Identity as a South Asian Traveler

In one of my classes, we recently read an article called “American Students Abroad Can’t Be ‘Global Citizens’” written by Talya Zemach-Bersin in 2008. The article discusses the “cumulative privilege of race, nationality, education, mobility, and class” that affects the unique experience that many study abroad students have, and that creates a valley of difference between the local realities and experiences that these students take part in for a short period of time.

This, of course, applies within the range of American study abroad students as well. The article got me thinking about the role that ethnicity plays just within the wide spectrum of American study abroad experiences. My identity as a South Asian woman has informed each of my experiences abroad—whether as a minority in Portugal, often mistaken for a Brazilian, a more common sight in Brussels, or as a “sister” in Marrakech. I’ve also seen that the experiences my friends have abroad can vary drastically depending on where they study or travel, and on what their physically apparent racial and ethnic identities are. 

To be Asian, to be black, to be Latino, to be white…these categories that we check off routinely do matter when we travel. And within those boxes…to be Chinese vs. to be Pakistani, to be Angolan vs. to be Nigerian, to be Mexican vs. to be Spanish, to be French vs. to be German…these matter, too. The identity perceptions each study abroad student elicits are often the result of the pre-existing stereotypes that are present in each location. These stereotypes are based on the immigrant, ethnic, and racial populations that are prevalent there. Regardless of whether those stereotypes are fair, accurate, or misinformed, they still persist. These notions were formed long before we decided to study abroad, before the one shop owner on the corner of the route I take to school each morning decided to immigrate to this new home, and they continue to take shape each day, as a result of us and yet, sometimes despite us.

This, of course, is just one lens of analysis. Imagine factoring in gender identity, sexual identity, class identity, linguistic abilities…the list goes on and on. The result is that each study abroad or travel experience will be unique. Our lives abroad will draw out different lessons, perceptions, and emotions for each of us, based on how we are treated, which is a result, in part, of these physically apparent racial and ethnic identities, other identities, and the stereotypes that each identity carries with it in each particular location. 

This theme has been fundamental to my personal reflections on my time abroad in Lisbon and my various travels. As the semester draws closer to the end, I’ve become hyper-aware of how my identity affects my study abroad experience. To put it simply, at the beginning of the semester, if someone had asked, I would have simply identified myself as study abroad student from the United States. But now, I realize I’m a South Asian, particularly Indian, study abroad student from the United States. That is the tip of the iceberg in the list of qualifiers I could add, and those qualifiers have made a noticeable difference in my study abroad experience.

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