Student Voices – IES Abroad's Avery Trinidad Explores Identity and Intersectionality Abroad

ies abroad logo
IES Abroad
Avery Trinidad Headshot for Correspondent of the Year

We connected with our IES Abroad 2021-22 Correspondent of the Year, Avery Trinidad (IES Abroad Berlin | Fall 2021 | Williams College) to learn more about his study abroad experience and time as a Correspondent. During the interview, Avery provided us with such enriching insights into all things writing, stories, identity, and adventure and we wanted to share one response in particular here. In this piece, Avery explores the complexity and beauty of identity in the world of study abroad and the world at large. He considers this through the lens of his sociology background and the intersectionality of his experiences in Berlin. 

Read on to learn more about Avery's take on identity and studying abroad. 

IES Abroad: What do you think of identity and the study abroad experience? What does studying abroad do for identities?

AT: Oof, uhm. Well, this is the big one, and probably the most glaring indicator I’m a sociology major. Tired readers, feel free to jump down to the skinny. 

I am going to state it very directly: minority students experience studying abroad differently. This is something that IES Abroad is conscious of, but I very strongly believe needs to be said. This difference is something that varies from person to person, and can easily be swayed one way or the other by an individual’s intersection of identities. But the difference is there, and is palpable. Different vectors of privilege—sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender fluency in a language, cultural literacy— function differently in different places. What vectors are considered even normal to discuss can be different abroad. Simply given the nation’s history, many people living in Germany rather well-intentionally avoid identifying people on the basis of race. This does not stop discussions of ethnicity: an increasing amount of literature has begun to emerge on a “model minority” myth emerging around Vietnamese Germans, one that praises them for (an assumedly) higher degree of success and integration, and in doing so implicitly puts migrant populations in Germany in “competition” with each other. It’s racist without truly ever bringing up “race” as Americans imagine it.

This does not mean that people abroad can’t be racist in ways Americans imagine. Another student on the program would get strangers “slanting” their eyes at them, another student would endure incredibly explicit racial slurs (in English!) hurled at them in the middle of the street, and sometimes bouncers would turn away students at the door, clearly for no other reason than being a visible minority. And sometimes I, someone so easily read as Asian American in the United States, would be right there, and be treated no differently than someone born and raised in Germany. Here’s something that I’m not sure if everyone is conscious of—a place itself can experience a person’s identity differently.

There isn’t a huge population of Filipino origin in Germany—and those who are there are typically from fairly educated backgrounds, working in prestigious fields like medicine, journalism, and diplomacy. Whether because of this, or the fact my parents have foreign ancestry to begin with, or the fact I’m taller than most people in Germany, or the fact I’m radically taller than most of the Filipino population, or because my surname reads as Andalusian in Spain, or because I’m brown, or because my hair is wavy, or because I have whatever kind of eyes, or because I have a good accent in German, or because I have a good accent in English, or for whatever reason: I wasn’t often read as any particular ethnicity when in Germany. I was ethnically illegible.

And, frankly, this often worked to my personal advantage—people seemed much more ready to listen to me, to talk to me, to let me into whatever club we were venturing into than some of my peers. I was, if nothing more specific, a pleasant brown guy who spoke German well enough, and there’s plenty of those in Berlin. But, clearly, my presence got people thinking about their own identity. The only people bold enough to actively ever bring up my ethnicity in Germany were people from minority backgrounds themselves. They connected on the basis of feeling stuck between two countries, on their particular relationship with their mother tongue, on the idea of what it meant to be “integrated” into mainstream society.

Sometimes they were elated to meet “the coolest American” they’d ever met, sometimes they were happy to meet someone who understood what it meant to be brown in what felt like a sea of white, someone who understood that precarious place between nations and races and languages and places. Or, not to be too mean to Central Europe, someone else who could move their hips while dancing.

I did run into Filipinos at various points, truth be told—and it was as much a jarring experience for them as it was for me.

Here’s the four moments that stick out to me:

1.    Once, I went to a church that served quite a lot of Filipino nurses. They thought I was much older than just 20 because of my build and my facial hair, and when I said I was Filipino American, they assumed I was biracial.

2.    Going back to Berlin from Amsterdam, a Filipino family raising their children in the Netherlands ended up next in line to my friends and me. Their eight year-old was very excited about how well he spoke English (he learned Dutch at school, of course), and seemed very excited at someone as tall as a Dutchman but as brown as his mother. He explained the plot of Squid Game.

3.    A Filipino German waiter at a Filipino restaurant. When I asked for a spoon in Tagalog, he talked about how he didn’t quite understand what I said with other people of Filipino descent, who were all working in the kitchen. They all spoke to each other in Spanish, with accents directly from Spain.

4.    A Filipino German man at a Christmas market. I went to pet his dog, and ended up striking conversation. We spoke entirely in German, and added each other on Instagram. He managed to be the only person in my time abroad who could identify me as Filipino without any prompting from my end.

Every one of these moments was a recalibration of the meanings of Filipino and American, not only for me, but every single person in these encounters. Okay, okay. The reason I bring that all up? Well, here finally comes my skinny: Studying abroad turns your identity inside out. It stuffs it into a blender and stirs it until it’s a fine purée. Identities, believe it or not, are more fluid than we’re often taught. Identities are something we cobble together from our surroundings and surrounding identities, and when you throw yourself into an entirely new country— well, you might just walk out of that with something different. You might walk out with an entire new way of describing it, too.

But just as sociologists insist, a place is changed by a person simply being in it. Locations abroad are changed by new identities existing within them. I’m glad to have been there for every German middle schooler with what their government terms a “migrant background,” the ones who’d stare and curiously wave at me from across the subway car. I know my (embarrassingly long) spiel is about committing to learning abroad, but, hey. I promise you: abroad has something to learn from you too.

Avery is our 2021-22 Correspondent of the Year! Read his full interview here and learn more about his journey from his study abroad blog. He is currently studying at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts where he's furthering his roots in writing and encouraging others to share their stories. We are so glad to have been a part of his journey and seen the impact that study abroad can have as it bridges identities and experiences to welcome something more. 

Do you want more advice, reflections and stories from our students? Check out the IES Abroad Blogs or contact an Ambassador who has recently returned from an IES Abroad program.

IES Abroad News

Read More

IES Abroad regularly publishes news stories, articles, student stories, and other helpful study abroad content. Stay up to date on the latest from IES Abroad by reading our recent posts.

View All IES Abroad News