While going abroad, I became more aware of my identity and how I would be viewed or perceived by members of the local community. I am an emotional, highly sensitive middle class Vietnamese American male student studying Neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Using the identity that I have classified myself as I traveled to South Africa and walked into Khula and Ezwenelisha village, I became more aware of how others perceived me and how differently the community members interacted with me. One of the biggest things I noticed was how curiousmost of the community members were.
Many people stared at me as well as questioned me about who I was. At first, I felt very uncomfortable with the stares by the locals, but I learned that it was mostly out of curiosity. The first and most common identity I was asked was what country I came from. The answer I gave confused some people since I told them I came from the United States, but I was also a Vietnamese American with my ethnicity hailing from Vietnam. Some even assumed I was white and I felt very uncomfortable because that’s not what I identify myself with and I didn’t want people to misunderstand that I am what the American stereotypes are, which is wealthier and technologically innovative.
After the first week of questioning and assuming what my identities were, I began to gain more insight and perspectives about how my identities affect the community as well as how different people may treat me. Taking into account the apartheid in South African history, I feel privileged in a way since I have more money than most of the residents in the villages I visited. The identity that I am an American, which means I am wealthier, has attracted many of the residents to sell their products to me as I walked down the street.
Another identity that was asked a lot was my occupation which at the time, was studying Neuroscience as a way to aspire to become a physician one day at the University of Michigan. Many South Africans think that Western medicine may be better than traditional medicine, and for this reason, I received a lot of questions regarding how to improve their health at the clinics. This made me more aware that these residents look up to my identity as a possible way to get better when it really does not improve their health. Going to South Africa has made me realize that in the different communities I go in, my identities are going to be perceived differently than I would describe them.