is glaring. Add that on to that the fact that people's occupations almost seem determined by their race. The Chinese owned dollar stores called "chinos," while most Black people are from Africa and sell goods illegally on the streets, not to mention Black and darker skinned women being associated with prostitution. Most of the racism I encountered while living there was from my students, muttering comments that involved "china" and asking if I worked in a chino. Is it a surprise if they've only ever seen a Chinese person who worked in a chino?

Each trip I take yields a different reaction. But there is almost always some sort of reaction. I don't blend in with one group or another physically. My skin and eyes attract attention as a tourist wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops with socks would. But unlike that tourist, I can't change my attributes that make me stand out, that will always set me apart from the "norm" or "expected." Not that I would want to. I embrace who I am, and am learning to maintain my sense of dignity and pride even when people are pulling the corners of their eyes to look like mine or asking me what I am, as if I were something rather than someone.

I travel because I love to see the world and establish those connections. And trying as it may be, I only hope that when these situations arise, I can let go of my anger soon enough to initiate a much needed dialogue about race and humanism. The preciousness of travel is the opportunity it yields to move beyond the issues of race, stereotypes and prejudice. A human is a human is a human. And so, though my race, or multiracialness, is one of the first things on my mind, I hope to use it as a stepping stone for dialogue, connection, and understanding.

How is your identity questioned when you travel?


Nina Lee is a Brooklyn native flying across the world as often as is possible. She wears her heart on her sleeve and carries her pen and passport in her ink-stained hand, sharing her travel stories and personal journeys in the hopes of inspiring and connecting to others. Currently based in New York City, she’s excited to be heading back to Spain indefinitely this coming summer.  Find more of her travel stories at worldintowords.com.