Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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On Differences

Carry on Luggage

Valise, 2010. Ink and acrylic on Bamboo/Mulberry paper, 70 x 100cm, from the Calendar Girls series

Slapping labels into passports, onto others' skin and cultures however much we're aware – we do it to navigate the world.


During my first year year in Asia, teaching Art & English in Busan (Korea), in a city and a country that seemed to want nothing to do with me, the incomparable Phoenix Jackson told me: "Now you know what it feels like to be a minority."

And she was right.

It's only when you aren't part of the dominant culture that you question assumptions you didn't know you had. I grew up in the middle of a mid-size city in a massive continent. However diverse the USA may be, it's a nation – like Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and those in Europe – where the default cultural template of the nation is decidedly White. (Of course, growing up white in a white-dominant community, one rarely realizes how pervasive it is.)

I've since stumbled on the stories of expats in China like the entrepreneur Andrew Ballen, who traded in his Duke degree for life in Shanghai and started club nights and TV and radio programs there. He found a freedom impossible in America, where he'd been haunted by intimations of affirmative action in his burgeoning law career.

Or Eddie Huang, who started his restaurant Baohaus because, “I’ve realized that food is one of the only places in America where we are the top dogs,” he says. “They may not respect anything else, but they respect our food…I don’t believe anybody agrees with what I say or supports what I do because they truly want to love Asian people. They like my fucking pork buns, and I don’t get it twisted.”

— from this provocative article by Wesley Yang, who goes on to quote the CEO of LEAP, an Asian-American leadership organization:

“Sometimes people have perceptions about us and our communities which may or may not be true,” Hokoyama [said]. “But they put those perceptions onto us.” Hokoyama argued that it was not sufficient to rail at these unjust perceptions. In the end, Asian people themselves would have to assume responsibility for unmaking them. This was both a practical matter, he argued, and, in its own way, fair. [emphasis mine].

Ballen once said, "in those few moments when people are trying to categorize me, I try to peel off the layers of onion skin and show them who I really am." Like any minority, after eight years based in Asia, I know well that look – at times calculating, at others confused – when people first meet me. 

As I walked to work in Korea, I knew most of the men who looked at me had seen more white women naked on late-night soft-core TV programs than they had seen clothed in real life. In Bangkok, where there are many more westerners, I represent something different: affluence, the ambivalent relationship many Thais have with western culture, and much more.

While my experience is its own and every shade of skin and sexuality elicits different reactions around the globe, here are a few of the many indications of how different people think I am – a white female, often confused for something else – from how they think they are.

In Europe, (because I look European) there are certain cultural assumptions of me: 

* "You're really American?! You're not fat like Americans," in Strasbourg, France.

* "You have very Un-American teeth," Liverpool, England, from a guy whose teeth were almost as yellow as mine.

As I'm often mistaken for a local in mainland Europe, there's more expectation for me to speak the language than in Asia (where westerners are indulged and usually thought incapable of it):

* "Why don't you speak Italian/Hungarian/German — a useful language?" Because of course I should speak whatever language they do – if my clothes and hair and skin are similar to theirs, I must think and speak as they do.

Other assumptions are universal, like:

* "Where's your husband?" The small town Cianciana, Sicily, where I'm building a studio.  A woman alone is missing a limb – and potentially dangerous to marriages.

In Asia the first point of difference is how I look, and interactions are loaded with all sorts of baggage, depending on the region's history – at times post-colonial, at others post-Hollywood – where markets are saturated with videos portraying western women like me doing things only whores do, like sleeping with a guy on the first date:

* "Are you Russian?" Koreans often thought I was a prostitute in Busan, and American Dept of Defense guys in Laos seemed to think the same thing.

The color of one's skin is the first box we're slipped into by someone we meet, and Asia is no exception. As Dwight Turner writes here, it determines interactions in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. While in the west tanned skin has been in vogue for several decades, that's not the case in Asia, where only laborers allow their skin to get dark.

* "Oh your skin is SO white! We love white skin," mother of my Korean art student, who still looked creeped-out at how pale my legs were, which hadn't seen sun in many years.

* "What happened? You'll ruin your face," Korean colleagues afraid for my looks and health after too much sun during a holiday in Cambodia.

This preference for pale skin even led to a recent Photoshop Disaster on the cover of Travel & Leisure Asia.

Then there are the aspects of difference that are more flattering for Western men than for women:

* "Oh you're so tall," A bus driver in Vietnam, asking for my phone number.

* "No your feet are too big," women shooing me out of shops all over Thailand.

* "Your skin's so hairy," woman stroking my arm at the market in Cao Bang, Vietnam.

* "How old are you? Forty? Fifty?" from ?Mama,? a kick-ass Red Dao hilltribe lady I met in Sapa, Vietnam, when I was 34. Vietnamese and Thai phrasebooks also contain the local phrase for "I'm younger than I look." Alas, in these cultures that is too often the case for florid caucasian skin.

I now feel a stranger even in my home country. Years of living among polyglots for whom English is a second or third language changes how we speak:

* "Are you American? You've got an accent," I was informed during my last visit to the USA. Accented with what, I wonder? Because we all have an accent. Some have called mine "Irish" or "incongruous", hinting at pretension. I just call it mixed up.

What does all this say to me? That we project our love and loathing of cultures and skin colors, our ideals and fears, onto others we don't know. This is at the root of our misunderstandings and our fear and idolization of other cultures, whether it's fetishizing Asia, or the West, or anywhere else. I don't belong to a particular place, and am influenced by the cultures I've lived in as much as my passport country. Born in the USA to a motley caucasian pair of parents with a Dutch last name and a mixed-up Catholic heritage, I'm often mistaken for something more 'exotic' because I color my hair.

And after lots of living I realize my skin means a lot more to others than it means to me.

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