What It’s Like to be Asian American in Latin and South America

Over the past 6 years, I’ve been hooked on traveling to Latin America. I will be defining Latin America as Mexico, Central America, and South America. It all started in 2008 with cheap sub $300 fares to Lima, Peru. I had absolutely zero airline status and no hotel loyalty status. In reality, it was actually my first international flight ever and I was scared straight. I did not know what to expect, but I was up for the challenge. There were a lot of obstacles, but I overcame them and it turned out to be a trip that I would never forget.

I took three years of Spanish in High School and a year in college which helped a lot throughout my travels to Latin America. Since 2008, I’ve been to the following cities and countries in Latin America:

Mexico – Tijuana (5x), Rosarito (5x), Guadalajara, Mexico City (10x), Cabo San Lucas

Central America – Guatemala City, Guatemala / Panama City, Panama / San Pedro Sula, Honduras (later this month)

South America – Lima, Peru (5x)  / Bogota, Colombia / Barranquilla, Colombia (later this year in Sept) / Buenos Aires, Argentina (2x) / Rio de Janeiro, Brazil / Sao Paulo, Brazil (3x) / Asuncion, Paraguay (next month) / Belo Horizonte, Brazil (in June for World Cup) / Curitiba, Brazil (in June for World Cup) / Santiago, Chile (4x)

I also have a trip planned to Caracas, Venezuela which will be a last minute booking since flights are on tight control due to the rising inflation.

Whenever I travel to Latin America, I always get bombarded by questions like “Have you been there before? (As if they don’t know what I am getting into)”, “Isn’t it dangerous? (As if all Latin American countries are dangerous)”, “Are you going alone? (Yes, I almost always 98% of the time go alone)”, “Aren’t you scared of getting shot? (I feel safer in Latin America than in Los Angeles)”, and this one question really intrigued me. “What is it like to be Asian traveling to countries like Mexico, Central America, and South America?”

I will give you my real life examples and experiences of what it’s like to be Asian American in Latin and South America.

When checking into a flight at the airport counter – A typical U.S. airport counter agent conversation goes like this, “Where are you traveling to?” For example, I’ll say Mexico City and then the agent would say again, clarifying “What’s your final destination?” I would always have to confirm with the agent, “My final destination is Mexico City”.

The conversation is vastly different when checking in at a Latin American airport. The airport counter agents are always delighted to see Asians checking in and I always get the best customer service in a Latin American airport. Most agents will tell me that my last name is so short, or “How do you pronounce that?” It ends up being laughter on both ends, but in a humorous way. Being Asian, I am often not asked for passport checks going through the doors to gain access to the departures hall. Meanwhile, a security guard maliciously continuously safeguards the departures hall entrance checking passports of others.

At the airport gate house – Most of the time, I find myself being the only Asian sitting in the departure gate of an international airport. If I see a group of other Asians, it’s probably a codeshared flight with an Asian carrier and they’re solely making a connection, but their final destination is elsewhere. I usually stand around the departures area and sometimes gate agents will ask to see my boarding pass. The agent was just making sure I was going to the right destination.

During the flight – On a Latin America carrier with foreign flight attendants, it’s a 50/50% chance that I’ll get asked a question in English or Spanish. When I’m sitting in an Emergency Exit Row, the flight attendant will usually ask me if I prefer English or Spanish when asking me if I could open the emergency exit door in case of an emergency. During beverage and meal service, it’s a hit or miss when the opening question is in English or Spanish. Like I said, it’s a 50/50 chance.

Customs – I have no problems clearing customs at a Latin American airport. I just tell them I’m on vacation if a customs officer asks. Usually they’ll say “Where are you saying”. I usually say a well-known hotel brand, such as the Sheraton and I’m well on my way. Customs Officers are delighted to see Asians visit their beautiful country. Conversely, clearing US Customs could be quite frightening if you’re chosen for secondary inspection. US Customs grilled me on what I was doing in Latin America and a thorough flip through my passport yielded a high number of Latin America entry stamps. They opened my bags and checked every crevice of my carry-on luggage.

Arrivals Hall – Being Asian, I stick out whenever I’m in a Latin America international airport, especially after customs and getting shuffled into the arrivals hall. The arrivals hall is one of the worst experiences an Asian could ever encounter. It’s often very overwhelming and chaotic with lots of taxi hawkers, no matter the time of day. Airport signs inside the arrivals hall can be confusing and you don’t know who to trust.

Street Taxi Experience – As an Asian traveling in street Taxi, I feel that we are susceptible to scams most of the time. Knowing some basic Spanish or Spanglish can go a long way when negotiating for a fare. Once, I took a 30 soles taxi from Centro Lima to LIM airport and the car broke down nearby a gas station. It caused a 20 minute delay, but eventually he made the car start again (by manually pushing it and starting the car) and I was well on my way to the airport.

Street Interactions – Sometimes I’ll be called Chino (which is correct, since I’m Chinese) on the streets. Think of it as a cat call (it’s usually a vendor) or if someone’s talking about me. If you look Asian, but you’re really Vietnamese, Cambodian, Japanese, or Korean, you will still be called a Chino (don’t take offense). I usually just ignore them as it’s often something I’m not interested in or a scam.

Bargaining on the street with vendors – I used to bargain (successively) a lot in Latin America, but have now realized that it’s really not necessary. Sure, you might be saving a peso or two, but in the end of the day, the money goes towards their family. As an American, we take things for granted when we visit 3rd world countries in Latin America. Locals don’t even bargain when the prices are displayed in fixed prices and you shouldn’t either.

