Woher kommen Sie?

A few months before I came here to Vienna, I sort of fell into a panic… when I read a discussion about how Austria is (possibly) the most racist country in Europe.  Is this true?  Of course it is debatable.  Austria is the furthest east of the German speaking countries on this continent; it is more conservative compared to its neighboring West European countries.  Apparently it is not too welcoming to outsiders, especially those who came across the boarders from its eastern neighbors.  I even read that the Viennese would opening show their disgust at the presence of whoever it is that they don’t like, an obvious outsider, an Asian tourist, for example – and, may I note, as the IES center is located in the first district, I have spent considerable time in the most touristy area of Vienna and have seen plenty of Asian tourists.  That seemed like a devastating news to me when I read it.  Since I already confirmed my study abroad, whether this claim is true was for me to find out.  I decided it is best to not step into the country with any presumption.  If it is true, then I will just have my default reaction – ignore it.

So I stopped thinking about it.  I have lived in Vienna for almost three months now.  I have had many people – sometimes even random people on the streets, in Belvedere Garden, at Stephansplatz – stopping and asking me, “woher kommen Sie? Where are you from?”  Or simply, “japanisch?” Hahaha.  In these instances I always ended up having a friendly conversation and never felt hostility (or sometimes I was just irritated).  There’s definitely more curiosity, and people do not try to hide the fact that they clearly notice the different appearance, not at all.  They won’t take “ich komme aus Amerika” for an answer either!  But where are you originally from, where are you really from?  They would say.  In such a relatively homogeneous society, and a society in which people normally do not move too far away from where they were born, it must be very difficult to understand how an Asian person could come from America.  Eventually I became less sure and started changing my answers depending on my mood and depending on what I thought they wanted me to say.  It is true that the society influences how you think about yourself and your identity!  Sometimes I rather like it this way.  Compared to what I experienced at home in the States, this is much more direct.  I don’t call it racism or anything like that, it’s just being (strongly) aware of the differences in appearances.  I am used to being in the minority, too – I lived in Missoula, Montana for crying out loud, and my sister and I were probably the only Asians at my high school… oh wait, maybe there were two others!  Anyway, what I am tying to get to is, where I lived in the States, I could always feel it, and when people treated me differently, even though it could well be for other reasons, I had to wonder to myself: is it “racism”?  However, it’s a terrible thing to point it out!  You could wonder about my ethnic background, but you must not ask me directly about it!  Sometimes the awkwardness becomes way too absurd.  Whereas here, it is one of the first questions people ask.

We talked about this in my German class too.  My German instructor cannot explain this phenomenon, because she simply is one of the Austrians who think this is the most natural question for people to ask!  People are curious, we don’t mean it in an unfriendly way, she would reply.  When she saw me, she immediately assumed that I have a completely different culture background than others students, that I must speak an Asian language, Korean or Japanese was what she guessed, and she would frequently single me out in discussions, asking, for example, Joan, you come from a different background, what do you say?

A fellow student, who is Asian, who came from Chicago, seems to have a different take on this matter.  We, including some other friends, were all standing at the back of Musikverein große Saal during a concert intermission.  A tall, gray-bearded, stern looking was standing close to me.  He glanced back at me several times, and finally turned around, shouted and spitted passionately, “I know there are more countries than just Japan and China in the Far East!! I know!!!”  He subsequently repeated the statement a few times, uttered something else that we couldn’t make out, turned around, and then, as if remembering something else, turned to face us again and excitedly said something else that we couldn’t understand, although he was speaking English.  I didn’t know what to think of it.  His demeanor made it sound as though he meant it to be hostile, yet I didn’t catch anything truly offensive.  The man moved away and was crazily shaking and swinging around for the second half of the concert.  I shrugged.  But my fellow Asian student, who has been here since September, apparently took it to be somewhat offensive, as he said to me, “don’t worry, you will get used to it!  The first two months I was here I felt so uncomfortable.  I could always find someone staring at me.  When I go back to Chicago I will be so glad – there will be ten sorts of rice to pick from, gosh – but then I know I will still miss it!”  Should I feel uncomfortable?  Where I lived in the States, there aren’t that many sorts of rice to pick from…  Have I already started ignoring everything since day one – is that why I don’t feel offensive at all?  Sometimes I’d rather people admit what they are thinking and be more direct, but sometimes I get irritated for being ask so frequently the same question, for people always singling me out.  I still don’t know what to make of this!

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