On Being an Asian American in Scotland

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month so I thought it’d be timely to share my experience as an Asian-American in Scotland.

I am a Chinese-Filipino American living in Scotland.

I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and have lived a comfortable Asian American lifestyle for my entire life. Last summer, my Chinese American husband and I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland so he could pursue a PhD researching Chinese American Christianity. I’ve been living in this foreign country for almost 9 months now and it’s been an interesting journey of learning about my identity as an Asian American. It’s ironic because I felt that I was rather well in tune with my Asian-American culture, having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area and being involved with Asian American organizations, yet I probably am more conscious of my “Asian Americanness” in Europe.

I live in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. It’s beautiful and full of history. It’s very international and I describe it as a transient city where people from all over Europe (and the world) come to work and study, though many end up raising a family and some even retire here. I hear multiple languages spoken and a diverse range of accents daily. It’s awesome. Despite how international the city is, Scottish culture is still evident and very much alive. It’s great and I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to live and work abroad in a fantastic city such as Edinburgh. But it’s precisely in this fantastic city that I’ve found myself on an unexpected journey, rediscovering my identity as an Asian American.

On Feeling Like an “Other” More than Ever

For the first time, I feel like an “other” and it’s lonely. Now, of course I’m an “other.” I’ve known this since I was in preschool when I wondered why my nose was so flat compared to all the other kids. For whatever reason, I thought “otherness” in Scotland would be the same as it was in the U.S. Edinburgh boasts one of the highest percentage of non-whites in Scotland and Asians make up the largest minority group. This sounded promising for me, but then I realized that this “high percentage of minorities” is 8%. The United States’s minorities make up over 22% of the population. That is a big jump. Asian Americans alone make up 5.8% of the total population in the United States. Even though I know that I’m a minority, it’s different now. I consider myself to be part of the expat community and am increasingly grateful when I’m surrounded by people who understand what it is like to leave family and friends and move to a foreign country (most of my work colleagues are expats, most of my husband’s classmates are expats, and even our church has a good number of expats), but I feel as though I am an “other” expat. I always had a sense of what it meant to be a minority, but am experiencing it more acutely now that we’ve moved. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area which is 23% Asian and so while I am used to being a minority, in many ways, I have always lived in sub-communities where I was part of the majority.

On Still Navigating Through American Microaggressions

Even though I am currently living and working in a Western European country full of white people, I don’t experience the same racial microaggressions I am used to. I’ve had conversations about race and it has been refreshing to talk about race when white people identify as Scottish, English, German, French, Polish, Hungarian, Swedish etc. However, I work in a hotel with many American tourists and I seem to experience the same racial microaggressions from Americans at a new level. It’s really weird because I feel a difficult to articulate connection with Americans. It’s nice to hear an American accent once in a while, but I still have the “Where are you really from?”/”What kind of Asian are you” conversation with them. However, when Europeans ask me where I’m from, I tell them San Francisco and they never try to guess what type of Asian I am. Just recently, an American guest was trying to tell me about life in the United States and asked if I’ve ever been to the States. I just spent 10 minutes talking to you. Do you not recognize my distinctly American accent? On the other hand, for the first time, a guest asked me, “Are you American or Canadian?” Thank you for recognizing that I could be American too. I’d also like to point out that nobody in Scotland has asked me, “What are you?” (Real Meaning: What is your ethnic background?).

On Finding People to Connect With

I still have a deep connection to people of Asian descent and enjoy being around Asian people. Due to the British involvement in Hong Kong and the large number of Chinese students studying in the UK (the number of Chinese students far exceeds any other nationality), I’ve met and seen a lot of Chinese people. Unfortunately, I haven’t connected with any Filipinos. In my 9 months of living here, I have met one other Filipino. While I feel connected to Asian people, I feel more connected to English-speaking Asian people. Normally, I can immediately tell who is an ABC (American-Born Chinese) and who is a FOB (Fresh off the Boat or someone who recently immigrated to a new country). Please excuse my political incorrectness. However in Scotland, it’s a little harder for me to distinguish which Asians who may speak English as their main language. I guess it’s because I’m technically a FOB now too.

On Speaking Languages Other than English

Another interesting fact is that I probably speak more Mandarin here (FYI, my Mandarin, which I learned in school, is absolutely horrific and I speak a version of Chinglish) in Edinburgh than in the United States (and I’ve worked in San Francisco Chinatown, hosted Chinese and Taiwanese students in my home, and used to shop and eat weekly in the San Gabriel Valley as a college student). Random Chinese people will come up to me to ask for directions or to help them take a picture. I’ve also been greeted with a friendly “Ni Hao!”/”你好!” more often in Europe than ever in the United States. I’ve been really impressed by my co-workers and other Europeans who all seem to speak 2-3 languages, yet I do not speak any Cantonese or Tagalog (the languages of my grandparents). Of course, this is due to various historical factors. If my parents spoke Chinese fluently, I’m sure I would too, but the racial ideology that dominated my parents’ upbringing in the States dissuaded them from speaking the language of their parents. It was how they were able to fit in. For me, I’m still learning and struggling to fit in as an Asian American in Europe.