Restaurant interactions – You might get weird looks from patrons inside the establishments because you’re the only Asian they’ve seen in a long time or perhaps for the first time ever. Interactions with the wait staff are always friendly. Be aware that you might get stared at by the staff and or patrons throughout your dining experience (particularly hole in the wall restaurants). It’s a friendly thing since they’re just fascinated by Asians.

Interactions with locals – Last year, I visited a science museum in Bogota and was bombarded by a bunch of Colombian kids. They were taking my photos with their cell phones and asking me questions in Spanish. I don’t think they’ve ever seen an Asian person in their life in Bogota, Colombia. It was quite interesting and I felt like a celebrity.


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Points Summary
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17 Comments on "What It’s Like to be Asian American in Latin and South America"

  1. Great post!! This is good intel for our trip to Lima/Machu Picchu. Thanks.

  2. Just want to commend you on giving up haggling in foreign countries. When the price is fair… It is fair. And as you said the money usually goes towards the shop owner’s family. Really interesting post.

  3. Definitely agree that no matter what type of Asian you are, you’re going to be called “chino” or “chinito”. The former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori’s nickname was “El Chino” even though his surname is obviously Japanese.

    • i was going to say… I was surprised to hear that one of Peru’s former presidents was Japanese.

      My first visit to Latin America was Lima a few years ago.. Fortunately I took a few years of Spanish in high school and college but never had the opportunity to speak with fluent speakers, but I thought it was funny that everyone was talking to me in Spanish, as if I spoke Spanish fluently..

  4. Nice work.

    You should check out the taxi situation upon leaving Kathmandu airport! For white people (obvious tourists) it must be akin to what celebrities suffer when a load of paparazzi descend upon them.

  5. you know its funny when I was the only Asian in a Chinese restuarant in a small mexican town outside of mexicco city.

  6. Honestly, people in south america are still pretty chill about Asians. Asians haven’t caused too many problems and you’ll be accepted if you speak spanish and know their culture. It’s sort of like a 80 to 20, where the 80% of Latinos are pretty happy and they either just think you are one of them or they don’t care to say anything to you, and the 20% have a sort of growing hate for asians. They won’t insult you but they will give you looks.

  7. As an Asian Brazilian, this seems very accurate

  8. It was really interesting for me to read your perspective! I have traveled a fair bit around Latin America as well and have always wondered what other Asian Americans thought about being in Latin America as an Asian… I am continuously surprised that there are so many Asians living in Latin America, and in many cases (especially in Sao Paulo), I just feel like one of them and get treated like a local. Interestingly enough I often feel more at home in latin america than in Europe! 🙂

    • Thanks for reading! I’ll definitely have a follow up post in the future about my travels in Latin America. My goal is to visit EVERY Latin America country in the next few years 🙂

  9. Jamison..
    I curious.. Why don’t we see a lot of North American based Asians visiting the Caribbean and Latin America on vacation?
    Do you have some insights how this could be turned-around?

  10. Very very useful post. I love how you divided it into specific areas of quotidian life – v conscientious of you. Thanks

  11. Angelo Lombardi | January 3, 2016 at 9:04 am | Reply

    Interesting article. Thank you for sharing your experience in my country. I would say, most Latin Americans like Asians. Although, unfortunatelly there is always a small group of people, in this part of the world who does not like Blacks, native Americans or Asians. Probably, in most Latin American countries you were treated like a local since we have a large population of Asian descendents in Peru and South America.

    PS. According to the video shown, the taxi drivers at the Lima airport did not look very aggressive or intimidate in my opinion. As shown in the video they are uniformed and work for formal taxi’s companies. No worries with them, you will be safe if you use their services ; )

  12. I am an Asian American who has been living in Ecuador and Colombia for 3 months (the last 2 months in Bogota – supposedly the NYC of South America). So every few days, when I’m walking down the street, a complete stranger will blurt out the word “Chino” when they see me. Usually they are with other people.

    I have thought long and hard about this. The context is essentially, “Hey everyone, look, it’s a Chinaman!” This is akin to a human seeing a deer or something strange in the woods and pointing it out to his friends. It is extremely rude and dehumanizing. They are not tying to get my attention, nor are they trying to start a conversation with me. It’s literally, “look at this spectacle here!”

    The only reason why this is culturally acceptable in South America is because there are no Asians around to defend themselves. The only reason African Americans won their Civil Rights in the 1960’s because they actively fought back. Try to call some Asians Chinaman or Oriental in the U.S. – there would be a massive uproar because we would fight back.

    Just because something is culturally acceptable does not make it right. In the Middle, they stone women to death. In the Far East, they beat children (of which I was a victim to in my childhood due to my undereducated Cantonese immigrant parents, but that’s a topic for another day). In the 1950’s, the N word was thrown around all the time in the U.S. (at the time culturally acceptable). None of this is okay.

    I am due to return to the U.S. in 3 weeks and I’m glad to be leaving here. I have experienced both the good and bad, but the bad does not outweigh the cheap cost of living and good weather. No matter how hard I try – whether I become fluent in Spanish or good at Soccer, I will always be an outsider and will always be reminded I’m different.

    I have never been more glad to be a minority in the U.S., possibly the best country in the world to be a minority in today.

  13. In the 4th paragraph, there’s a typo. It should say “In the Middle East, they stone women to death.”

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