On Asian American Social issues

I find that living abroad has made me more aware of issues facing Asian Americans. It’s probably because I spend more time reading articles on the internet, blogging, and perusing my Facebook feed than when I was home. Also, my husband’s research involves a ton of Chinese American history and sociology so I am better informed than previously. Most recently, President Obama signed a bill that eliminated the term “Oriental” in federal law. Oriental literally means “eastern,” but it has a lot of negative connotations, refers to exoticism, has anti-Asian sentiment, and is reminiscent of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Oriental Exclusion Act in the United States. I find this really interesting because Oriental is used so commonly here. It’s not a “derogatory” term. It more commonly differentiates South Asians who are from India and East Asians who are from China, Korea, and Japan. A recent example of this was when my husband and I were watching a British cooking show in which the TV hosts visited a Chinese supermarket and used the term “Oriental” generously. It just felt strange. This past year, I have been able to watch Fresh off the Boat and am proud that there’s a show on a major television network that’s telling an Asian-American story. The reason why I love Fresh off the Boat is because it reminds me that I am not alone. I’m with the Huangs and back with my comfortable Asian-American community even when I’m across the ocean in a country that serves potatoes everyday. I’m not even joking. In my staff canteen, we have boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato salad, and more potatoes in stews. Come on. Make some rice!

On Missing Asian Food

This brings me to one of the hardest parts of being Asian American in Scotland. I miss the food of my Asian American suburbs. I find myself always requesting Asian food if we plan to eat out. Sometimes, I’ll watch the Fung Bros eat because I miss Asian food so much. Sad. I know. I have learned how to make my own kare-kare and sinigang. Grandma, I hope you’re proud. Sometimes though, I just want some hand-pulled noodles, some MSG, and fresh cooked vegetables that haven’t been drenched in cheese, milk or butter. Mom and Dad, I’m sorry I ever took Chinese food for granted. It really is delicious.

On Representing Asian Americans

I have this renewed sense of needing to be a type of “model minority” even though the whole model minority myth is a largely American phenomenon. Even though the UK is very diverse, I don’t have conversations about “model minorities” or the “Asian advantage” even though I think that British Chinese do have some sort of “model minority” thing going for them since 75% of British-born Chinese attend university compared to 32.6% of white British children.While I don’t necessarily feel that I have to represent America, China, or the Philippines, I have this overwhelming feeling of responsibility that I need to represent Asian Americans well.  I have this feeling of accountability that I should help inform my new friends about my Asian American sub-culture, yet it’s pretty scary to consider how they may react to certain habits and foods. I don’t feel that I need to live up to the model minority stereotype, but I do have a sense of needing to be “perfect” to negate negative stereotypes of both Americans and Asians.

Here I am feeling at home in London Chinatown!

I’m a Chinese-Filipino American living in Scotland…and this is #myasianamericanstory.



3 thoughts on “On Being an Asian American in Scotland

  1. Thanks for your reflections, Chelsea! There are definitely phases and stages in my life where thinking about being an Asian American are more present than others. I have yet to experience being an Asian American abroad for an extended period of time… and thus appreciate reading about yours! The pull of Asian food is so strong wherever I go! When I was hiking up Kilimanjaro and was away from familiar foods for just over a week, all I could think about was food but Asian food in particular and I was so mad at myself that I didn’t pack even at least a kim chee bowl or seaweed or Asian style flavored pork jerky (food that could last a hike)! When I talk to some of my patients of non-White ethnic decent in the hospital who have poor appetites, I can only imagine it is because they are not eating familiar comfort foods! ❤ S


  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chelsea! It’s hard for me to think it’s been 9 months already. Being away from what you are familiar with is how you learn & grow. You have the fortunate opportunity to have an extended amount of time in this foreign environment so that you can really get immersed in the culture and community. And to share this experience with someone you love will most definitely make an impact in creating memories together as a couple.

    You are missed by your family here but glad that they all made the trek to see you last month. I’m sure it was a joyful reunion. Take care!!


  3. Chelsea, what an insightful, thoughtful essay! You are lucky to have the opportunity to live abroad, an experience I wish more Americans could have. Thanks for sharing your reflections. You are missed here (I talk to your mom at church and I absolutely know she misses you!!!). I’m glad you’ll be coming home for a little vacation, and of course to have home cooked Asian food and In-n-Out burgers!


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